Tension, Czerny Studies and strong coffee………..!

Twitter is often full of meaningless chit chat which can be great fun, but last night I had a slightly more serious exchange with a fellow pianist about piano technique. It made me realise that I discuss very little about technique here on my blog, probably because most of the posts are aimed at beginners or those who are at a relatively early stage of playing the piano. However, sometimes it’s interesting to go ‘off piste’ and discuss more advanced piano playing which can also be helpful to  those who are just starting out.

Tension is a huge problem in piano playing and although it often starts in the early stage of learning, if not continuely corrected, it can develop into full blown repetitive strain injury or tendonitis. There are so many musicians with this awful condition and once established, it is difficult to eradicate. Much of my time as a piano teacher is spent correcting bad or inappropriate technique especially in adults or more advanced players, who have unwittingly allowed the problem to get out of hand.

I love teaching technique and could wax lyrical about it for hours on blog posts (so do let me know if you want more info!) and I was extremely fortunate in having a brilliant teacher to help me with this crucial aspect of development. My professor insisted on Czerny studies (and other studies too). In fact all my teachers from the beginning have insisted on this and I also believe that they are the best way to learn complete physical freedom in piano playing. It isn’t a quick solution though because it can take several years to practice them in the correct way necessary for improvement.

The Art of Finger Dexterity by Czerny Op. 740 was the ‘bible’ (although I practised lots of the other Czerny study volumes too) which I was encouraged to play at great force and all from memory (in fact I memorised each hand separately to play to my teacher too – which wasn’t easy at all!). I studied two or three every week and remember practising them first thing in the morning for an hour or two. They were swiflty followed by a strong coffee and some Liszt incidentally!

When studying technnique, I find it necessary to practice with complete finger independence in mind i.e. all five fingers working on their own and preferably on the ‘tips’ of fingers (playing with flat fingers works for some but I find that using the fingertips is much more effective for clarity and rapidity too). The wrist causes problems for most students. High wrists or stiff low wrists merely exacerbate tension and if continued, make playing at speed and with great power impossible or at least very difficult. So it’s best if the whole arm is encouraged to be flexible right down to the wrist (this seems to be the best way to produce a rich warm and deep sound too). Fingers should work alone from the knuckles so in effect the whole arm is just supporting the fingers and allowing for beautiful tone production. Fourth and fifth fingers are always weak so they need special attention and lots of work normally. Try keeping your wrists as free as possible by keeping them moving so they are fluid.

Whilst I have explained (as best I can) the basics of good technique, it’s one area of playing that really needs to be coached in person. Adults and teenagers find changing the way they play awkward and soul destroying at first, but they soon realise they feel better once they start releasing their tension problems and almost immediately their stiffness goes away. No-one really enjoys practising Czerny or similar studies, but they do help significantly when developing a strong and free technique, provided that the students are shown correctly – like any piano study, it’s all too easy to sit and play aimlessly, so you do need to know exactly how to work at these exercises. Find a teacher who can explain and demonstrate all of the above.

You can purchase my book, So You Want To Play The Piano?, which is packed wth practice tips and useful information, here.

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27 thoughts on “Tension, Czerny Studies and strong coffee………..!

  1. I’m not a highly trained pianist at your level, but I did work on Czerny with my first teacher, and I feel now that what she emphasized was not correct: everything was fingers, no mention of wrist, and it was all very stiff and square. I’ve looked at these studies occasionally in the years since then, and they look like fun, but they seem like they would take a lot of practice time that I would rather spend on something more musical that I could actually perform somewhere. I do practice scales and some short exercises every day (guided by my piano teacher). What are your thoughts on the relative importance of Czerny-type etudes for the adult amateur, given our usually limited practice time?

  2. Hi Harriet, Czerny studies do take up practice time…there’s no doubt about that, so probably the best way to work for an adult amateur would be to practice the very simple exercises and work at them in the correct way. Making sure that each finger plays properly alone (especially the 4th and 5th fingers) to the bottom of the key whilst keeping the wrist free. That’s how I work with adult amateurs. It does’t take long every day but you will find that your wrists become more pliable and flexible and the fingers will start to work independently. You don’t have to play the more demanding studies to achieve a better technique – hope that’s some help.

  3. Thanks, Melanie — did you mean Op. 261, though?

    My teacher gave me an exercise that I think is somewhat along those lines, using the fingers and not the wrist:

    Hold down each finger on a note and tap each adjacent key with the next finger, allowing the other fingers on that side to move as a relaxed unit. So you would hold a C, for example, with the thumb, and then play the D with the index finger, keeping the other fingers close and relaxed. Then hold down index finger on D, play the C with the thumb. Then hold down D with the index finger, play E with middle finger, and so on.

  4. Pingback: 10 Top Tips for Successful Piano Practice in 2014 | The Classical Piano and Music Education Blog

  5. Hello Melanie,

    Thanks for the post and for your conversations on youtube( I discovered your channel listening to your discussion with Katsaris). This is a nice topic with tons of different views. I would ask you why not use baroque music to build up technique? Scarlatti is the foundation of keyboard(thus piano) technique. Many Cramer etudes for instance are very Scarlatti-like, because Cramer studied his sonatas. The works of Scarlatti, Handel, Bach, Cimarosa, Soler and co. provide both excellent technical work and musical value. But I think in the end, it does not matter the way one choses, you always have to be aware of what you’re doing, make the most beautiful, effortless sound possible. Always easier said than done… It takes time, patience and concentration.

    Thank you for the opportunity to learn!

