Read CHAPTER XVIII - THE TRAINING OF THE VIRTUOSO of Great Pianists on Piano Playing‚ Study Talks with Foremost Virtuosos, free online book, by James Francis Cooke, on


One of the most inestimable advantages I have ever had was my good fortune in having a musical mother. It is to her that I owe my whole career as an artist. If it had not been for her loving care and her patient persistence I might have been engaged in some entirely different pursuit. As a child I was very indifferent to music. I abhorred practice, and, in fact, showed no signs of pronounced talent until my twelfth year. But she kept faithfully pegging away at me and insisted that because my grandfather had been a noted artist and because she was devoted to music it must be in my blood.

My mother was a pupil of Deppe, of whom Miss Amy Fay has written in her book “Music Study in Germany.” Deppe was a remarkable pedagogue and had excellent ideas upon the foundation of a rational system of touch. He sought the most natural position of the hand and always aimed to work along the line of least resistance. My mother instilled Deppe’s ideas into me together with a very comprehensive training in the standard etudes and classics within my youthful technical grasp. For those years I could not have had a better teacher. Lucky is the child, who like Gounod, Reisenauer and others, has had the invaluable instruction that a patient, self-sacrificing mother can give. The mother is the most unselfish of all teachers, and is painstaking to a fault.


She insisted upon slow systematic regular practice. She knew the importance of regularity, and one of the first things I ever learned was that if I missed one or two days’ practice, I could not hope to make it up by practicing overtime on the following days. Practice days missed or skipped are gone forever. One must make a fresh start and the loss is sometimes not recovered for several days.

I was also made to realize the necessity of freshness at the practice period. The pupil who wants to make his practice lead to results must feel well while practicing. Practicing while tired, either mentally or physically, is wasted practice.

Pupils must learn to concentrate, and if they have not the ability to do this naturally they should have a master who will teach them how. It is not easy to fix the mind upon one thing and at the same time drive every other thought away. With some young pupils this takes much practice. Some never acquire it it is not in them. Concentration is the vertebrae of musical success. The student who cannot concentrate had better abandon musical study. In fact, the young person who cannot concentrate is not likely to be a conspicuous success in any line of activity. The study of music cultivates the pupil’s powers of concentration perhaps more than any other study. The notes to be played must be recognized instantaneously and correctly performed. In music the mind has no time to wander. This is one of the reasons why music is so valuable even for those who do not ever contemplate a professional career.

One hour of concentrated practice with the mind fresh and the body rested is better than four hours of dissipated practice with the mind stale and the body tired. With a fatigued intellect the fingers simply dawdle over the keys and nothing is accomplished. I find in my own daily practice that it is best for me to practice two hours in the morning and then two hours later in the day. When I am finished with two hours of hard study I am exhausted from close concentration. I have also noted that any time over this period is wasted. I am too fatigued for the practice to be of any benefit to me.


Parents make a great mistake in not insuring the general education of the child who is destined to become a concert performer. I can imagine nothing more stultifying or more likely to result in artistic disaster than the course that some parents take in neglecting the child’s school work with an idea that if he is to become a professional musician he need only devote himself to music. This one-sided cultivation should be reserved for idiots who can do nothing else. The child-wonder is often the victim of some mental disturbance.

I remember once seeing a remarkable child mathematician in Hungary. He was only twelve years of age and yet the most complicated mathematical problems were solved in a few seconds without recourse to paper. The child had water on the brain and lived but a few years. His usefulness to the world of mathematics was limited solely to show purposes. It is precisely the same with the so-called musical precocities. They are rarely successful in after life, and unless trained by some very wise and careful teacher, they soon become objects for pity.

The child who is designed to become a concert pianist should have the broadest possible culture. He must live in the world of art and letters and become a naturalized citizen. The wider the range of his information, experience and sympathies, the larger will be the audience he will reach when he comes to talk to them from the concert platform. It is the same as with a public speaker. No one wants to hear a speaker who has led a narrow, crabbed intellectual existence, but the man who has seen and known the world, who has become acquainted with the great masterpieces of art and the wonderful achievements of science, has little difficulty in securing an audience providing he has mastered the means of expressing his ideas.


In the matter of technical preparation there is, perhaps, too little attention being given to-day to the necessity for clean playing. Of course, each individual requires a different treatment. The pupil who has a tendency to play with stiffness and rigidity may be given studies which will develop a more fluent style. For these pupils’ studies, like those of Heller, are desirable in the cases of students with only moderate technical ability, while the splendid “etudes” of Chopin are excellent remedies for advanced pupils with tendencies toward hard, rigid playing. The difficulty one ordinarily meets, however, is ragged, slovenly playing rather than stiff, rigid playing. To remedy this slovenliness, there is nothing like the well-known works of Czerny, Cramer or Clementi.

