What is the role of “etudes” in a pianist’s development? Which ones do you use and when?

Daily I am reminded of the numerous things that should be taught in lessons to develop knowledgeable and proficient pianists. Certainly in a 30 or even 60-minute lesson, priorities must be established for what will be included and what will be left for another day. In my early years of teaching I emphasised the basic keyboard patterns of scales, arpeggios, chords, etc. but did not teach many etudes. Basic keyboard “vocabulary” is necessary to play and interpret repertoire, but I believed that a student with limited practice time could learn as much through standard repertoire.

In recent years I have been teaching more etudes as I have realised that the piano etude is the intermediate ground between the “pure” technique (such as scales, arpeggios, chords) and the repertoire. The etude is usually built upon a pattern that expands and repeats until it becomes easy and automatic; while in repertoire, patterns typically are changing too quickly to develop the same familiarity and coordination.

After deciding to include etudes in my students’ assignments, the decision had to be made as to whicones were best. I always teach Hanon, since it exercises all five fingers equally, and I ask students to transpose them to all keys. I also believe Czerny is essential. As a student of Beethoven and the only teacher of Franz Liszt, Carl Czerny is important pedagogically. Musicians sometimes disparage him for not being a composer at the level of Beethoven, but as Fernando Laires said, “Czerny’s purpose in his studies was to give students the skill to play Beethoven.” For editions, I personally prefer the Czerny studies selected by Emil Liebling (Theodore Presser). They are in three volumes beginning at the intermediate level and include selections from Op. 299, 740, and other opuses. In the following article Marilyn Neeley and Seymour Fink share their ideas on this topic.

Etudes – how and why

by Seymour Fink

I think of an etude as a short piece that exploits one or two useful technical patterns, and which, while physically challenging, is relatively accessible. Students profit by working the patterns, not struggling to decipher the notes. Velocity and control are ultimate goals, but initially they are not as important as/arm, that is, learning to play the patterns with an optimal coordination. Students must be shown how the fingers, hands, and arms move, position, and interact to promote efficiency. Doing it wrong serves only to solidify bad habits. Some physically gifted students do improve as a result of the blind challenge of an etude’s hothouse environment, but many do not. Teachers should show students hoto move before making challenging physical demands.

Etudes are historically important. Czerny wrote over a thousand of various kinds and levels. Many great composers, who were pianists themselves, have written etudes: Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, Rachmaninoff, and others come to mind. They penned difficult etudes of sheer beauty meant for the concert hall. Dozens of lesser composers, concerned more with pedagogy, have also specialised in the genre. Etudes exploit all kinds of technical fancy – from lateral jumps to singing legato lines, from double notes and rotation to speed of repetition, from short staccatos to control of the overall dynamic, from sheer velocity to the voicing of complex textures. In general etudes promote finger strength and independence, evenness, endurance, speed, and dynamic control. Their predictable harmonic language promotes sight-reading skills, and the learned patterns often translate directly to literature study. But they should be introduced only when students are ready and can be made aware of the HOW and WHY of etude practice.

A minimal technical maturity should be attained before using etudes. I introduce them after about 18 months of study if students are heading in the right direction – that is, comfortably making good sounds, swinging arms freely at the shoulders, covering lateral distance with ease, listening carefully, and playing with minimal tension and good alignment of the hand and fingers. Etude practice is useful in reinforcing and speeding the development of these positive accomplishments. I postpone their use if there is any doubt. Instead, I make up simple corrective exercises tailored to the specific need. One student might need help in establishing a comfortable, relaxed arm stroke, (a petting-the-cat motion), while another might need assistance in swinging their thumbs independently. Most students need help in aligning the outside of the hand; this prevents sagging and sets the stage for properly stroking 4th and 5th fingers. I show students how the wrist and arm move outward and downward to allow the outside fingers to reach and align with their keys. Students often tighten their shoulders, a condition that interferes with smooth arm strokes and lateral transitions that are used in a variety of touches. The latter is a priority issue that should be handled directly after the basic stroke. I have students play one finger non-legato scales, arpeggios, and broken octaves to teach them how the arms lead the lateral action and position the finger over its key.

Speed, finger independence, and repetitive motions of elbow, wrist, and knuckle all take time to develop organically. They should not be rushed, as they are complex coordinations that often leave a residue of tension if forced. But when students seem ready for easy sonatinas, I think the time is right for Hanon (See Excerpt 1). I recommend doing Hanon first in contrary motion centred on Middle D, in order to teach the integration of arm, hand, and finger to both sides simultaneously. This keeps the body centred and the arms, hands, and fingers making identical mirror-image movements.