  6. Hi Melanie, Thanks for your wonderful thoughtful post. I am a teacher, accompanist and multi-instrumentalist finally finding a decent amount of time for solo rep and have been getting into Czerny Op 740 No 1 and 2. For relatively short studies, there really is so much to gain from them – I wish I’d looked at these when I was a student. With Op 740 No 1, it’s also a challenge to turn it into a pleasant piece of music – lots of of work to do on voicing especially as well as the obvious challenges in even fast scales. To me, No 2 almost wants to play itself as a nice little concert etude.

    Different schools of technique are of interest to me. I notice you say that “fingers should work alone from the knuckles”. Do you believe that shoulder impulses and/or arm weight are a significant part of playing or do you think that is just a fantasy? I’m always fascinated by the way that performers with very different concepts of technique can produce equally great results.

    Hope you don’t mind, I’ve reblogged this page. Best wishes, Dan

    • Hi Dan, thank you so much for your interesting comments. I do believe that arm weight is crucial….but it should all be flexibly incorporated and fingers should be able to function independently, so that they move freely from the knuckles without much involvement from the wrist. I think this is where the problems occur, when wrists become stiff and tense. It is quite difficult to explain in writing and much easier to demonstrate so forgive my explanations! Very best wishes, Melanie

      • That does make sense. I think a lot of people confuse “involving” the wrist with locking fingers/knuckles/hand and using the wrist exclusively. I love your phrase “flexibly incorporated”, I will appropriate that! I’ve also heard people talk about the joints in the arm down to the wrist acting as a “delivery device” getting the fingers to where they can work most easily and efficiently.

  7. ”No-one really enjoys practising Czerny or similar studies”. I have never understood why so many go on bitching about Czerny. I like them 🙂

  8. I just found your blog and I’m in love! =D
    It’s so useful!

    I’m not a classical pianist, so studies are really really really hard for me. I always struggled with my left hand reading, so one day my teacher decided to give me some exercises to practice. I have an awful laziness to read notes, and I can play very well by ear, so I end up relying on that which became an awful vice. So I know what all the notes are and where they are supposed to be, but my sight reading is somewhat weak. And then I saw my teacher took Hanon out of her bookshelf. I was horrified. My first piano teacher used to give me only that to play and I found it so boring that in the end I became a very Hanon traumatized person.

    I told that to her, so she gave me a somewhat easy Czerny study and it caught my interest. Then I went to look on youtube and was just marveled and how beautiful some of them are. Some are somewhat boring, but lots of them are so beautiful. Czerny is my absolute studies favorite.

    I guess the problem with those exercises, not just Czerny’s but all of them, are the people themselves who play it, and the way they are taught. Let’s face it, some like exercises, and some not. So the ones who like it will defend how they are useful, and the ones who don’t will be more cautions to defend them. At least that’s my experience =)

    Another problem also, is that a lot of people think that those exercises alone are the things which will make someone a good pianist, and they tend to forget that is not just that. So the teachers teach their students only them and after a while it becomes a dreadful experience, and unfortunately those students are traumatized in the end and will never want to learn piano again. I was fortunate to not have that fate, because I changed teachers.

    It must be a balance. The teacher must be able to give those exercises and also let the student play what they want. At least that’s what my teacher does, and in that way learning is not boring. And I think a lot of teachers don’t know how to balance the boring part (exercises) with the fun part , and because of that those exercises end up being very underrated when in actuality they are very useful if taught in an adequate way. And honestly, I think that’s a shame =(

  9. Hi Melanie, I agree that some of the studies of Czerny could be fun to be learned. I would like to know if you recommend studies from op. 740 that you find especially usefull? What do you think about the trillstudy op.740 nr.22. Does it really improve the way of playing trills s they usually occur in classical pieces?

    • Hi Nicola, Many thanks for your comment and for reading my blog. I like Op.740 – this is the volume I played a lot when I was young. I worked through most of the book and all the studies are of use. However, I feel the most important issue with any of these pieces is the way they are practised. If you can harness technical freedom, i.e. a free wrist and strong fingers whilst producing a good/full sound as you work at them, then you will improve. It’s probably not a good idea to just play through them without being aware of what you want to achieve. So if you want to improve trills, then you could just work at one of the trill studies, working in small passages, clarifying and honing your trill technique, otherwise it won’t improve. It’s probably of no benefit just to play the studies through a few times…..No. 22 is a actually good for lateral moving trills too as you need to use your thumb and fifth finger frequently.
      Hope this is some help?

  10. I was trained long ago at the Esatman School with hours of Czerny studies that emphasized independence of the fingers “from the knuckles”. This was totally typical 30 years ago and I never questioned my training. By my mid-twenties, however, I was so severely injured that I was no longer able to play. Years later, I have at long last found a technique which is enabling me to relearn how to play without tension (developed by Barbara Lister-Sink, formerly at Eastman coincidentally). Instead of using the fingers as individual levers (which creates so much tension in the hand and forearm), I am now learning to play with “finger columns”, using the fingers almost as one unit with the hand. The freedom and release in playing this way is remarkable. I surely wish I had never spent all those hours perfecting my Czerny studies – maybe my musical career would not have been derailed.

  11. I’m baffled about all the Czerny bashing.
    I’m call myself a beginner adult when it comes to piano, so I’m working at Op 599. And it really confirms that I’m at a beginning level.
    But I just love doing those pieces. I don’t play them as “exercises” but as musical pieces and work at bringing out the melody and making it flow. And they are the best for hand independence that I’ve found so far. They don’t take forever to learn…2-4 days at where I’m at in the book atm….but longer later on. So I don’t get bored and I see progress all the time.
    I.e. I’m on #33 right now…and it takes quite some work to get complete hand independence and rapid execution (16th note scale runs up and down in LH esp.).
    Seeing all the Czerny bashing makes me wonder if there is something wrong with me if I like working at those skills.
    I can’t figure it out.

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