Food for Thought — Quotes on Teaching and more

Nearly 20 years ago, a grateful student gave me Ernst Bacon’s book Notes on the Piano.  I don’t teach or perform piano, but she assured me it was worth reading anyway.

She was right.  It’s an amazingly thought-provoking book for musicians and music teachers.  Ernst Bacon (1898-1990) was an American composer and pianist.  Below, I have selected a number of quotes that might be of interest to you.  There is more discussion of each in the book, and also many more topics and ideas.  I heartily recommend the book itself.   Here’s a link to getting a used copy via Amazon.

The book begins with the author’s suggestion that the book is “to be nibbled” – opened and read here and there and anywhere.  Here are some snippets allowing you to do just that.

Ernst Bacon on Teaching Music

“The superior teacher…invites rather than compels the student…he is pleased by the emergence of differences.”

“A teacher’s hardest lesson is to limit his explanation to the minimum.”

“The teacher should introduce conscious devices only when they are needed, just as the doctor prescribes medicines only when the body cannot take care of itself.”

“Too much American teaching is by encouragement, too little by provocation.”

“A great deal of the best teaching is achieved by nonencouragement, even sometimes by outright obstruction.”  If schools and teachers are too tolerant, they leave “to resistant minds no academic crimes to commit…. A good talent needs some sturdy rules upon which to sharpen its claws.”

“I would rather instill in my amateur students love, than knowledge, of music.  Left with only knowledge, they will at the end close their books and consign the course to forgetfulness.  But if they have learned to love but the smallest part of the art, they are likely to pursue some phase of it the rest of their lives.”

“The proper time to begin music is when it attracts you enough to begin…when trying is more satisfying than not trying.  And who but yourself can measure that?”

“Not the least part of gaining facility is removing resistance.”

“The hand teaches the body, the ear teaches the hand, the heart teaches the ear.”

“The uninformed think that art is a continuous harvest, rather than ninety percent cultivation.”

“Whenever I hear someone called perfectionist, I conclude he must be that, and nothing more.”

“The only tradition that stays alive is that which adjusts to time and place.”

“The conflicts of art are mostly between truth and formality.”

Ernst Bacon on Playing Music

“How you begin a piece is everything.”

“The way you hold the interest in your hearers reveals how you hold it within yourself.”

“Energy is needed for restraint as well as for effort.”

“Power is an effect, and not a fact; an impression and not simply force.”

Why playing more forcefully does not mean playing faster:  “In all speech, increasing emphasis calls for added deliberation.”  A “relaxation of mood” brings more ease – and a tempo increase.

“I know of no such thing as a correct tempo…..The old indications, andante, largo, allegro, are descriptive more of character than of tempo….A proper tempo is one that is appropriate to every element of a performance” by which he means the work, the player’s personality and technique, acoustics, place, occasion, the audience, and even the time of day.

“Music mostly combines song with the dance, therefore the beat must be modified in accordance with the flow of the melody.”

“Music is all proportion.”  Two adjacent chords are proportionate to each other, rhythm is about proportion, as are two notes of a melody, the sounds within a chord, and every color, cadence and dynamic.

“Good diction is clarity and musicality both, and yet it must not be so marked as to injure melody through overemphasis.”

“What is warmth in music that is all warm?  What is dissonance in a bed of discord?  What is light without shadow?”

Ernst Bacon on Practicing Music

“The purpose of practice not to reduce consciousness but to heighten it.”

“No task is too great provided you find its appropriate tempo.”

“The superior artist is not always the one with the largest capacity; he is usually one who has realized what has been given him to the fullest.”

“Any success, untempered with some failure, has little chance of lasting”

“How fast can you assimilate what is to be done without losing spirit and control?  Ultimately, the quickest road is to take your time.  Not another’s, but your own time.”

“All exercises should be done in rhythm…this encourages the development of an inner pulse, and exploits the driving force of rhythm in promoting dexterity… Toward this end, the metronome is less than useless…rhythm is a human and not a mechanical thing…note values are ever an approximation.”

“Practice unmakes perfection when carried too far.”

“Stiffness accompanies anxiety and relaxation comes with assurance.”

“It is manifestly impossible to learn to play rapidly by playing only slowly.  Slowness gives the feel; rapidity the gesture.”

“Ask yourself if you do a certain passage with pleasure, and you will know whether you have, or are on the way to have, learned it.”

“Melody involves a study of its accompaniment…. The more thought has gone into the accompaniment, the freer then is the thought for the melody.”

“Weakness and strength must be equalized, or else utilized for unequal ends.”

“Good technique obliterates itself.”

About the Author

Ed Pearlman
Ed Pearlman has focused on performing, teaching, and judging fiddle music for over 30 years, offering performances and workshops throughout the USA and in Canada and Scotland. His original training was with members of the Chicago and Boston Symphonies, and he played with orchestras and chamber groups at Yale and in Boston. He currently teaches privately in Maine and at workshops around the countr... [Read more]


  1. Valerie Kampmeier

    Thanks so much for sharing this, Ed- what a wonderful man! I must get hold of a copy of this book.

  2. Charlie Gambino

    Some very inspiring things indeed. I think I’m going to be ordering a copy of that book as well. Thanks for sharing!