Blanche Marchesi: the work of the teacher

Leer en español

“Study where great masters are!”
shouldbe the motto for students. […]
Go where the masters are. That is the truth.

In her book of 1923, the celebrated Blanche Marchesi approaches the extremely complex and challenging task of the singing master in two sections of the penultimate chapter: Teaching Teachers and Teachers’ Hardships. In this regard, the presentation she makes of her mother, the eminent teacher Mathilde Marchesi, in the third chapter, describing her work as part of a very fruitful line of singing masters, is extremely significant.

“To my mother nothing else mattered but the love of her Art. Much as she loved her husband and children, all her life was centered in her work. Her pupils were all to her. How often did I hear these words fall from her lips: “My pupils first —all the rest after.” She watched them, their health, their future, everything concerning them was her constant care. Never will they realise what energies and love were showered upon them. Many did not see nor understand, and my mother’s nervous strength and mental power did not keep pace with her energies, and failed at the end. She lived to her ninety-third year and taught up to her ninetieth. This certainly was a great mistake, for she had worked twice as hard as García, who took things gently and quietly, never overrating his strength. In every career there comes a day when the decline of the human capacities begins to show its tragic face. On that day man must be able to put down even a crown. The satisfaction of a long cherished occupation does not make up for lost dignity, and the end of a life or a career should close in beauty.

The joy of my mother when pupils succeeded in their careers, and especially when they remained loving and grateful, compensated her for her strenuous efforts. She used to say: “Not all the gold in the world can pay a teacher —the only reward is the success of the pupil”; and when the pupil in whom the teacher has put the best of his work and his hopes leaves in anger, or becomes ungrateful and turns to other methods and ruins all your former work, that pupil cheats you out of your real reward, which is his own success. The outlay of a pupil for her education is such a trifle when one thinks of the fortunes, small and great, that are made in a life-long career that the true compensation for a teacher’s hard life can only be love, gratitude and success.“

I dedicate this text especially to my teacher, Luca D’Annunzio, who will be able, like no one else in the world, to communicate through it his effort and his glory with those who preceded him and who impel him on his way.

Belén Baptista


Teaching Teachers.

It is the beginning that matters. It is the foundation-stone that holds the building. Parents often spend small sums on their children’s musical education for many years, with deplorable results. At the end, if a profession is really aimed at, the great teacher has to be approached and time and money is thrown away in undoing what has been done and in putting in the new foundations for reconstruction. The elementary teacher, knowing practically nothing, and having no experience beyond the ordinary knowledge of his own case, supposing he was once a singer, accepts pupils to earn his daily bread. How can he impart what he does not know? Even if he trained with a first-rate teacher he will not be able to remember his own lessons taken long years ago, which were given only to make him sing, not to teach singing to hundreds of different cases. Supposing, on the other hand, he himself had chosen a wrong teacher and started all wrong, which was perhaps the reason his own career was cut short! He does not know himself why his voice left him, but there, he goes and teaches. He starts, not thinking at all —he starts and keeps on, without attempting to take special studies or prepare himself for such a serious new career. If only for the sake of reviving old memories and imbibing fresh knowledge he should, before teaching, start to learn again, because when the teacher stands before his pupil quite a new and a strange case will face him, and he will have to find the means and ways of making or saving this voice. Thousands of slight variations in different cases present themselves, demanding long experience for guidance, cases that even demand profound knowledge of physiological, psychological and pathological phenomena. There are very bad cases; they must be treated specially. If you take a room full of, we will say, twelve pupils, you will immediately see that among the twelve there will be eleven, perhaps, who simply will be receptacles for the knowledge and method you will systematically and patiently instil into them until it becomes second nature. But you will also see that, though by your energy they have been forced to go the right way, they have absorbed nothing. Though the larynx will mechanically respond to the training, they have no idea of how it has been done, as they do not remember even one word of all the scientific explanations given to them, and all the trouble you have taken to get it into their intellects has been in vain. The twelfth pupil, however, has taken in all that you said; has watched you closely; has, perhaps, as you beg them all to do, taken short notes in the lessons and worked them out at home. Your eyes rest on this one pupil with love and hope. Heavens! Is it possible! She thinks, she realises, she works, she reasons, she asks me! Thanks, there is one who understands. But has she really understood? Has she taken it all in? One fine day you begin to cross-examine the class suddenly about all that they have learnt —about their larynx, its functions —and lo! it happens, not once, but, alas! almost always, that they do not know one single word about it all. The twelfth pupil is the only one who can answer your questions, and even then often great darkness reigns on the waters; but where there is a will there is a way, and she will know.

