CM 4 Episode #10 Recitation- The Children’s Art (Important Dos and Don’t Parent’s Review Article
CM EP 10
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The Parent's Review, a monthly magazine of home training and culture, edited by Charlotte Mason. Education is an Atmosphere, a Discipline, a Life.
Recitation: The Children's Art, by Arthur Burrell, volume 1, 1890-91, pages 92 to 103.
Children are admirable masters of what we call style in speech. Their intonation is so true, so exact, the organs of the mouth lend themselves to the changing feelings of the child, and the voice attains a bold flexibility which clever actors often strive after in vain. Did you ever listen to a youngster telling another a secret or recounting some mysterious scene at which he has assisted? All the voices of the actors in the scene are copied. Every tone is there. You have them before you.
Well, put that same youngster on immediately afterwards to read for you a bit of poetry and you will get the silly monotone of the reading child. These great professors of the art of reading cannot read.
So writes M. Legouve in his book on reading, translated as reading as fine art, and never did a man say a wiser word. Children know how to read, but they cannot read. What a beautiful thing is a child's voice that thin pipe can express for you and does expose for you every day. Pathos, tragedy, comedy, and all the combination of the three which you find enumerated for you in Hamlet. But the child does not know this and herein consists of charm. And here again is contained a success.
Those who watch children will tell you the same as M. Legouve does. Ask a little girl of four to give you the history of the one-eyed doll, or if you're fortunate enough to be able to do so, listen to a little boy preaching a sermon to himself when he is in bed, or stand outside a nursery door and hear a plaintive tale of a nursery wrong told to a mother. You will get a lesson in accent, intonation, expression, and even in gesture, which will do you more good than any half dozen chapters on that mysterious subject, elocution.
The unstudied movement at the tiny hand, the rounding of the little lips, the flooding of the eyes, the stamp of the shoe, the earnest belief that the audience sympathies are all there, just as they are all conspicuously absent when the governess or other teachers appear upon the scene and ask for the repetition of a nursery rhyme or the childish hymn. I'm not afraid of putting down on paper what may seem to be an irreverent dictum. And I put it down in italics. When children come to school, they can read and speak. When they leave school, they can do neither the one nor the other.
And why? First, they are not taught, or if they are taught, the teaching is bad. Next, they learn to be nervous, monotonous, bumpy, careless. They rapidly develop, under the excellent guidance and example of the teacher, the feeling that it is a bad thing to read well, and that is it a correct thing to gabble. Their pronunciation is left uncared for, their sympathies are dulled, checked, or at the best, not asked for. Their childish feelings are passed through the mill of home lessons and strict discipline. They are children at home and as far as reading goes, machines at school.
On Sundays, as a rule, they are compelled to listen to bad reading, sometimes to vulgar reading and provincial mispronunciation, while at home they hear no reading except that of the servants or that of a father or elder brother, all equally bad. But I would not be misunderstood. My words do not apply to all children, nor to all schools. Very often the teacher does accomplish what the home has left undone, and sometimes the teacher cannot, with all his efforts, spoil the lessons learned from a mother who is a cultivated lady. Yet on the whole, the influence of the class of an individual reading is distinctly bad. It need not be so. It should not be so. But it is so.
My only apology for the boldness of these words is that I have always watched my child friends very carefully. That I've had for many years to teach reading to children of all ages, from the youngster who has just forgotten, his natural tones to the boy of eighteen, who speaks through his teeth and runs all his words together. And that I have been appealed to as the writer of some suggestions and the January number of Atlanta to put into type my own impressions upon reading and recitation as arts in which children do not naturally excel.
It is not necessary, I hope, for me to point out the usefulness of these arts. Without them, the best pieces of English writing lose half their value. The best paper read before a cultivated audience misses its aim. The best lecture is only half a lecture and the best sermon is an opiate. With them, all is changed. The light from the writer's soul is handed down from one generation to another, for good authors cannot die. The human voice is forever conferring immortality upon them. So magical is the power of a good reader that he can convey to an audience shades of meaning in his author, which he does not himself even suspect.
Again and again, a face in a hall will light up at some touch, conveyed by tone or glance, and the very speaker will thank his hearers for lessons. As it would be with the picture, if by some unknown mechanism it could absorb the fancies of the faces that read its meaning, so it may be with the owner of a voice. More receptive than the mere canvas, the reciter watches the approving and disapproving glance. He sees the sympathy and he feels the silence. His audience may be receiving a lesson, but they are assuredly giving one.
And if such appreciation can be born when a good reader and a good audience meet, is it not worse than madness for us to look on English literature as mere work for the study? Mere dictionary stuff? It was meant to be interpreted by the voice of life. There is only half the passion in the printed page. If there were more good reading round English firesides, do you suppose that the masterpieces of English thought would be studied as they often are merely with an eye to the examiner certificate?
