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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.
Two Months Later
On the Keys, on Studying a Piece, and on Playing in the Presence of Others.

You are now will acquainted with all the twenty-four keys, and with the scales and chords belonging to them, and it is with pleasure I learn that you even now daily play through all the scales and passages in them as diligently as you formerly did those in the twelve major keys; and that you acknowledge the many advantages of these exercises, by which also you save yourself the labor of wading through so many tedious études, or professional studies.

One of the most necessary acquirements for a pianist is to be equally practised and ready in all the keys. There are many who are as much startled at a piece having for or five sharps or flats for its signature as though they saw a spectre. And, nevertheless, to the fingers all keys are in reality of equal difficulty; for there are as difficult compositions in C major as in C sharp major. Only that the eye and the memory must be early accustomed to this great number of marks of transposition.

As, in such unusual keys, the black keys must be principally employed, and as they are narrower than the white ones, and therefore less certain as to the striking of them; it is absolutely requisite, on the part of the player, that he should keep his hand particularly firm, and somewhat higher than usual over the keys, and employ a very decided touch in order to acquire the same degree of certainty as on the white keys.

You complain that the studying of difficult pieces still costs you much time and labor. There is a certain remedy against this, which I may call the art of studying, and which I impart to you, as far as it can be done in writing.

There are pupils who study such compositions attentively enough, it is true, but so slowly, and with such frequent interruptions, that these pieces become tedious and disagreeable to them before they have half learned them. Such pupils often take half a year to learn a few pieces tolerably; and by this wasteful expenditure of time, always remain in the background.

Others, on the contrary, try to conquer every thing by force; and imagine that they shall succeed in this by practising for hours, laboriously indeed, but in an inattentive and thoughtless manner, and by hastily playing over all kinds of difficulties innumerable times. These persons play till their fingers are lamed; but how? confusedly, over-hastily, and without expression; or, what is still worse, with a false expression.

We may escape all this by keeping the right medium between these two ways. When, therefore, you begin to learn a new and somewhat difficult piece, you must devote the first hours to deciphering the notes strictly and correctly in a slow time. You must also fix upon the fingering to be employed, and gain a general insight over the whole. This, in a single piece, can at most require but a few days. Then the whole piece must be played over quietly and composedly, but at the same time attentively, and without any distraction of ideas, till we are enabled to execute it without trouble, and in the exact time indicated by the author.

Single passages of great difficulty may be practised apart. Still, however, they ought to be often repeated in connection with the rest of the piece.

All this too may be completed in a few days. But now begins the time when we must also learn to play with beauty and elegance

Now all the marks of expression must be observed with redoubled attention; and we must endeavor to seize correctly on the character of the composition, and to enforce it in our performance according to its total effect.

To this belongs the very important quality, that the player should know how to listen properly to himself, and to judge of his own performance with accuracy. He who does not possess this gift, is apt, in practising alone, to spoil all that he has acquired correctly in the presence of his teacher.

But I must one more remind you that we can only study new pieces quickly and well, when we have not forgotten those already learned. There are, alas! many pupils who play only that piece well which they have just been taught. All those acquired before are neglected and thrown aside. Such pupils will never make any great progress. For you must own, that those persons who play fifty pieces well, are much more clever, than those who, like a bird organ, can only play two or three pieces in a tolerable manner: and that the first, by a proper employment of our time, is very possible, I believe I have already said to you.

Your teacher has acted very properly in early accustoming you to play occasionally before others. At first this, as you write to me, was very disagreeable to you, and you felt much frightened in so doing. " But now," say you, " I think nothing of it; nay, it generally gives me great pleasure, particularly when all goes off well." And there you are quite right. To what purpose do we learn, but to give pleasure, not only to ourselves, but also to our parents and friends? And assuredly there is no higher satisfaction than in being able to distinguish one's self before a large company, and in receiving an honorable acknowledgment of one's diligence and talent.

But, to bring matters to this point, we must be thoroughly sure of our business; for want of success is, on the contrary, as vexatious as tormenting and disgraceful. Above all, you must select, for this purpose, such compositions as are fully within your powers, and respecting the good effect of which you can entertain no doubt. Every difficult piece becomes double difficult when we play it before others, because the natural diffidence of the performer impedes the free development of his abilities.

Many half-formed players imagine that every thing will be right, if they do but step forward at once with a difficult piece by some celebrated composer. But by this means they neither do honor to the composition nor to themselves; but merely expose themselves to the danger of exciting ennui, and, at best, of being applauded from politeness and compassion.

Many, otherwise very good players, have in this manner, by an unsuitable choice of pieces, lost both their musical reputation and all future confidence in themselves.

When playing before others, you should particularly endeavor to execute your well-studied piece with tranquility and self-possession, without hurrying, without allowing your ideas to wander, and more especially without coming to a stand-still; for this last is the most unpleasant fault which we can commit before an audience.

Before you commence, the fingers must be kept quite warm; you must avoid any inconvenient mode of dress; and you should, if possible, always play on a pianoforte with which you are will acquainted; for an instrument, of which the touch is much lighter or much heavier than that which one is accustomed to, may very much confuse a player.

But it may often happen that you are suddenly required, in the company of intimate acquaintance, to play over some trifle to them.

It is very necessary, therefore, that you should study and commit to memory a number of easy, but tasteful pieces, so that, on such occasions, you may be able to play them by heart; for it appears rather childish to be obliged, for every trifle, to turn over one's collection of music; or, when in a strange place, to be always obliged to draw back, with an excuse "that you cannot play any thing by heart."

For this purpose, short rondos, pretty airs with variations, melodies from operas, nay, even dance tunes, waltzes, quadrilles, marches, &c., are perfectly suitable; for every thing does credit to the player which is well played.

The playing before others has also the great advantage that it compels one to study with unusual zeal. For the idea that we must play before an audience, spurs us on to a much greater measure of diligence than if we play only to ourselves.

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