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I am a latecomer to the piano and to piano chamber music, but that hasn’t diminished my zeal. After years of playing in brass quintets and singing in choirs, I’m exploring the challenges of anchoring a piano-string chamber ensemble.

Carl Czerny (1791-1857)

Carl Czerny (1791-1857)

I’m also a big fan of little études, small practice pieces that lift you over a hurdle. And there are lots of hurdles in chamber music. Usually what I’m looking for is a bridge over technically-troubled waters. But the nineteenth-century étude composers—including the three Cs: Clementi, Cramer and Czerny—wrote études that are just too involved for a time-pressed adult to putter and mutter through. There are exceptions: 160 of them in Czerny’s useful Little Exercises, Opus 821, each only eight bars long. More recently, the inimitable Nicolas Slonimsky (51 Minitudes) and Donald Waxman (50 Études) have addressed the challenge of contemporary technique in their own whimsical ways. But for études that deal directly with the problems of chamber music, you’re on your own. And since necessity is the mother of invention, and chamber music is the sweet child of leisure, invention is time’s niece—or would be, if leisure married necessity—and chamber music and invention would be cousins. And cousins who play together, stay together. Right?

I have one friend who makes yogurt, another who keeps bees. Several who make their own cookies. Why not write your own études? Any sonata form gives you the material. You just need to assemble the ingredients and bake. This is Betty Crocker, not haute cuisine.

I’ve been practicing Mozart’s G-minor Piano Quartet. Let’s use some simple thirdsy passages from the bridge to the second theme to illustrate. Both begin with a less than obvious fingering. I needed a way to drill and remember that fingering.

The first time the passage occurs, we’re on our way to B-flat (the mediant key) from G minor:
one bar of thirds
But we’ll also want to practice it in the tonic—the way it appears in the recapitulation. My fingering here is personal, but it gets the legato-job done:
two bars of thirds in etude

We’ve now seen the pattern at three different pitch levels, thirds apart. Those are the ingredients. Fill in the gaps (improvise a bit). Build in some repetition for eddication’s sake. Add an ascending bass line (a chance to practice the left-hand release on beat two). Quicken the rhythm at the cadence, and—voilà—you have an étude in moto perpetuo:


musical example of g minor etude

It’s a phrase that is pleasant to practice and makes musical sense. The next time I need to play this piece, I’ll be able to refresh my memory and my fingers quickly.

The benefits of practicing this way are at least fourfold:

  • you play the same figuration from different parts of the piece in proximity.
  • you experience the passage applied in sequence.
  • you have a sense of forward motion and completion.
  • you’ve imitated music in a style.

Most important: your practice has become creative. And that will make you want to keep practicing!

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