Practically speaking, start the right hand in the third measure one octave higher (on the E above middle C), the left hand on middle C, and, ignoring the written left hand, follow the right hand finger numbers and intervals, mirroring with the left hand. Show how moving the wrists to the outside transfers the weight of the arms behind each striking finger and aligns the fingers (especially the outside ones) with their keys. An in-out cycle of the upper arms (the shoulders never lock) moves forward and around while playing finger 5 and pulls back and around while playing finger 1. Added pronation keeps the higher numbered fingers playing vertically. Back and forth note patterns call for arm rotation to back the finger stroke. I encourage my students to play firmly and listen carefully to the evenness of the rhythm and sound. They focus on the small, circling arm choreography that leads and supports the fingers making contact with the key. Within these cycles, I encourage them, at a slow tempo, to strike energetically from above the key. The fingers start their stroke curved, and extend sharply to the bottom of the key. There is no pressure on the key bed. As speed increases, students progress from striking the key from above with high fingers, then on the key at the key surface, then ultimately from “under” the key (with the key slightly depressed). Each step in this progression results in a shorter keystroke. Fluidity, grace, and even strength of the fingers are the initial goals, followed by velocity and endurance.

Once this integrated legato coordination is well established, even unconscious, students can play Hanon as written. I believe the same sort of integrated contrary motion habit can be established using Schmitt ​Preparatory Exercises Op. 16. (See Excerpt 2.) Since a large portion of Schmitt is totally based on a strict five-finger position, there is no need to center the contrary motion on middle D. More advanced students might expand the Schmitt closed position to a spread five note diminished seventh chord. The spread position makes the importance of the arm adjustments that lead and support each finger abundantly clear.

Students next need to acquire the ability to move smoothly up and down the keyboard in scales, arpeggios, and broken chords. For this I use Czerny, Op. 299, which is easily read in comforting four-bar phrases with predictable harmonies, and for the most part challenges one hand at a time. Once the lateral freedom of the arms is established a student must learn to integrate this with a unique finger-arm coordination that I call fake legato. Fake legato is a technique that calls for a pulling finger snap on the last note before a change or shift in hand position. This kicks the arm out of the keys and gives a simultaneous quick, relaxed arm shift with no wrist movement (which slows the shift), and a soft gentle landing on at least the next two or three notes. Arms lead all the lateral shifting. Fingers rarely reach sideways and thumbs don’t turn under; if needed they adjust to the formation of the next hand position. Fast scales are played with this coordination, as are arpeggios or any extended line that needs to be smooth and sound legato. Avoid bumps when a musical line changes direction at the top, bottom, or middle. Upper arms circle around the changes in direction as discussed earlier in the closed five-finger exercises. The goal is a strong, even, fluid legato line that can be infused with any type of expressive content. Czerny etudes supply voluminous examples and pattern s where these principles can be developed and perfected, where a student can slowly build up speed and endurance, finger strength, flexibility, and fluidity in legato playing. There are many other etudes that develop speedy repetition of various joints, (elbows, wrists, and finger knuckles, even rotary arms), that I use once I make the student aware of the specific purpose and coordination under consideration. But a fluid legato is always my first priority.

The chameleons of the musical repertoire

by Marilyn Neeley

​Through many decades of learning, performing, and teaching, I have come to realize that etudes are the chameleons of the piano repertoire. They can serve as fitness trainers for the beginner and, for an ambitious, advanced talent, win a prize in a major international competition. They can be hated by an intermediate student who does not know or is unwilling to learn how to practice; while in an adjoining practice room or in the next lesson, a student at a similar level can exude pride and joy at triumphing over the hurdle that so discourages his peer.

Etudes also play various roles in the lives of professional pianists in both teaching and performing. Ethel Leginska, my first teacher in Los Angeles, never referred to Czerny or anything else as an etude until I was given Chopin Op. 10, No.8 when I was nine or ten years old. I did two hours of technical practice every day for 14 years with her including scales, arpeggios, Hanon, and Philipp. Czerny’s Op. 299 (see Excerpt 3) was the only collection of a technical nature that could conceivably be referred to as containing music. As a teacher, I use Czerny but also assign from Cramer’s 50 Selected Studies (Alfred) and Moszkowski’s Etudes, Op. 72 as bridges between Czerny and Chopin, and I sometimes play Cramer’s Etude #43 as an encore.

I believe that technical study should rarely, if ever, be separated from musical goals. I say “if ever” because I do believe there is a use for learning patterns, such as scales and arpeggios, so they can be played automatically with the correct fingering. This frees the mind to concentrate on the many musical elements (such as rhythm, tone colour, balance, dynamics, and pedalling) that express the music’s message. I call such patterns the vocabulary of the keyboard. Until they are automatic, pianists often hesitate and make errors, just as errors occur in speaking a new language until verb endings and other grammatical structures are automatic. An excellent little book written nearly a century ago labeled scales “the alphabet of music.”

Before writing this article, I took a journey through various books devoted to acquiring technique at the keyboard. Rather than focus on the many fine modern methods available to teachers of beginning students, I decided to look at a number of older volumes I had found in antique and used bookstores through the years. Some were a century old and had brief essays on, or interviews with, famous artists. One was a biography of Anton Rubinstein written in 1889, and another was a thorough and surprisingly modern book titled, Piano Teaching: Its Principles and Problemwritten in 1910 by Clarence G. Hamilton, an Associate Professor at Wellesley College.