It is allowed by all that we must teach reading if we can, and we must teach it with the greatest care during the most receptive years of life. My purpose is to make this paper intensely practical. I shall not indulge in any more high-flying words of praise or condemnation. I shall give lists and I mean to be clear, even if I'm wrong.
To begin with, books. Books on the subject, there are none. The good reader may pick up hints from Plumpre's Lectures on Elocution, from Garcia's Art of Writing, and from Mr. Harrison's two papers in Murray's magazine for July, and August 1889. Mr. Bandram and a host of minor authorities have given useful advice again and again, but with the exception of the French book, from which my motto is taken, the writings on this subject are very inadequate and it is perhaps well that they are so for you cannot teach reading by printed rules. Personality must play its part. You want to get the good reading out of a child, not to drum it into him. In every case, you need a good reader to teach good reading.
At the outset, I may admit that good readers, and therefore good teachers of reading, are few. That until we teach reading carefully, they will remain few. And that your best teaching will in one or two cases, be foiled by strong disinclination or moral weakness on the part of the people.
Now my first list is formidable, and I do not hope that it will be accepted by all. It is a collection of don'ts.
Number one, you are not allowed any imitation of the stage. Number two, you are not even to encourage exaggeration in voice or gesture. Number three, you are not to allow recitation before a company of admiring friends. Number four, you are not to let a child think that Mark Twain, Artemus Ward, and Josh Billings are the only writers of comedy. Number five, you are not to let your child learn Browning. Number six, you are not to choose tragic or sentimental pieces. Number seven, you are not, as a rule, to give lessons in the presence of a third person. Number eight, you are not to tell your child that he or she can recite well.
We will examine these ‘don'ts’. You must avoid the stage and all exaggeration because the charm of good recitation consists in its simplicity. A pointed finger is as good as an uplifted arm. The quiet voice can express every shade of feeling. Haven't you often done so yourself in a whispered conversation? The stage, whether first-rate, second, or third, is the stage and you cannot make your dining room into one. God forbid you should desire to do so, for we are guiding children to be natural, not to ape men and women who are aping other men and women.
You are to avoid tragedy, Mark Twain, and Browning. Because tragedy is unsuitable to the child of ten. Because Mark Twain's comedy is comedy of a low class, and you have to foster good taste. Because Browning is very rarely intelligible to children and is nearly always harsh to a musical ear.
You are not, as a rule, to give your lessons in the presence of a third person, nor to allow recitation before company, nor to praise your child excessively, because you must be alone with the child that he may sympathize with failure and allow the occasional tear and a constant flush because you are now and then to see glimpses of the child's soul. For without these glimpses, you cannot draw out the latent powers. No unpopular master has ever taught, reading satisfactorily.
It is because we teach reading in classes that we so often fail. Correct pronunciation and clear reading may be gained in class. Good reading will never be taught there. Indeed, there is no such thing as teaching good reading. The process is one of guidance and example, and every pupil must be treated differently. By all means, begin with classes, if it be necessary, but don't fancy that they will carry you very far. You and your pupil need private study if you are to do your work well and how can you practice and re-practice tones when there are twenty child critics about? You might as well rehearse the words of your proposed proposal of marriage allowed in the billiard room of your club after lunch. You might as well print and the local newspaper your real opinions about your mother or your thoughts upon the death of that child of yours. I suppose I make myself clear in this. If I do not, listen to this story.
Once, when a famous actress had gone through a famous scene in a voice trembling with tears as a small boat trembles on a gusty day, her friends crowded round her to congratulate her on her realization of the picture. She answered, it was not the picture that made me cry. It was not the words of the poet. It was my voice. My voice. Very often a good reader can read with a dry eye pages, which if he means to read them aloud, will require a dozen rehearsals. Is this pathos of the human voice to be trotted out for the admiration or contempt of a class?
If you would like to know what the results are when these don'ts are disregarded, let me give you an unexaggerated picture of a recitation by a child of eleven. First of all, the mother of the child leads up to the recitation, a piece from Macaulay. The child is put on a small platform and begins with an arm pointed to the heaven. Everyone looks up. The first lines are far too fast. At the first speech in the piece, he will burst out shrill tones, just ten times too loud for the room. The tones subside because the next line is forgotten. An old gentleman prompts ineffectually. The book is set for. The child stays there. There is no blush. The governess has conquered that bad habit of blushing, and in time the piece goes on. Action is used to excess, and the child, the mooning housemaid who chooses this time for walking about and the prompting mother had the rest of the piece to themselves. The audience applauds and privately condemns everyone but the housemaid.
If this is what you want, train your child to do it. He can do it and do it well, but it isn't recitation. It isn't good taste. It isn't fostering a love of literature. On the other hand, it is utterly false and frigid. No one respects you for it, and if your child becomes a prig and a boar, he has you to thank for it. He may thank you for it in after years. Other people certainly will, but luckily you will not hear the words in which their thanks are expressed.
