• Adam Hope

Czerny's 3 stages of studying a piece

I came across an extract in Czerny's Pianoforte Schule (v. 3, p. 70) which I found useful as a reminder of some of the good old-fashioned basics that we all learn at some point in our piano studies. For the record, I tend to take Czerny with a pinch of salt, both technically and musically. The trick with Czerny is to sort out the invaluable insights and pockets of stellar advice from the outdated and long-discredited technical and methodological fallacies, with their excessive focus on the 'independent' action of the fingers. But in this little article by Czerny–'On the proper manner of studying a piece'–there are a few valuable insights, and I've attempted to extract and summarise these below. The only other thing to say before I get stuck in is that my summary is taken from an English translation by a contemporaneous London publisher (with Czerny's approval).

1. Learn to play the piece correctly

By 'correctly', Czerny is referring to the process of getting-to-grips with the basic notes of a composition. His first stipulation is to " for, and practise the best possible mode of fingering." That is, analyse the patterns and provide yourself with the most logical fingerings according to the technical demands of the music.

Czerny's second piece of advice in the first stage is to "...carefully observe the strictest purity and correctness, in regard to the value of the notes and character which the piece contains." According to Czerny, we cannot play with the right degree of movement–broadly speaking, how fast or slow the piece is to be played, with the various degrees of manipulation e.g. rit., allargando, etc. (v. 1, p. 156)–until we are thoroughly acquainted with the fingering of a piece. To achieve this initial security, the first playing should be 'in a very slow time'. Slow practice, folks.

So Czerny's priorities at the outset of the learning process are:

  1. Establish correct fingering;

  2. Observing the element of time (rhythm and duration) with diligence, and noting the dynamic characteristics along the way;

  3. All of this to be done using slow practice.

2. The attainment of the correct speed

The second 'period' of learning (as Czerny calls it) is "practising the time prescribed by the Author [composer]". But before we can approach this stage, it's necessary to have surmounted all of the technical obstacles involved in the piece i.e., until you have fingerings secure and have identified and conquered the technical challenges in slow motion, don't attempt to increase the speed of these challenges.

However, once this is achieved, the piece is to be played over many times without interruption, gradually increasing the tempo with each repetition until the prescribed speed is attained. Czerny also goes on to say that we cannot gauge or realise the correct gradations of time and tone until we have mastered the prescribed tempo of the music. However, we should attend diligently attend to dynamic markings in the second stage of learning.

Stage 2 is basically: A complete reading of the piece in toto, proceeding by increased degrees of speed until the written tempo is achieved, whilst still observing all the ordinary dynamic markings.

3. Stylistic execution

In the third and final 'period', Czerny includes the detailed study of all gradations of light and shade, further study of the expressive markings (including, he states, those markings which modify time and tone in more complex ways), and finally "taking counsel of our own feelings"... a subject more broadly subjective and open for debate, but not to be dismissed; Ultimately, this is the individual artistic input that defines the final stages of interpretation.

The rest of Czerny's article is in a typical 19th century loquacious style. In a somewhat verbose manner he explores various addendums to the main topic, including performance etiquette and aesthetics, to name only a couple.

However, what lies at the heart of the article is the bread-and-butter method of learning a piece that we all came across at some point in our lessons. Whilst I would not learn in this manner all of the time (if for no other reason than educational psychology has developed theories to show us that this would be wholly inadequate), I think it's worth an occasional re-reading, and it is good to have documented. Every now and then, it bears fruit to 'go back to basics'.

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