Technique Matters - Studying Etudes
by Hao Huang
ome readers have asked me to make a few comments about etudes. Used selectively, they can be quite helpful, in terms of developing finger independence and articulation, coordinating wrist and forearm movement, and focusing on elbow positioning. However, they are not a panacea for a fundamentally flawed technique. Make sure to study these etudes with a responsible, well-trained teacher who can analyze passage work to determine the technical principles behind each etude.
I reiterate my belief that systematic practicing of scales and arpeggios constitutes the best form of warm-up. These can be followed by specific technical exercises or etude practice which addresses particular problems found in current works being studied. After working your way through various exercises by Pischna, Kramer, Philipp, Hanon and Czerny, take a look at some of the technical exercises for the piano by Clementi, Hummel, Liszt and Brahms. Muzio Clementi's Gradus ad Parnassum has been immortalized by Debussy's eponymous work which makes fun of the title. However, the Clementi works are worthy of study in and of themselves, in their diversity of style and variety of finger patterns. Although Mozart's pupil Johann Nepomuk Hummel has been often maligned as lacking inventiveness or creative imagination, he was renowned as the great pianist of the late classical period. His 24 Etudes, Op. 125, are a summation of the classical piano writing, and demonstrate a variety and delicacy that is charming. They make a perfect technical complement for students working on Mozart piano concerti, Haydn piano sonatas, and/or early Beethoven piano works. These are forgotten treasures which are useful in mastering classical piano writing.
I have found some of the exercises attributed to Franz Liszt (edited by Julio Esteban) to be quite helpful in preparing students to play his works. Make sure to focus on wrist staccato and finger articulation. The Johannes Brahms works can be particularly effective for working on stretching the hands to encompass his thick, widely spaced compositional style. These are wonderful introductions to each composer, respectively. Although Chopin's Etudes are the most commonly used pieces of their type by piano students, I would like to recommend that students begin by looking at the 15 Virtuoso Etudes, Op. 72 by Moritz Moszkowski. These are excellent preparation for Chopin and Rachmaninoff piano compositions. In addition, Moszkowski wrote the 3 Concert Studies, Op. 24 - No. 1 is a good left hand exercise. Another lesser known work is the 24 Studies for Perfection, Op. 70, by Ignaz Moscheles. Chopin is said to have studied and taught these rather gymnastic pieces, which focus on strength, agility and caprice.
The last group of preliminary etudes which I will mention are by Edward MacDowell, the Twelve Studies, Op. 39, which are excellent for cultivating independence of fingers as well as forearm fluency and wrist flexibility. All of these works demand maintenance of a relaxed wrist position with smooth lateral motion led by the forearm. They also train finger independence and arm weight transfer.
Next we will cover the famous etudes, Op. 10 and 25, by Frederic Chopin. They represent the apogee of systematic composition of etudes, since each work focuses on one or two basic technical principles. Many of the Op. 10 etudes demand concentration on forearm rotation and wrist drop, in order to facilitate fluency and consistent accuracy. Too often, pianists treat these as finger studies. THESE ARE NOT SIMPLE FINGER EXERCISES!! Do not make the mistake of concentrating on finger independence to the exclusion of wrist and arm motion -- otherwise, you will never master these works. Lack of full arm and wrist integration in technique is the single greatest flaw propagated by unenlightened piano teachers -- it results in discomfort, pain and even crippling injuries. Teachers must be super-conscious of the "choreography" of Romantic piano technique to teach these etudes well.
Other brilliant etudes include the wonderful Three Concert Etudes and Two Concert Etudes by Franz Liszt -- among the most useful of these are La leggierezza, Waldesrauschen and Gnomenreigen. Do not even attempt the Six Paganini Etudes or the 12 Etudes d'execution transcendante without much preliminary work in the Liszt technical exercises and concert etudes. Robert Schumann also wrote the delightful Six Studies after Caprices by Paganini, Op. 3, which includes a set of exercises to help solve technical problems. For teaching delicacy of touch and finger release, these rather faithful transcriptions are very helpful technical works. Johannes Brahms wrote the curious Five Studies Arranged from the Works of Other Composers, which offer iconoclastic training in musical perception, and tone and touch control.
Reaching our twentieth century, a pianist encounters extremely taxing etudes which can be paralyzingly intimidating. Learning to master these etudes is a key to understanding and playing these twentieth century composers convincingly and fluently. Claude Debussy's Twelve Etudes are much respected and no little feared. They should be played by amateur pianists more often than they are. These works deal with the most varied and challenging musical as well as technical problems - dynamic contrast, rhythmic grace, fast physical transitions, beautiful tone and finger articulation. Pour les "cinq doigts" d'apres Monsieur Czerny, pour les huit doigts, pour les Notes repetees are among the more accessible pieces of this useful set. Sergei Rachmaninoff's Etudes-Tableaux are renowned miniature tone-poems. Their musical and technical challenges are immense - 3, 4 and 7 are particularly striking. I would recommend studying the Preludes Op. 23 and Op. 32 as preparation before tackling these masterworks. Alexander Scriabin's etudes are also renowned among pianists. His early Chopinesque writing evolved into a unique individual style characterized by melodic leaps, irregular rhythmic groupings, much use of trills and lush harmonies - this, coupled with his emphasis on fourths, requires developing new keyboard skills. The challenge is to thin out Scriabin's chokingly thick piano writing, in order to clarify textures and melodic writing. And although these are minor works of the composers' oeuvres, Sergei Prokofiev's Four Etudes Op. 2, and Igor Stravinsky's Four Etudes Op. 7, represent a wonderful pedagogical introduction to their piano writings. They should not be ignored.
This discussion of etudes is based on an entirely personal selection of familiar favorites. I welcome other pianists to volunteer useful etudes by other composers, coupled with brief descriptions of the works. I hope that this article can serve as a point of departure for future discussion of etudes and the place they have in the piano repertoire. I look forward to hearing from you!