I have frequently told pupils in my “Meisterschule” in Vienna, before I abandoned teaching for my work as a concert pianist, that they must learn to draw before they learn to paint. They will persist in trying to apply colors before they learn the art of making correct designs. This leads to dismal failure in almost every case. Technic first then interpretation. The great concert-going public has no use for a player with a dirty, slovenly technic no matter how much he strives to make morbidly sentimental interpretations that are expected to reach the lovers of sensation. For such players a conscientious and exacting study of Czerny, Cramer, Clementi and others of similar design is good musical soap and water. It washes them into respectability and technical decency. The pianist with a bungling, slovenly technic, who at the same time attempts to perform the great masterpieces, reminds me of those persons who attempt to disguise the necessity for soap and water with nauseating perfume.


Few people realize what a vital factor health is to the concert pianist. The student should never fail to think of this. Many young Americans who go abroad to study break down upon the very vehicle upon which they must depend in their ride to success through the indiscretions of overwork or wrong living. The concert pianist really lives a life of privation. I always make it a point to restrict myself to certain hygienic rules on the day before a concert. I have a certain diet and a certain amount of exercise and sleep, without which I cannot play successfully.

In America one is overcome with the kindness of well-meaning people who insist upon late suppers, receptions, etc. It is hard to refuse kindness of this description, but I have always felt that my debt to my audiences was a matter of prime importance, and while on tour I refrain from social pleasures of all kinds. My mind and my body must be right or failure will surely result.

I have often had people say to me after the performance of some particularly brilliant number “Ah! You must have taken a bottle of champagne to give a performance like that.” Nothing could be further from the truth. A half a bottle of beer would ruin a recital for me. The habit of taking alcoholic drinks with the idea that they lead to a more fiery performance is a dangerous custom that has been the ruin of more than one pianist. The performer who would be at his best must live a very careful, almost abstemious life. Any unnatural excess is sure to mar his playing and lead to his downfall with the public. I have seen this done over and over again, and have watched alcohol tear down in a few years what had taken decades of hard practice and earnest study to build up.


The field of music is so enormous that I have often thought that the teacher should be very careful not to overdo the matter of giving technical exercises. Technical exercises are, at best, short cuts. They are necessary for the student. He should have a variety of them, and not be kept incessantly pounding away at one or two exercises. As Nicholas Rubinstein once said to me, “Scales should never be dry. If you are not interested in them work with them until you become interested in them.” They should be played with accents and in different rhythms. If they are given in the shapeless manner in which some teachers obliged their unfortunate pupils to practice them they are worthless. I do not believe in working out technical exercises at a table or with a dumb piano. The brain must always work with the fingers, and without the sound of the piano the imagination must be enormously stretched to get anything more than the most senseless, toneless, soulless touch.

Technic with many is unmistakably a gift. I say this after having given the matter much careful thought. It is like the gift of speech. Some people are fluent talkers, precisely as some people can do more in two hours’ technical work at the keyboard than others could accomplish with four. Of course, much can be accomplished with persistent practice, and a latent gift may be awakened, but it is certainly not given to all to become able technicalists. Again some become very proficient from the technical standpoint, but are barren, soulless, uninspired and vapid when it comes to the artistic and musicianly interpretation of a piece.

There comes a time to every advanced pianist when such exercises as the scales, arpeggios, the studies of Czerny and Cramer are unnecessary. I have not practiced them for some years, but pray do not think that I attempt to go without exercises. These exercises I make by selecting difficult parts of famous pieces and practicing them over and over. I find the concertos of Hummel particularly valuable in this connection, and there are parts of some of the Beethoven concertos that make splendid musical exercises that I can practice without the fatal diminution of interest which makes a technical exercise valueless.


In the matter of foreign study I think that I may speak without bias, as I am engaged in teaching and am not likely to resume for some years. I am absolutely convinced that there are many teachers in America who are as good as the best in Europe. Nevertheless, I would advise the young American to secure the best instruction possible in his native land, and then to go abroad for a further course. It will serve to broaden him in many ways.

I believe in patriotism, and I admire the man who sticks to his fatherland. But, in art there is no such thing as patriotism. As the conservatory of Paris provides, through the “Prix de Rome,” for a three years’ residence in Italy and other countries for the most promising pupil, so the young American music students should avail themselves of the advantages of Old World civilization, art, and music. There is much to be learned from the hustle and vigorous wholesome growth of your own country that would be of decided advantage to the German students who could afford a term of residence here. It is narrowing to think that one should avoid the Old World art centers from the standpoint of American patriotism.


Few people recognize the multifarious requirements of the concert pianist. He must adjust himself to all sorts of halls, pianos and living conditions. The difference between one piano and another is often very remarkable. It sometimes obliges the artist to readjust his technical methods very materially. Again, the difference in halls is noteworthy. In a great hall, like the Albert Hall of London, one can only strive for very broad effects. It is not possible for one to attempt the delicate shadings which the smaller halls demand. Much is lost in the great hall, and it is often unjust to determine the pianist’s ability by his exclusively bravura performances in very large auditoriums.


