Masterclass: Carl Czerny - Entrada

May 19, 2022

Masterclass: Carl Czerny

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Carl Czerny gets a bad rap. I admit, I’ve dissed some of his works. Like the Hanon exercises, Czerny’s works are sometimes assigned as though they will magically further a student’s technique. But playing some of the longer pieces may be a huge mistake by reinforcing inefficient technical habits and inhibiting real growth.

Don’t get me wrong–that ineffective approach isn’t limited to playing long etudes by Czerny. Practicing all of a six-page Chopin Etude (or any piece) when one hasn’t really solved how to play the first page with interdependent technique has the same effect. You’ve probably heard of Malcolm Gladwell’s theory that it takes 10,000 hours of intensive practice to attain mastery of complex skills. But Gladwell himself cautions:

If you are a duffer at golf, say, and make the same mistakes every time you try a certain swing or putt, 10,000 hours of practicing that error will not improve your game. You’ll still be a duffer, albeit an older one.

Czerny has been unfairly maligned for this kind of practice. It’s not Czerny’s fault!

So why do we continue to play Czerny etudes and exercises? Is Czerny worthy of respect, and did he compose works of merit? (Spoiler alert: Yes!)

First, let’s recall that as Beethoven’s pupil, Czerny shares invaluable insights in his book, On the Proper Performance of All Beethoven’s Works for the Piano. He became one of the most important teachers of his time, counting Heller, Thalberg and, most famously, Liszt among his students. He reportedly taught as many as twelve students a day and composed prolifically, publishing through Opus 861!

After I began teaching, I became a big fan of the first 38 of Czerny’s 160 Eight-Measure Exercises, Op. 821. Since then, I’ve found similar value in many of the short pieces from his Practical Exercises for Beginners, Op. 599 and 125 Passage-Exercises, Op. 261. Being able to solve problems in 8 or 16 measures and moving on to new challenges has been an important part of successful development for many of my students.

Partly because of its length, I’d categorize the 16-measure exercise Op. 261 No. 3 as “late elementary.” However, I regularly encounter intermediate and advanced students who benefit from refining their technical form–and even their stylistic response–through works such as this one.

Op. 261 No. 3 features basic three-dimensional shaping in five-note figures, focused staccato, and early application of the vibrato technique in a charming, lilting dance in 3/8.




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