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Piano Exercises

piano technique

Piano exercises are something of a necessary evil in piano playing. Ideally, we wouldn’t need them; instead our fingers (and minds!) would get all the exercise they need from the pieces we play. In reality, however, practically the only players who are able to forego exercises altogether are ones who have already done enough of them to no longer need them.

Our practice time is best spent learning actual pieces of music. Yet an "instrument" is by definition a means to an end, and they certainly don't play themselves (alas!). Playing music beautifully at the piano does require piano technique, which in turn requires coordination and facility.

In my experience as a teacher, exercises such as those by Hanon are all too often played unmusically, without sensitivity to sound. Piano students tend to stop listening and drill their fingers, not realizing that this type of practice ultimately harms their technique, since the ears are as much a part of a musical technique as the fingers. It is possible to acquire finger dexterity in this manner, but at the steep price of musicality. Mechanical practicing defeats the very purpose of making music!

Yet without technique there can be no music. Finger coordination and strength must be gained somehow or other, and piano exercises can offer an efficient path to this end. Still, it is essential to understand that there is far more to an artistic technique than mere finger agility. Developing fast fingers without the ability to control subtle dynamic gradations and different articulations would make for a merely partially formed technique.

Common piano exercises

For me, the best piano exercises are scales and arpeggios. Students who focus on mastering scales and arpeggios can attain a great deal of fluency. A great deal of piano music consists of scales and arpeggios or fragments thereof. Master them and you will be well on your way to a fluent technique!

By far the most popular exercises are those by Czerny and Hanon, and both are fraught with potential problems. Beethoven's student Carl Czerny became the most famous piano teacher of the nineteenth century and trained virtuosi such as Franz Liszt. He made his fortune selling volumes of technical exercises, many of them produced with the aid of student assistants who were tasked with filling in stock harmonic progressions and finger patterns. They tend to have only limited musical content, which can make them disadvantageous—although there are some hidden gems, too. Still, Czerny had a comprehensive understanding of the instrument and his exercises are full of the most common and useful pianistic patterns found in 19th-century music.

Hanon exercises

I have long disliked Hanon exercises, as they are stripped of virtually all musical content. Save for scales and arpeggios in all keys, the exercises are all in C major. They are but empty finger patterns, virtually devoid of musical material.

The problem with Hanon exercises is not the exercises themselves, it is how they are usually played. The danger is that students learn, subconsciously, to separate "technique" from music. In reality, the two are inseparable. We should refine our hearing every bit as much as we develop our fingers.

Hanon exercises can and should be played musically! In my experience as a teacher, I’ve found that Hanon exercises can remove the barrier to entry for beginning students who often struggle to learn all the notes of an etude. Each Hanon exercise is in effect a miniature musical motive played in sequence throughout a key. It is every bit as possible to shape these motives musically as it is any other.

Furthermore, Hanon exercises also readily expose inequalities among the hands, and any rhythmic or dynamic unevenness is easily heard even by novice musicians. The strong fingers of one hand play in sync with the weak fingers of the other (1-5, 2-4). This helps us learn to coordinate the hands when playing in parallel motion. It is easier for beginners and intermediate students to recognize unevenness in simple musical material than it is in more complex music.

Patterns

In essence, piano exercises are patterns. The Hanon exercises have the considerable advantage of being very simple to learn. For most of them, you have only to learn one measure, and then a mirror image of that measure. The pattern then repeats itself going up the keyboard, and back down in mirror image.

Many beginning students have considerable difficulty learning music. Learning a two-part invention by Bach will be an enormous challenge, and students are quickly overwhelmed by having to apply everything simultaneously.

Part of this difficulty in learning stems from finger coordination not yet being developed. Exercises such as those by Hanon are actually very good at developing coordination, not only within the hand but between the hands. Further, since they (generally) use opposing fingers (5 in the left with 1 in the right, 4 in the left with 2 in the right, etc.), they're a useful starting point for developing independence of the hands.

How to practice Hanon exercises

Some teachers prefer not to use a metronome for Hanon exercises, but I find that it helps students to develop evenness of both touch and rhythm. Eventually you should internalize the beat and be able to play evenly without the metronome.

Two things are most important: First and foremost, these exercises should be played with a variety of touches and dynamics. Instead of indiscriminately playing them forte, why not try playing pianissimo? Better yet, shape each occurrence of the motive dynamically, with a crescendo as the motive ascends and a decrescendo when it descends—or vice versa. Try playing them not just legato but also legatissimo—with the notes as smoothly connected as possible. Also try them staccato—and everything in between.

Second, try transposing the Hanon exercises to all different keys. As my professor Steven Smith once said, an all C major technique is of extremely limited use! Use the same fingerings as for the original exercises in C major, but try D-flat major, D major, E-flat major, and so on. This will do a great deal to develop your familiarity and comfort with each scale.

Take it as a special challenge to make real music out of these finger patterns. You’re bound to surprise yourself by how musical they can sound!

Rachmaninoff on Hanon

One of history's greatest musicians, Sergei Rachmaninoff, detailed how the Hanon exercises were in fact an important foundation of the great Russian school of piano playing at the end of the 19th century:

During the first five years the student gets most of his technical instruction from a book of studies by Hanon, which is used very extensively in the conservatories. In fact, this is practically the only book of strictly technical studies employed. All of the studies are in the key of 'C.' They include scales, arpeggios and other forms of exercises in special technical designs.

At the end of the fifth year an examination takes place. [... The student] knows the exercises in the book of studies by Hanon so well that he knows each study by number. [...]

Although the original studies are all in the key of 'C,' he may be requested to play them in any other key. He has studied them so thoroughly that he should be able to play them in any key desired.

(interview with James Francis Cooke, published in Great Pianists on Piano Playing, 1917)

Josef Lhevinne

Rachmaninoff's colleague Josef Lhevinne, universally regarded as one of the 20th century's greatest pianists, wrote:

There is no short cut. One cannot go around or under the mountain. One must climb straight over it. [...] Everybody knows that technic is merely a means to an end; but without this means one does not reach the end. There may not be anything very beautiful about the great, grimy engine of an automobile; but if one would get to the journey's end--to the dreamland of wonderful trees, gorgeous flowers and entrancing beauty--he must have the means. You must travel just so many scale miles and arpeggio miles and octave miles before you arrive at the musical dreamland of interesting execution and interpretation.

(Basic Principles in Pianoforte Playing, pp. 43-44)

It goes without saying that there was far more to the training of these legendary musicians than a volume of basic piano exercises. Even practicing technical exercises for two hours daily as Lhevinne recommended for the formative stages did nothing to damage such pianists' musical sensitivity.

Summary

In summary, piano exercises must be treated with great care, as there is a risk of unintentionally separating "technique" from music and thus potentially making our playing less musical. The practice of such exercises needs to be carefully supervised by artist teachers who can encourage students to play with a variety of touches, articulations, colors and dynamics. When played musically and transposed to all keys, they are essential components of mastering the instrument.

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