No one can teach successfully who does not possess the special qualities that form a teacher. He must make a special study of the voice; he must study the music of all epochs, of all countries, in their original languages if possible, at least the four dominating ones. He must make a special study of style, and keep in touch with modem music. He must, in one word, be able to understand and able to impart the whole of the singable musical literature. I do not say that one could absolutely not train a voice without the knowledge of all the music of all the world. There might be persons endowed with special gifts, who have learnt voice training at the right source, and who, though not very great musicians, or of complete musical education, understand how to place a voice and develop it. But such a teacher could never guide the education of an artist of first order from start to finish. He would have to let the pupil slip away into other hands, when the great repertoire is imparted, and here the danger would arise that the second teacher might destroy the vocal training of the first. If the pupil has really understood the serious voice training received from the first teacher mentioned he will not let the second teacher interfere with the vocal part of his education, but will only accept the advice concerning style, pronunciation, declamation and interpretation of stage characters. I have found in my thirty years of teaching (because I taught before I sang in public, reversing the usual career) that there are really not many persons born with a real capacity to teach. García taught seventy years, my mother taught sixty years, I have taught thirty years. How many pupils did we find who had a love and disposition to teach? Garcia found my mother and a few others, and my mother in her long career found hardly one who wanted to teach at all. It is a curious fact that really nobody ever presents himself to learn to be a teacher. Etelka Gerster, the great singer, after retiring by reason of a very serious nervous breakdown, gave herself entirely to teaching. She had several very interesting results, among others Julia Culp, Lula Mincz Meiner, etc., and was so much in earnest with her new career that when she decided to teach she came back to my mother to refresh old memories before she established herself in Berlin. Antonietta Fricci, one of my mother’s greatest pupils, came to Paris, when, after having concluded her brilliant career as a singer, she decided to teach, and there she started afresh like a young student before opening a school in Italy. I sang and taught as long as I can remember and I never sang in a town, opera or concert but the next day did not find my drawing-room besieged with people wanting me to teach them. I have carried the double task through my life —a hard and difficult task indeed, to face two careers, as both are exhausting and nerve-racking in the highest degree. García had this in common with my mother, that they both left the operatic career, preferring teaching to public singing while in full possession of their vocal capacities, and that they both gave their whole lives to their art. The difference between them lies in the fact that honours are due to Garcia II., because he was the first man to discover the laws by which the human voice could be trained to perfection, preserving it until the greatest age, and to my mother’s untiring research is due the accomplishment of the method started by her master.

Teachers’ Hardships

There is no more nerve-racking and trying profession than that of music teaching. Listening to singing specially taxes the nerves of the brain, as the continuous sound, working directly on the most refined nerves, hours at a stretch, for days, weeks, months and years, linked with the constant painful attention to the numberless things that have to be trained at the same time, eventually affects the memory. I know that García felt these sufferings less acutely than my mother or I, but he never taught to excess, never on such a large scale; lived completely retired from the outer world, and altogether was a superman. To sit whole days, with only a few minutes’ interval for meals, on the same spot, to have to advise every special case, hearing broken voices, working patiently at their rescue for long painful months, to have to study characters; to encourage, to listen to innumerable domestic details, to try to explain to fathers, mothers and aunts matters they cannot understand; to see the sun only through the window; to know that it is spring and not be able to go to greet it —all this demands energy, strength, will power and, more than all, love.

If you do not love your work and your pupils you cannot accomplish much. A pupil who does not believe in you will never learn anything from you. If you do not possess a pupil’s complete faith all your work will avail nothing and your words will pass from her memory the moment she has left your room. Some are over-ambitious, and would spoil everything by overwork and haste. Some are lazy, and prefer to learn the same lesson again and again rather than anything new. Some are easily offended. Some are too modest, and must be encouraged. Many are self-admiring, and the flow of their ambition must be checked. Horizons must be opened to those who do not see farther than the house opposite; and those who dream of conquering the North Pole, when their talent will only stretch to a small circle, must be directed with a firm hand to the place prescribed by the limitations of their gifts. The pupil must not only be taught singing; he or she must be taught to live, to face the world and a career, to win the public, to steer unharmed through agents, directors, conductors, accompanists and fellow-artists; to behave in society; to receive hard criticism with philosophy, and keep cool when the sun of glory shines bright: all these things are to be taught and learnt. But in a school the teacher sometimes finds an enemy soul, whose spirit cannot be either won or bent, who is a disbeliever to start with, rebels against every rule, disobedient from birth, and is insolent even when silent. That pupil must be sent away at once or else, like a contagious illness, a bad spirit will spread among the fellow-pupils and in the end spoil and ruin the future of numbers of students, who, perhaps quite good-natured and obedient towards the teacher, are inclined to listen to evil voices and, lacking the strength to fight bad influence, submit like a herd of lambs to a wolf dressed in sheepskin. Such characters, dominating but generally less talented than their fellow students, have sometimes been instrumental in creating real strikes in schools, which naturally always end to the detriment of the weak, who have been led astray by the stronger mind.

The difficulties presented by teaching are manifold. The voice, first of all, takes the whole attention: a wonderfully complicated little machinery placed in our throats, minute in its details, great in its effect, and the imparting of style, feeling and pronunciation, the teaching of dramatic insight, pursued for years relentlessly, with a few days of freedom excepted, presents for the teacher a life of complete sacrifice. Added to this, as I have said, if he wants to count amongst the first teachers of his generation, he must know the complete singing literature of the whole world and keep in touch not only with forgotten music, but with modern; he must, if he wishes to be useful to his pupils, remain in contact with the world and society, and also with the business men dealing with the artist’s public work, and must not only be thankful when a pupil is kind, and perhaps even grateful, but must silently bend his head in resignation when pupils, crowned finally with success, forget with what pains that talent has been made and think the triumph is entirely due to themselves.

Text excerpted from Singer’s pilgrimage, Blanche Marchesi, Boston, 1923.