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Czerny's Letters on the Art of Playing the Piano

Letter I. | Letter II. | Letter III. | Letter IV. | Letter V. | Letter VI.
First Rudiments of the Piano.

When I, some years ago, had the pleasure of being personally acquainted with your family, I discovered in you so decided a talent for music, that I am rejoiced to hear you are now really about to devote yourself to the delightful art of playing the pianoforte. Your memory, at that time, easily retained any agreeable melody which you heard; you manifested a natural feeling for time and musical expression; and, added to this, your delicate fingers and hands possessed all the natural qualities so necessary for playing the pianoforte - flexibility, quickness of movement, and lightness, without being either too weak or too stiff.

So decided a disposition and inclination for this fine art could not, in truth, remain long dormant; for no art is more noble, nor more surely indicative of general mental cultivation, than music. By it we can command, not only for one's self, but for many others, a dignified and appropriate amusement; and, where great progress has been made, we also insure a degree of distinction in the world, which is as agreeable to the amateur as to the professional artist.

The first principals, namely, a knowledge of the keys and the notes, are the only really tedious and unpleasant points in learning music. When you have once conquered them, you will every day experience more and more amusement and delight in continuing you studies.

Consider the matter as if you were for a time compelled to wend you way among somewhat tangled an thorny bushes, in order to arrive at last at a charming prospect, and a spot always blooming in vernal beauty.

The best remedy against this disagreeable necessity is, to endeavor to fix these preliminary subject on your memory as firmly and quickly as possible. Such pupils as manifest from the very outset, a desire and love for the thing, and who strongly and rationally apply their memories to the matter, will acquire a perfect knowledge of the keys and notes in a few weeks; while other, frightened at the apparent tediousness of the acquisition often lose several months in attaining the same object. Which, then of these two ways is the better?

Before anything else, I earnestly entreat you to acquire a graceful and appropriate position when sitting at the pianoforte. The seat which you use must be just so high, that the elbows, when hanging down freely, may be a very little less elevated than the upper surface of the keys; and if your feet should not reach the ground, have a dwarf stool or ottoman made of a proper height to place them upon. You must always seat yourself exactly facing the middle of the keyboard, and at such a distance from it that the tips of the elbows may be a little nearer to the keys than the shoulders.

Equally important is a graceful position and carriage of the head and upper part of the chest; it must neither be stiff nor bent.

It is not merely that an awkward position is disagreeable and ridiculous, but it also impedes, if not prevents, the development of a free and elegant style of playing.

The fore part of the arm (from the elbow to the fingers) should form a perfectly straight horizontal line; for the hand must neither rise upwards like a bell, nor be bent so as to slope downwards.

The fingers are to be so bent, that the tips of them, together with that of the thumb, when extended outwards, may form one right line, and so that the keys may always be struck with the soft and fleshly tips of the fingers, and that neither the nails nor the flat surface of the fingers shall touch the keys. In striking the black keys, the fingers must be stretched out a little more; but even in this case they must always remain sufficiently bent.

The percussion on the keys is effected solely by the fingers, which, without any actual blow, must press each key firmly down; and in doing this, neither the hand nor the arm must be allowed to make any unnecessary movements. The thumb should always strike the key with its external narrow surface, and in so doing it must be but very little bent.

The white keys are to be struck on the middle of their anterior broad surfaces, and the black keys pretty close to their nearest extremities or ends.

You must take great care that you do not strike any key sideways or obliquely; as otherwise, an contiguous and wrong key may chance to be touched, and in music, nothing is worse than producing wrong sounds.

While on finger strikes, the other fingers must be kept close to the keys, but always bent, and posed quite freely in the air; for we must not touch any key before the moment in which it is to be struck.

The most important of the fingers is the thumb; it must never be allowed to hang down below the key-board; but, on the contrary, it should always be held over the keys in such a way that its tip may be elevated a little higher than the upper surface of the black keys; and is must strike from this position.

To observe all these rules exactly, it is requisite that the elbows should never be too distant from the body; and that the arms, from the shoulder downwards, should hang freely, without being pressed against the body.

The knowledge of the notes is a mere affair of memory; and for every note, you must endeavor to find and strike the proper key, on the instant and without the least hesitation. In music this constitutes what is called reading the notes; and when you shall have acquired this readiness, you will have overcome the most difficult thing which elementary objects in music will be likely to present to you.

At first you will naturally learn only the notes in the treble clef; and for this purpose we may employ the following means:-

First. When you look at a note, you must name it aloud, and then seek for and strike the key which belongs to it.

Secondly. When you strike at hazard any white key on the treble side of the kay-board, you must name it aloud, and seed directly for the note belonging to it.

Thirdly. After having struck any white key at hazard, you must describe aloud, in words, what line or what space it represents.

Fourthly. You must often play through, slowly, some of the easiest pieces for beginners, note by note, and with great attention, naming each note as you proceed.

Fifthly. I must also recommend you to adopt the following expedient: since you are already much advanced in writing, you must learn to write music. The little trouble that this will cost, you will find amply recompensed by great advantages. Notes are much easier to write than letters; and, if you daily devote a quarter of an hour to this task, in a couple of weeks you will become sufficiently expert at it.

Your teacher will give you the instructions requisite for this purpose; and when you have been in this way accustomed to place the notes as they come, exactly on or between the lines, copy out daily one of the easiest elementary lessons, and then write in letter over each note its proper denomination; after which, play the piece over slowly.

When, in this way, you have learned to know perfectly all the degrees in the treble clef, and are able to play slowly, but correctly, with both hands, all those little pieces in my School, which are written for both hands in the treble clef, then take the bass notes, and proceed with them just in the same manner.

You must practise each piece, paying the strictest attention to the fingering indicated, till you are able to execute it without stopping or stumbling. Each day you should read through a couple of fresh little pieces, to accustom the eye and the fingers to the various and ever new passages which are formed by means of the notes.

At first, after each note, we must also look at the key which is to be struck; but afterwards, when we have attained a tolerable certainty in finding the keys, it is better to fix the eye on the notes rather than on the keys.

And now allow me in this letter to offer this last very important remark: the best knowledge of the notes avails us very little, if, at the same time, the fingers do not begin to develop that degree of flexibility which is requisite for striking the keys, and for playing in general. I, therefore, most earnestly recommend you to practise daily, with untiring diligence and the greatest attention, five-finger exercises in both hands, which your instructor will explain to you, in order that your fingers may speedily acquire that pliability, independence, and volubility, which are absolutely necessary to playing.

Do not be alarmed at the little trouble and application that this may require; try three or four times every day, for at least a quarter of an hour each time, to play through the exercises with attention. In fact, it is as impossible to play the piano-forte well with stiff and untractable fingers, as to dance well with stiff and untractable feet. Volubility of finger is one of the chief requisites is pianoforte playing.

It is very proper that your teacher gives you an hour's lesson every day. If, in addition to this, you daily dedicate another hour - or, if possible, two hours - to practising by yourself, you will in a few months have forever conquered all that is difficult or tedious in the elementary branches of playing; and you will each day see augmented the pleasure which the delightful art of music so richly bestows on its votaries.

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