Hindemith’s original teaching methods

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

It has been stated that teaching kills a composer of genius. Though Wagner and Elgar never tried it, there are many instances to disprove that teaching harms a composer. The most recent outstanding instance is Paul Hindemith, well known as a composer throughout the world. His renown as a teacher has been brought to this country by several brilliant young English composers who studied with him in Berlin. I knew nothing of Hindemith’s method of teaching until I read an interesting account about it in Musical America. Apparently when he was invited to become professor of composition at the famous Berlin Hochschule, Paul Hindemith was without experience of teaching of any kind.

Consequently his first inclinations were to refuse the offer; but the officials, I suppose, under the belief that a composer with so amazing a technique as Hindemith must have his ‘system’ concealed somewhere within him, insisted on his accepting the appointment. No less an authority than Dr Hans Richter told me many years ago that composition could not be taught, and Hindemith was of the same opinion until he had to evolve a system of teaching composition. His success reads like another instance of German natural instinct for organisation.

At the outset, Hindemith discovered two things: first, that his ideas could not be made to fit the official schedule, and secondly that the restriction of one hour’s lesson for each composition student was ridiculous. An hour was too short a time even to analyse the pupil’s work. Hindemith sat down and did a little arithmetic. It occurred to him that the only possible solution was to take the pupils collectively. If four pupils separately had an hour’s lesson each, they would not learn much; but if they were taught together each pupil would get a four hours’ lesson instead of [a one hour lesson]. His adoption of the class system of teaching was so successful that his classes overflowed, and two whole days became necessary; whilst, like Bach, his advanced pupils became assistant instructors for the beginners.

We know that the sixteenth century Thomas Morley insisted on his pupils singing the music they wrote: Hindemith at the outset made a similar rule, that his pupils should write only such music as they could sing or play. This eventually transformed his composition classes into an orchestra. A pupil who had specialised on the piano (and, by the way, Hindemith regards the piano as a composer’s hindrance, maintaining that those who compose for that instrument habitually work out everything from a system of fingering instead of tone-colour) might be asked to write a work for the violin.

If he, the pupil, had no practical acquaintance with the instrument, he was asked to leave the composition class for the practice room and get some experience with the violin and learn to play it. By this means the pupils obtained practical experience of orchestral instruments and became orchestrally minded. Moreover, each pupil had the satisfaction of hearing his music written in the class room performed by his fellow pupils or take a part in it himself.

Everything written in the class room was played by the pupils. Naturally they may not have become proficient enough for admission to the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra; but the rule compelled the pupils to become acquainted with orchestral instruments and to think orchestrally.

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, June 1939, pp. 778–779