Are you a pianist who has come from a tradition studies and exercises – a diet of Czerny, Hanon, Pischna and the others that were once the staples of a pianist’s training? Maybe you developed all your skills from repertoire itself, or you found a middle path, dipping into material with a clear technical goal when the need arose? For me, exercises need to be short and easy to learn, and very focussed on a clear and attainable outcome. Studies, unless they are of the calibre of Chopin and Liszt, are also best when they are short and to the point.
Friedrich Burgmüller (1806 – 1874) was a German pianist and composer who moved to Paris at the age of 26 and settled there. In addition to light salon music, he wrote three sets of études for young pianists. His 25 Easy and Progressive Etudes, op. 100 have been a mainstay of elementary étude repertoire for many generations – and deservedly so. Like all études worth their salt, the study of technique merges with attention to quality of sound and a musical purpose. The musical content of these pieces is on a level with the technical challenges they pose, so that the listener would not necessary realise they have any didactic focus whatever. Because each has its own descriptive title, the études inspire imagination and characterisation in the player, elevating the works to the status of real music (as opposed to the dry and boring studies we so often encounter). I cannot imagine any young pianist or elementary player who would not immediately engage with this charming set of études, or benefit from learning them.
As the title suggests the études are progressive in their difficulty, ranging from approximately ABRSM grade II at the start to approximately grade V by the end. A good plan with études in general is to learn them, master them and continue to play them on a regular basis (much as you would do with any form of physical exercise). As you go along, you will amass a repertoire of études you can draw on as part of your daily practice. It is a good plan to choose three or four to practise for a week or so, and then move to others so you don’t get bored.
I have just launched a series of short video walkthroughs of this set, beginning with the first two. The plan is to add to them until I have covered all 25. At that stage, I will add some downloadable practice worksheets which I hope will add value to the series. Here are some teaching or practising notes about the first two, La Candeur and L’Arabesque.
1. La Candeur (Openness) in C major
The quaver patterns require the cultivation of a legato cantabile touch and tonal gradation. Begin with the voice and sing the lines, shaping expressively and giving some space where the music breathes. Fingers need to be close to the keys, and the wrist flexible and mobile. As you glide through the five-finger positions sense the alignment of the arm behind each finger. You’ll feel this either as a tiny lateral movement in the wrist in the direction of travel, or as a small wrist circle (either is fine).
Don’t overlook the chordal accompaniment in the LH; a solidly prepared background can only help the foreground sound and feel better. Begin by labelling each chord – the progression in the first half is I-IV-I-V7-I, then a secondary dominant (V7/V) takes us to the dominant key (G major). An understanding of form and structure not only deepens learning but is vital for greater appreciation of music and as an aid to learning more quickly. Players with general musicianship and theory skills tend to learn pieces much more quickly and much more thoroughly, and are better sight-readers. A chord legato is an essential skill for any pianist, no matter the level. As you move from one chord to the next within a legato context, find points of connection in the hand to link. For example, to get from the first LH chord to the next, lift the fingers you cannot connect (thumb and 5th) while holding the 3rd finger and joining from that finger to the next chord. This facilities smooth connections and tonal control – it is a knack that, once acquired, will become second nature to you.
Here is a short extract from the video walkthrough:
2. L’Arabesque (Arabesque) in A minor
Allegro scherzando tells us to play fast and playfully. Keep the LH chords close to the keyboard, the fingertips firm and somewhat active, the wrist loose but relatively still. You’ll need to organise a good fingering for the LH chords (I give some tips on this in my video below). RH semiquaver patterns are played using a drop-roll (down-up) movement generated from the upper arm, the arm and the wrist assisting the fingers. Lateral adjustments (lining up) in the wrist keep us free and loose and help control finger articulation in the fast notes. The first note of each RH group is the strongest, the last note light and short. Don’t get confused with how this works in the crescendos. If you say a five-syllable word over and over again (such as “multiplication”) getting louder and louder each time, you will always put the stress on the first syllable no matter the dynamic level.
Enjoy the contrasts in mood in this piece. After a playful and light start, the arrival in C major (bars 7-10) feels somewhat triumphant as the RH has a melodic moment. Keep singing in the RH after the double bar, taking plenty of time in the dim e poco rall bars but snapping back into the tempo immediately in bar 19. There is a feeling of tenderness at the dolce (bar 23-25), and exuberance at the end. The risoluto semiquavers in the penultimate bar may be broader, and you might decide to add a direct pedal to the last chord for resonance.
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