So much for the don'ts. The fault-finding is over and we may begin. Your first difficulty will be a great one. You can find no suitable piece. I'm assuming, of course, that you are a competent guide and that you will take any amount of trouble. Now there is only one way out of this difficulty. Go and buy a notebook very strongly bound containing some three hundred pages. Index it and whenever you come across a suitable piece, long or short, write it down at once. Bell's Elocutionist and all sorts of reciters are useful to copy from. All English and French literature is useful to copy from. Children's hymn books and the Bible are very useful to copy from. But if you try to keep to one book your child chances are gone. By purchasing a few new books, by examining the libraries in your town, by borrowing freely from your friends, you may get together in a year an excellent collection of suitable pieces. And that I may not seem to be merely giving counsels of perfection, let me suggest to you the names of one or two books or pieces which you may find useful.
Oh, Sweet Content, Midnight, Oh Hush Thee, My Baby, Fair Daffodils, The Land of Counterpane, Nature's Gentleman, The Earl O'Quarter Deck, The Wind, A Changeling, My Picture, Last Words of Chaucer, Arthur's Appeal to Hubert, The Children's House, Monk Felix, Faerie Queene, The Legend Beautiful, The Bells, Flight of the War Horse, Henry V's Prayer Before Agincourt, The Cloud Capped Towers, Chevy Chase, Evenen in the Village, Ode to the West Wind, The Birds of Killingworth, Sweet and Low, Poor Parson, Shakespeare's Song, Amantium Irae, Bell of Atri, Kathleen, Battle of the Baltic, Lady Clare, Sir Hildebrand, Sir Galahad, Locksley Hall.
These are just one or two pieces from long lists which I have by me and I would add that if you hunt through the following books you will find hundreds more. Nor do I shrink from adding the Bible, translations from Homer and Virgil, The song of Roland, and even some bits of Lamartine and Berenger. I assume, of course, that you will lay our old ballads and our own great literatures of the 16th and 19th centuries under heavy contribution.
You may say you cannot get all these books. You are right, but you do not know how many you can get at by borrowing and examining the catalogs of libraries to which you have access. If your friends find you return books punctually, they will lend you any number.
Is this asking too much? Is it not worthwhile to copy out the best-known pieces from the Bible? Some of the collects? The old-fashioned Christmas carols, the great speeches from Shakespeare's plays, the best among foreign nursery rhymes? If the labor is too great, then try some other method. I doubt if you will find a satisfactory one. Indeed, without this commonplace book, you cannot get on. Suitable pieces exist by the score, but you will never find them if you do not look for them and you will never make part of your child's literary positions unless you copy them out. The method takes time and trouble, and mothers and governesses shirk it concluding because they are lazy that no suitable children's poetry has ever been written.
Well, you've got your book, a large one, well bound and able to resist the energies of many generations, but all your work is still left before you. And now I will trouble you with the second list. This time it is do, not don't.
Number one, be very careful about pronunciation. Number two, let pieces be learned bit by bit after a careful explanation has been given. Number three, the child must stand to read. Other positive rules come in here. Number four, a piece, once learned, must be occasionally repeated.
We will take these in order. Number one, be very careful about pronunciation. A child's voice is generally clear, but you cannot begin too soon with what I may call oral gymnastics. If there is a difficulty about S, R, T, H, L, or any other letter sound, write out lists of words containing these sounds and letters. Show where the tongue should be laid and do not be satisfied till the difficulty is overcome. If there is no malformation of the mouth, any child may be taught to speak clearly.
German boys can get hold of the English R. You will not have any worse enemy than that.
Then take all manner of curious combinations and go on giving your people sentences which are difficult to utter, encouraging the child to hold the mouth awry, to open it wide, to screw up the face, to purse the lips, and make all kinds of grimaces in order to render the muscles of the mouth flexible. If I had to do work with a child that pronounced badly and carelessly, I should not allow any words in the first lesson. We should spend an hour grimacing before a glass. In the second lesson, we might go into vowels and consonants. I need not write down lists of difficult sentences. Peter Piper. Twelfthly and fifthly. Mixed Biscuits. Stump oratory will oust statesmanship, to show you what is meant. Above all things, let your people go slowly. Let the D in and, and the G in ING, the K and asked, the T in listen, the double T in little, be heard not obtrusively. You must not allow shy like you low geraldy to go and play in garden, for I should like you to allow Gerald and me to go and play in the garden. Stop this sort of thing on every occasion.
