Dabbling

IT may be considered dangerous, but it is always pleasant, to possess a little knowledge. The serious student has always despised the dabbler. The dabbler, however, has more fun. The water is warmer where it laps the pebbles in the sun, and it cannot drown you. Children and dogs, invalids, and strong men washed ashore by storms, congregate about you and throw water. The serious student may stride along without a look to his deeper bath, but with his splendid risk he may sink while you are skipping stones.

Two characteristics mark the dabbler. First, he really dabbles. Second, he talks. A bluffer talks, too, but essentially he has something to ‘put over ’ — something he wishes you to buy, or admire, or believe. A dabbler merely wishes to talk to you. He is naïve, eager, green, not boastful, but merely declaratory — a perfect type of the ‘possessed’ person.

With one such person about, life is never dull. Having dabbled in everything that has come beneath his eye, he can listen with enthusiasm to the invalid on opsonins, to the educator on tests, to the motorist on plugs, to the physicist on skewed curves and elastic lag. He does not essay to tell any of these experts anything, but, to quote Ethel Sidgwick, he simply bites the right way.

There are persons incapable of dabbling. They invariably do well whatever they consider worth doing at all. That unwholesome proverb has ruined many a good dabbler; for there are many things existent which are well worth doing rather badly.

My pal and I resolved to dabble in at least three of the fine arts each year. Greek is fascinating up to that point where the characters still look to you like little apple trees and stepladders. At this point we drop it, and assume pastels, for we are neither students nor serious. A typewriting dabbler is known by his fruits. Likewise a cook. A dabbler in French may go far, if he is easy of tongue, and wary — and chooses his audience.

But one of the most daring and upsetting of instruments with which to trifle is the pipe organ. To one who has already spent placid years at the piano, it offers a little thrill for every day in the week. Here are unlimited possibilities much too tempting for the jester to pass by. Moreover, it appears the least frivolous of instruments, and grandly guards the dignity of the organist.

With this solid instrument before you, and the august composers for it behind you, it is possible to get every thrill of the amateur without any of its reproach. At least three weeks are necessary to get the real feeling in the feet which belongs only to a great organist, but the lingo may be adopted instantly. Few people know even that the pedal keyboard is plotted like the manual; that black keys in twos and threes serve as mileposts as well as accidentals. You must never look at your feet. You can talk about this too, at great length, and the fact seldom fails to win attention. There is always something picturesque about a blind pianist. An organist is always blind in his feet. Still fewer people know that he finds his place by knocking the side of his foot against the three black keys to find do.

Then comes a time when simple pedaling gives place in the lesson-book to a neutral brace of pale half-notes, written in three staves. Never was an exercise so simple, so slow, or so short, as that first exercise in the Organist’s Compleat Manual, which involves two hands, two feet, and a good gray brain. One hand goes up and the other goes down; the left foot begins to go up with the right hand, but diverts playfully and begins to go down just at the point when it shifts its responsibility to the right foot. And meanwhile, where is the brain? It is a robust one, indeed, if it knows where it is.

When my friend first encountered this exercise, he held up both hands and regarded them for a moment, and then said quietly, ‘Which one of you is my feet?’ An orchestra conductor is as nothing beside an organist. He may have to read sixteen different parts at once, but he does not have to play them. Nobody can tell whether he is reading or not. He may be simply waving a stick and shaking his hair. Anyone can tell whether an organist is playing or not, and to play he must read.

A few exercises of this confusing sort, and you can let your teacher go. If you keep him on, he will teach you counterpoint, and give you fugues. And with J. S. Bach before you, it is a nice question whether you still are dabbling. One of the easy fugues, peradventure, will not break the spell; for a smattering of this form can be made a great deal of. Its nomenclature is as useful as it is winning. Subject and Countersubject, Episodes and Stretti, are things to conjure with in any company. If you have never been one to keep time, set a metronome up on the organ, for Bach is one with whom it is good form to keep step. Then it may be said of you, that you and Joseph Bonnet play fugues always with a metronome. This is stimulating. It is also the coat-of-arms of an original authentic trifler; not the use of the metronome, but the instinctive grouping of yourself with Bonnet — a balloon rampant on a green field.

What you really want, at this point, is a composition in the key of C, with long-continued pedal points for your feet, and a soft tremulant melody for your hands — with slow tempo and refined swells, flavored with vanilla. Play with a Vox Humana stop, in a cold church, without notes, and you have dabbling in its highest form — an Art.

Lastly, dabblers are the only ones who have an accurate sense of relative values. They should not be likened, as they often are, to the foolish virgins, nor yet to any of the men with the talents. In fact, the last thing that a genuine dabbler does — a dabbler upon whom the hand of the Lord has been laid — is to feel guilty before men. He light-heartedly neglects molecules of dust for molecules of Truth. He has George Washington himself on his side, and Savonarola, and Paul the Apostle. He knows that ‘every ship is a romantic object, except that we sail in.’ So he sails a bit in every one that passes his shore, and then lets it go romantically. His horizon, therefore, is full of shifting, friendly sails, each made familiar by the slightest glancing touch, but blanched by distance — still white with Romance.