In this week’s guest post, Ilga Pitkevica discusses Czerny’s exercises and studies and introduces her new video lecture series on his Practical Method for Beginners on the Pianoforte (Op. 599).

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Carl Czerny (1791-1857) witnessed the transformation in music from Classical Style into Romantic – quite a unique period in music history. He was born in the year when Mozart died and was taught by Beethoven. Yet he outlived Schubert, Mendelssohn, Chopin and Schumann. Czerny linked both styles, he embraced the changes and huge demands on pianistic skills and technique which happened in this period – something we can explore relentlessly through his compositions. 

Czerny created an enormous amount of extraordinary teaching materials for everyone from beginners through to concert pianists. It is quite sad to see though, that they are commonly viewed as “second rate” and designed for “drilling” technical skills only – something like Hanon, just with a more complex texture. However, this cannot be further away from the truth.

Czerny’s pianistic and pedagogical legacy is one of the most important in piano teaching history. In his exercises and etudes he covered pretty much every single aspect of classical and romantic pianism (and for those who might be thinking that all of his etudes are about playing fast – this also includes playing slow cantabile, or I would even say – bel canto. So useful for playing, say, Chopin’s Nocturnes).

Though being a scrupulous teacher, demanding precision and quality, he also demanded depth of feeling, elasticity and freedom of delivery. At the beginning of 20th century, most prominent pianists would have direct lineage to Czerny – through Liszt, Leschetitzky and other students of his, and would keep implementing Czerny’s way of teaching piano playing for the next generations of pianists to come.

From my own experience I can say that if there are any technical problems with the repertoire one is studying, using the appropriate etude by Czerny very likely will solve them. However, we have to know where to look and how to look. Navigating through hundreds and hundreds of his etudes is really not easy. I would imagine that every teacher has their favourite opuses, as do I. One, as it happens, is Practical Method for Beginners on the Pianoforte (Op. 599).

Practical Method for Beginners on the Pianoforte (Op. 599)

This Opus is an excellent starting point for beginners and pianists of intermediate level at any age. The minute exercises contain snippets featuring a huge variety of technical elements to help build an excellent foundation of good pianistic habits. If they are taught correctly from the start, it becomes straightforward to “build up” further technical skills thereafter.

The way that the exercises are composed is brilliant, combining Czerny’s pianistic, pedagogical and composing talents to create lovely musical shapes while reinforcing correct technique. In doing so, they also demonstrate how executing technique correctly serves to project a musical image. An example of this is how Czerny uses rhythm and finger patterns to reinforce fluency of different arpeggio techniques in Studies No’s 40, 87 and 100. Quite remarkable!

Through a very gradual increase in difficulty one can use them to work on:

  • Basic skills such as coordination, notation, phrasing, recognising chordal patterns in the texture (thus improving sight reading skills)
  • Learning the basic features of Classical style and technique, including embellishments – turns, trills and appoggiaturas
  • Precision in texture and articulation, addressing some challenges in combinations of rhythms, scale and arpeggio patterns, and various uses of touch
  • Preparing for learning advanced technical movements useful later even in Liszt’s etudes

A Note on Editions

The choice of the edition is very important. Czerny did provide fingering for his etudes and exercises, although he also left some “free spaces” which sometimes are “filled in” by editors. Although I tend to use the Buonamici Edition (click here to view open domain score),  not all of his fingering suggestions (mostly in No’s 1 – 18) are convincing.

The edition which offers easier and more friendly (and more logical, in my opinion) fingering options is that of Adolf Ruthard (Peters). Another more recent edition published by Alfred with Willard A. Palmer as the editor kept original Czerny’s fingering untouched and is worth studying. Understanding the connection between comfort of playing and logic of fingering is hugely important so please explore different options!

Uses and benefits

One of the main advantages of Op. 599 is that the exercises are short and compact. With time always being limited, it is useful to have short exercises that focus on tackling specific problems or developing certain skills in a targeted way.

In my new video lecture series, I provide a guided tour of Op. 599 and demonstrate my favourite exercises, showing how I use each of them to develop specific technical and musical skills. I also suggest practice strategies and explain how to avoid common mistakes.

I do hope that these videos will provide a good starting point for everyone who is curious “to dip” into an amazing discovery of the wealth of Carl Czerny’s pianistic and pedagogical knowledge captured so imaginatively in these small, pretty exercises!

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Ilga’s complete guide to Czerny’s Practical Method for Beginners (Op. 599) is available for once-off purchase here or with an Online Academy subscription. Please click here to find out more about subscription options, or click here to view the series index if you are already a subscriber.

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Further links & resources

  • Developing a Balanced Technique – In this video lecture series, Ilga Pitkevica shares insights into approaches and strategies for achieving “pianistic fitness” based on her experience of the traditions of the Russian School of piano playing. Click here to view.
  • Foundations of Good Technique – Video lecture series on how to teach good pianistic habits and ease of movements from the start, and tackle problems in piano playing caused by lack of flexibility. Click here to view.
  • Elementary Technique (Introduction and Basics) – The first module in the Online Academy’s technique library exploring the basics of piano technique, covering seating position, posture, whole-arm and legato touches. Click here to view or click here for more information on other modules.
  • Mastering Piano Technique – Part 2 of Graham Fitch’s Practising the Piano eBook series provides an overview of different schools and traditions through to an extensive listing of technical exercises. Click here for more information.

There are many further resources on piano technique in the Online Academy’s growing technique library. Click here to view an index of available resources.