The concert pianist must have great endurance. His fingers must be as strong as steel, and yet they must be as elastic and as supple as willow wands. I have always had great faith in the “Kleine Pischna” and the “Pischna Exercises” in cultivating strength. These exercises are now world famous, and it would be hard for me to imagine anything better for this particular purpose. They are somewhat voluminous, but necessarily so. One conspicuous difficulty with which teachers have to contend is that pupils attempt pieces requiring great digital strength without ever having gone through such a course as I advocate above. The result is that they have all sorts of troubles with their hands through strain. Some of these troubles are irremediable, others are curable, but cause annoying delays. I have never had anything of this sort and attribute my immunity from weeping sinews, etc., to correct hand positions, a loose wrist and slow systematic work in my youth.


Velocity depends more upon natural elasticity than strength. Some people seem to be born with the ability to play rapidly. It is always a matter of the fingers, but is more a matter of the brain. Some people have the ability to think very rapidly, and when these people have good supple hands they seem to be able to play rapidly with comparatively little study. When you fail to get velocity at first, do not hesitate to lay the piece aside for several weeks, months or years. Then you will doubtless find that the matter of velocity will not trouble you. Too much study upon a piece that fails for the time being to respond to earnest effort is often a bad thing. Be a little patient. It will all come out right in the end. If you fuss and fume for immediate results you may be sadly disappointed.


Talent is great and immutable. Take the case of Liszt, for instance. I recently heard from a reliable source the following interesting story: One day Liszt was called away from his class at Wiemar by an invitation to visit the Grand Duke. Von Buelow, then a mature artist, was present, and he was asked by Liszt to teach the class for the day. Liszt left the room, and a young student was asked to play one of Liszt’s own compositions. Von Buelow did not like the youth’s interpretation, as he had been accustomed to play the same work on tour in a very different manner. Consequently he abused the student roundly, and then sat at the keyboard and was playing to his great satisfaction when the tottering old master broke in the room and with equal severity reprimanded Von Buelow, and sat down at the keyboard and gave an interpretation that was infinitely superior to that of Von Buelow. It was simply a case of superiority of talent that enabled the aged and somewhat infirm Liszt to excel his younger contemporary.


In closing, let me enjoin all young American music students to strive for naturalness. Avoid ostentatious movements in your playing. Let your playing be as quiet as possible. The wrist should be loose. The hands, to my mind, should be neither high nor low, but should be in line with the forearm. One should continually strive for quietness. Nothing should be forced. Ease in playing is always admirable, and comes in time to all talented students who seek it. The Deppe method of hand position, while pedantic and unnecessarily long, is interesting and instructive.

Personally, I advocate the use of the Etudes of Chopin, Moscheles and the Etudes Transcendante to all advanced pupils. I have used them with pupils with invariable success. I have also a series of thirteen Etudes of my own that I have made for the express purpose of affording pupils material for work which is not adequately covered in the usual course.

Young Americans have a great future before them. The pupils I have had have invariably been ones who progress with astonishing rapidity. They show keenness and good taste, and are willing to work faithfully and conscientiously, and that, after all, is the true road to success.


If you think that talent does not count you are very greatly mistaken. We not infrequently see men who have been engaged in one occupation with only very moderate success suddenly leap into fame in an entirely different line. Men who have struggled to be great artists or illustrators like du Maurier astonish the world with a previously concealed literary ability. It is foolish not to recognize the part that talent must play in the careers of artists. Sometimes hard work and patient persistence will stimulate the mind and soul, and reveal talents that were never supposed to exist, but if the talent does not exist it is as hopeless to hunt for it as it is to seek for diamonds in a bowl of porridge.

Talented people seem to be born with the knack or ability to do certain things twice as well and twice as quickly as other people can do the same things. I well remember that when all Europe was wild over the “Diabolo” craze my little girl commenced to play with the sticks and the little spool. It looked interesting and I thought that I would try it a few times and then show her how to do it. The more I tried the more exasperated I became. I simply could not make it go, and before I knew it I had wasted a whole morning upon it. My little daughter took it up and in a few minutes’ practice she was able to do it as well as an expert. It is precisely the same at the keyboard. What takes some pupils hours to accomplish others can do in a few seconds with apparently less effort. The age of the pupil seems to have little to do with musical comprehension. What does count is talent, that peculiar qualification which seems to lead the student to see through complex problems as if he had been solving them through different generations for centuries.




1. Can missed practice periods ever be made up?

2. Does piano study cultivate concentration?

3. What is a good arrangement of practice hours?

4. What are some remedies for slovenly playing?

5. How is one’s playing affected by health?

6. Are stimulants good or bad?

7. Is listening important in pianoforte playing?

8. How may finger strength be cultivated?

9. Upon what does velocity depend?

10. What part does talent play in the artist’s success?