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When I first head Blind Tom in Copenhagen, I was too young
to retain any definite impression. Negroes were quite rare and a negro was in
itself a curiosity for a child-much more so then in Denmark than a Chinaman
was in America. I recollect a tall, think man, very black and very much applauded.
I paid little attention to Blind Tom until he came to Philadelphia to give a
concert. I had heard of his idiocy and his wonderful ability to reproduce any
piece of music he heard.
When I first head Blind Tom in Copenhagen, I was too young to retain any definite impression. Negroes were quite rare and a negro was in itself a curiosity for a child-much more so then in Denmark than a Chinaman was in America. I recollect a tall, think man, very black and very much applauded. I paid little attention to Blind Tom until he came to Philadelphia to give a concert. I had heard of his idiocy and his wonderful ability to reproduce any piece of music he heard.
The day of his concert was in mid-winder-snowing and raining and in every way disagreeable. I went to the hall clad in rain clothes and rubber boots. After his concert the audience was invited to play anything before Tom for test purposes. Several people went up and played little trite pieces of a popular type which Tom readily repeated without difficulty. One skeptical friend induced me to go to the stage and play something really difficult. I played the Third Concerto of Beethoven, in part and found, as I supposed, that it was absolutely impossible for him to repeat it with one playing. This aroused the interest of the Bethune family, who then realized that their protégé would have to have a larger repertoire, if interest in his public work were to be continued. Thereupon I received an invitation to teach Blind Tom daily for the sum of five dollars a lesson, which was then considered a huge fee for musical instruction.
A Difficult Work
The proposition was a very distasteful one to me, as Tom was himself very repulsive in many ways. At that time (1886) he had grown enormously fat. He was a great gormandizer and ate prodigiously. Moreover, he was far from clean. His managers were not at fault for this, as they had an imbecile on their hands and one that fought ferociously when they attempted to have him bathed. It will be seen from this that the beautiful music that came from Tom was not unlike the wild flower that grows in a filthy barnyard. The case interested me very much from the pedagogical and psychological standpoints, particularly after I had learned from his managers that Tom had in Europe no less a teacher than the great Moscheles himself. The legend that Tom was entirely untaught was fiction. He was taught, but, of course, along entirely different lines. It was more coaching than teaching.
I must also dispel the idea that Tom could repeat anything after having heard
it once. The lessons were two hours in length, and it was often necessary for
me to play over the compositions fifty times before he would acquire them. He
could, however remember an astonishing number of measures. I would "feed"
him eight or ten measures at a time and then he would play them over several
times and we would go on with others. After he had a fair impression of the
piece I would play it as an entirety and he would listed intently. In this way
I taught him-
Beethoven's Third Concerto in C Minor
Liszt's E Major Polonaise
Beethoven's Sonata Apassionata
Chopin's Polonaise Op. 53
Mendelssohn's Concerto in G Minor, etc. etc.
It should be remembered that at that time there were only limited means of teaching the blind and that Tom was also an imbecile. He was not, however, totally ignorant of all musical relationships as may have been claimed. He would ask me whether a note was a whole note, a half note, a quarter note, an eighth note, a sixteenth note, etc. He also knew the names of the pitches A, B, C, D, E flat, etc., and had absolute pitch of unfailing accuracy. It was impossible to hold an intelligible conversation with him upon any subject. He spoke mostly in monosyllables. After some experience with him, I came upon a peculiar manifestation of his mental operation that surprised me. If I asked him a question and saw him smile blandly and roll his white, sightless eyes and answer politely "Yes," I new that he had not the least idea what I was saying. But if he uttered harsh, hissing sounds like the escaping steam of the locomotive, at the same time apparently undergoing a great emotional and nervous strain, I knew that he understood and that the music I had played had been photographed in that musical camera stored somewhere behind the screen of imbecility.
When he was not engaged in playing or listening or eating, his favorite pastime was drawing circles with his hands upon the floor. Time and again he would draw circle after circle in a manner that was pathetic. During this he would stand upon one foot. He rarely said anything except what pertained to music. He was a full-blooded Negro. His name was reported to have been Thomas Wiggens.
Blind Tom's Compositions
Blind Tom's own compositions and improvisations were astonishingly interesting and often very beautiful. He played a piece called The Rainstorm, which was very suggestive and far from ordinary. His playing was expressive and for the most part very accurate. He never seemed to forget and could play such pieces as the Sonata Pathetique (which he studied in Germany) with surprising skill. His technical exercise were limited to a very few simple things that General Bethune's daughter had taught him. His playing was by no means a mirroring of the playing of others. He put in his own expression and exhibited much individuality. His octaves were very fine and clear and his great physical strength and elasticity made his playing forceful. It is a great mistake, however, to compare Tom with Franz Liszt. Liszt was, of course, an incomparable finer talent and intellect than Tom and his playing was accordingly finer. Tom, however, did play well and even better than many white contemporary pianists who made great pretentions and who took years to learn what Tom could learn in a few hours.
How amazing this phenomenon was may be judged by the following fact that I could not myself believe possible if it had not been performed before my own eyes with a piece that I had taught him myself. When I had finished teaching him the solo part of the Beethoven Third Concerto, he amazed me by turning his back to the keyboard and playing the entire Concerto standing in that position. In other words, his right hand played the left hand part and his left hand played the right hand part.
In his day, people regarded Tom merely as a great freak, as he indeed was. Nowadays, people realize that his case was principally interesting because it was a marvelous manifestation of the sub-conscious mind. Tom's mind, that is, his conscious mind, was just about sufficient to remove him one step from the helpless imbecile who has to be fed and cared for. I have told of the great struggle to keep him clean. He was indeed removed only a few degrees from the animal, in that he could talk (in a very circumscribed fashion), could laugh and cry and could do some of the other things which human beings train themselves to do. When this is said, his control of his body through his conscious mind has been defined. Now we come to that other mind-the diamond in the swine's mire. That it was something quite different from his conscious mind is shown by those strange indications of receptivity manifested by strange hissing sounds when his sub-conscious mind was working. This, according to reports, occurred from his earliest childhood. Stored up in that mind were many of the greatest treasures of music. It was also creative, in a limited and somewhat pathetic degree. That is, Blind Tom could compose. His compositions did not represent great masterpieces of harmony, form or counterpoint, but they indicated a desire to make new musical combinations. For the most part they were improvisations, and as far as my own quite extensive familiarity with musical literature goes, very original. He would play for hours at a time, occasionally one of the great masterpieces, and then going off into his interesting improvisations. That Tom knew the compositions he played by name, and could play them at command, indicates another form of intelligence with which he should be credited. But it was a kind of intelligence like that of putting a new record on a talking machine.
Tom is gone and his music with him. His case now is in the annals of the psychologist rather than in musical history. He showed, however, how seriously the teacher should regard all music that the child is permitted to hear. Probably all of us have sub-conscious musical minds and are recording impressions without knowing it. These subtle influences may be as powerful as those we receive in our conscious minds. This points to the great value of good concerts and plenty of them, the use of much good playing at the lesson hour and the value of the sound-reproducing machine.
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