Number two: let pieces be learnt bit by bit. `First, read your piece and explain it pointing out in a quiet sort of way as if you were speaking to yourself the noticeable parts. Don't drum taste in. Guide by your own reading example. Let the child read it over to himself, once or twice. If he doesn't take to the piece, try another. As far as is consistent with discipline and taste, let the child choose, then divide the piece up into bits. Let each bit be learned separately and pay no attention to anything but distinctness, until half the pieces learned, then correct, or rather, suggest. Do not harp too long on any lines requiring pathos or energy. If the child cannot get it at once, return it on another occasion. Never teach a piece in one sitting, however short your piece may be.
Number three: some positive rules. Let the child stand while reading, holding the book away from the face. Never seem to be looking at your pupil unless you yourself are saying the piece.
Let the child sit to recite. Not in an armchair. Sitting down discourages all excessive action. Action you must have in moderation, but a waved hand or moved finger, a lifted eyebrow, a closed eye, a slight shiver, this is all the action you should allow. If you read Legouve carefully, you will find that the greatest actresses can play the most tragic parts with very little action. And with still less voice. Teach your pupil not to raise the voice much, but to learn its tones. In tone, not in noise, good recitation consists.
Number four: Always have a glass in the room to see if your own little bits of action look natural for, remember this, that as soon as you or your pupil cease to be natural, your recitation ceases to be good. May I add here a short specimen lesson which will illustrate very imperfectly what I mean. I will choose a single verse.
The curfew toils the knell of parting day. The lowing herd winds slowly o’re the Lee. The plowman homeward plods his weary way and leaves the world to darkness and to me.
You first explain the pictures and know that the speaker feels the dusk coming on.
Don't leave Lee unexplained. Now let your pupil read. You will have a dead stop at DAY, LEE, WAY, ME, but no stops elsewhere. This is utterly wrong. There are in this verse 15 speech commas.
Your pupil will be too fast. I do not know how you can remedy this fault except by keeping a metronome at work. Talking about the fault won't remedy it. Example does a great deal, but then your own example will fail you sometimes. All people read and recite too fast for the comprehension of their audiences.
Your pupil will emphasize DAY, LEE, WAY, ME, whereas the last two had the grave accent and the last is almost whispered. There are twelve other words that need the acute accent.
Your pupil will fail to give the music in the words ‘slowly’ and ‘weary’. He will join ‘winds slowly’ and ‘plods his’ together. This, you must not allow for an instant. He will almost sing the piece. You must keep him between the sing-song and the natural narrative tone. You may refer to Mr. Harrison's papers for more on this subject.
Of course, there is no action.
Gray's Elegy is a good piece. It encourages musical delivery of really musical lines. It discourages action. It requires very careful and distinct work. It is a poem of rest. Of course, we could multiply these hints, but let me end with a few practical suggestions for recitation. Suggestions meant for men and women, older children who wish to guide others and themselves to a true appreciation of what is real and good in literature. For recitation is and ought to be the exponent of what is best in books.
Number one: if you know your room, speak at the person furthest from you. You can tell if you were heard. If not, don't get loud, but go more slowly. You may look all about the room quite easily and yet keep your voice at this angle with your body.
Number two: if you don't know your room, try it before your performance and put a friend or two down in different parts of the room to tell you whether you are audible.
Number three: if your room is a good one, save your voice. This makes people listen.
Number four: If your room is a bad one, get a long piece of bunting fixed on the wall opposite to your face. It dampens the echo.
Number five; save yourself. Only once or twice in a whole evening will you want to shout or toss your arms about. A tired artist is a poor artist.
Number six: Begin quietly, wait during noise, coughs, and interruptions of all kinds. This is only polite to the people who are listening.
Number seven: practice standing still. Never run about the stage.
Number eight: have a table in front of you about three feet high.
Number nine: Never be so impertinent to your audience as to try to recite without having gone over every intonation, gesture, and look before your own glass and before a friend.
Number ten: mark whether or not telling passages fail. If they do find out why afterwards.
Number eleven: Wait until the laugh has quite subsided.
Number twelve: If you see you have got hold of any particular part of the house, keep your eye on that part. This will encourage you.
Number thirteen: Remember finally that the most telling parts in good pieces are those in which you interpret the best thoughts in the best and quietest way. The whisper teaches more than the shout. The steady glance tells more than a badly imitated maniac's glare. You must always be in a state of repression, as if you could do more, but will not.
To return from our men and women to the little ones, parents should put aside one hour a month (only an hour) when all the family can gather around the fire and you can hear some of the pieces that have been learned. Why should not the father and elder brothers take an interest in such things? Is it all to be left to the mother's taste and care? You do not know the pleasure that you give, the lessons you will learn, the lessons you may teach, the talents you foster by a word or two of quiet discriminating praise, or by a sympathetic silence.
I end as I began. Children are admirable masters of what we call style in speech. Their intonation is so true, so exact. See to it that you do not let the powers given to them go to rack and ruin through your carelessness.
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