Etudes are studies that target a particular element of technique. Many composers have written etudes. Chopin wrote 27 that are so beautiful they are concert pieces.
The king of etudes (and the first person to call one of his pieces an etude) is Carl Czerny. He studied with Beethoven and went on to become a successful composer and teacher himself. His School of Velocity has been used for over 150 years by piano students all over the world. As the name suggests, these pieces are designed to help the pianist develop speed. I particularly like the collection called Selected Piano Studies.
Learn one hand at a time, starting with your more dominant hand. Some measures will be harder than others. Mark those measures and turn them into little exercises, playing them through many times every day. I start by playing them at least ten times, and the last time must be perfect or I keep working. As I improve on those little snippets, I try to play them perfectly three times in a row, then ten times in a row.
When you can play the entire etude well with separate hands, then put the two hands together.
Play it as slowly as you need to play it correctly, then work on increasing your speed. (You can buy an inexpensive metronome or find one online or download a metronome app.) I start by playing at a comfortable speed, finding my number of beats per minute (bpm) by experimenting with different settings on the metronome, writing that number on my music, and gradually increasing the speed anywhere from 1-10 bpm at a time.
You can work your way through the book practicing up to four etudes at a time, playing each one 4-10 times. Again, systematically rotate through them to review the ones you’ve already mastered.
Thoroughly learning scales will enable you to play pieces in all keys, major and minor. It is helpful, before practicing a piece, to run through its scale first, along with a progression of chords in that scale.
If you are just beginning to learn your scales, start with the key of C. It is the simplest, because it doesn’t have any sharps or flats. Then progress through the Circle of Fifths. Traveling clockwise or counterclockwise through the circle will add one sharp or flat to the pattern. (Don’t make me try to explain why—just know that music, like everything else in the natural world, is governed by physics and mathematics.)
The Hanon and Schmitt exercise books have scales sections. Refer to these so you can see where the black keys fall and also which fingers to use for each note. Fingering is important; these tried and true fingerings will help you play smoothly with ease.
For the sake of being systematic, learn all the major scales first; then progress through the minors. There are two kinds of minor scales that pianists need to know: harmonic and melodic. The harmonic minor scales are what composers use when writing the harmonic scheme of a piece in a minor key; they use the melodic when writing the melody. The melodic minor is different ascending and descending. (Don’t ask me why, that’s just the way it is. Some intervals sound better going up than going down.)
Start by practicing one octave (eight note unit) going up and coming back down again. Learn the scale first in your more dominant hand, then the other hand, then both hands together, an octave apart.
When you can play one-octave scales in each key well, try two octaves, then three (it helps to group your notes in threes), then four (think groups of four sixteenth notes).
Then learn to play them in contrary motion. Starting with both of your thumbs on the same note, let your right hand go up (right) and your left hand go down (left) in the sequence of the key for one octave, two octaves, or three octaves, then reverse direction and move back to the starting note.
Warming up is just the appetizer of your practice session. Spending time on exercises, etudes, and scales will prepare your brain and your muscles for the entree of your practice: making beautiful music out of notes on a page.
This concludes my two-part series on How to Practice Piano: The Warm-Up. In a future post, I’ll write about practicing repertoire, explaining how you can make your practice time most productive.
Did you find this post helpful? Is there something you would add to the practice of etudes and scales? Please post a comment below.