I also looked at books from a later time, including BasiPrinciples oPianofortPlaying by Josef Lhevinne (with a new foreword by Rosina Lhevinne), the Walter Gieseking and Karl Leimer volume, PianTechniqueand ThTeaching of Artur Schnabeby Konrad Wolff. Two books I consider indispensable for any teacher at any level are ThArt of PianPlayinby Heinrich Neuhaus and Notes from a PianistBencby Boris Berman. Both of these recommend teaching etudes of Czerny, Cramer, Clementi, and Moszkowski before those of Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, and Scriabin.

To my delight, no one in any of these books carried the torch for learning all of one’s technique exclusively through repertoire. Interestingly, the only disagreement was between Raoul Pugno and Harold Bauer in a 1915 volume by Harriette Brower, encouragingly called PianMasteryPugno, a famous artist of his time, advocated a thorough drill of scales and arpeggios along with arduous work on J.S. Bach, Czerny, Cramer, and Clementi. However, Bauer declared that he did not “… believe in so-called ‘piano technic,’ that must be practiced outside of pieces.” Bauer also did not believe in playing scales evenly, which he heard as too mechanical. With all his pianistic prowess, it should be remembered that he was a violinist first and acquired his piano technique as an adult. In a small paperback entitled Playing thPiano with Confidence by Gerald D’Abreu, the author, after quoting Rachmaninoff “… there is no expression without technique,” suggests that teachers pick a complementary piece, not an “unusable study,” to aid in strengthening the technique needed for a major work.

I hope I have not lost all the teachers who are engaged on a daily basis in a heroic struggle to develop a secure technical foundation while contending with students whose schedules make the admonitions of Leginska and Lhevinne to practice two hours of technical work daily seem like the impossible dream. Fortunately, I have a much more practical model to present.

My son Andrew Gerle, a pianist and composer, had the good fortune to grow up in Baltimore where his first seven years of piano study, (from age five to twelve), were with a private teacher, Rose Strauss. Andrew generally liked music, but was no more enthusiastic about practicing scales, exercises, or etudes than any child his age. Mrs. Strauss, through an incredible “stew” of Czerny Eight MeasurExercises, Op. 821; Haydn, Clementi, and Kuhlau movements (chosen to enhance the exercises and introduce great music at the same time); and the use of everything from Jon George to Burgmiiller Etudes, disguised as showpieces; gave Andrew what I regard as the most secure and relaxed technique imaginable.

This relaxed-but-disciplined approach was continued in his high school years at the Peabody Preparatory Department with Dr. Nancy Roldan, who included a healthy diet of Chopin, Liszt, and Scriabin Etudes. (In case you are wondering if this approach was ever put to the professional test, Andrew continued at Yale, studying with Peter Frankl, where he won both the Yale and The National Symphony Concerto Competitions. Today we play duo-piano recitals, and he writes prize-winning musical theater shows.) Please forgive the “proud mother” digression, but I can think of no better example of a teaching regimen that successfully combined the musical and the technical on a limited budget of practice time.

Teaching exclusively at the university level, of course I teach Chopin, Liszt, and other standard etudes as musical masterpieces and for technical growth. Although The Catholic University of America has high standards, we occasionally accept students of great potential but limited technical discipline. By choice, I keep a mixed studio from freshmen to doctoral levels, and everyone is expected to be or become fluent in their basic technical equipment. Also, having noticed that brilliant “virtuoso” technique is often accompanied by lack of concentration leading to unnecessary lapses, I require everyone to play some Czerny, Op. 299- numbers 1-7 and 11, plus various others to address specific issues. I have two reasons for this. First, Czerny, as a student of Beethoven, targets problems arising in his music – e.g., the unexpected change of finger patterns, toward the end of Op. 299, No. 1; the abrupt key change in No.2; and the technique required in the last movement of the “Moonlight,” found in No. 3. Second, if concentration cannot last long enough to play seven lines of Czerny’s Op. 299, No.1, a flawless Chopin Etude seems unlikely. (A word of caution, the tempo markings in Czerny are correct and reflect tempi of some of the fastest scales in actual Beethoven works. The dynamic markings of forte should be avoided as they were probably designed for the light action of the fortepiano.)

From the Moszkowski Op. 72, the first one I teach is No.5 because of its easier passagework. It is also excellent for concentration. Number 2 has passagework for both right and left hand and hand crossings; No. 6 also has passagework in each hand, along with No. 1. Since this one is somewhat lengthy, Maurice Hinson, in his edition for Alfred, suggests playing mm. 49-63 as a daily exercise. Number 12 has black key passages and No.3 has chord playing plus a rotation movement, but it is NOT for small hands. From the Cramer Studies, (Alfred), No.2 and 12 have melody and accompaniment in the same hand. I teach No.2 first. Numbers 15 and 16 have broken chords in both hands, and No. 34 has hand crossings in a technique very similar to the “Gigue” from Bach’s Partita No.1 .

In conclusion, teachers have said to me that is seems regrettable to “turn off” potential music lovers, if not concert pianists, by forcing them to learn the rudiments of technique. Perhaps this is true in some cases, but I have witnessed much sadder cases when the career dreams of a talented undergraduate, or even a graduate student, cannot be realised because it is too late to instil the effortless physical equipment necessary to carry their musical message.

By Nancy Bachus. This article first appeared on www.ClavierCompanion.com.