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The Role of Piano Exercises

piano technique

Question: I am in my early 50’s, an amateur pianist of intermediate skill level (e.g. I can play Grieg’s Holberg suite; I doubt if I could play Beethoven’s Waldstein sonata).

Some argue that rather than do exercises, one should choose pieces with technical problems and learn to solve them and thereby acquire technique. What do you think? (A) No exercises, just music with the right pedagogical content (candidates: 48 Preludes & Fugues, Chopin’s Etudes, …) (B) lots of exercises (Hanon, Cramer, Czerny, …), with music as a “reward” for exercises mastered (C) a mixture?

– Femi (Charlotte, North Carolina, USA)

Albert’s reply: That’s not only a great question, it’s a critical one for all musicians. The problem is the concept of “acquiring technique”: too often it is viewed as something separate from “expressing music,” which is really what “technique” is: the ability to express music.

When I was first developing my finger coordination I did quite a lot of exercises, even practicing double notes on a table when a piano wasn’t handy. Most of the exercises I did, though, were etudes by composers such as Chopin, Liszt and Godowsky. I didn’t know enough at the time to have consciously chosen ‘real’ music for my “technical” work; I just loved the music and the challenge.

Still, I’m no longer an unconditional advocate of the no-exercises school. I surprised myself recently when I revisited Hanon to give him a fair chance. I’ve discovered that many beginning students are overwhelmed by learning pieces, and they can benefit from these kinds of finger coordination exercises.

The key is to do all exercises musically. I cringe whenever I hear students playing piano exercises mechanically, often making mistakes along the way. It’s possible to shape even the most pedantic of exercises in terms of dynamics and touch, of which there is infinite variety. What’s most important in piano technique is that every finger movement is connected to a musical concept, that we are listening to and controlling each and every detail.

In my opinion, the best and most important piano exercises of all are scales. If students would commit to spending 15 or so minutes a day on scales, really practicing them musically, varying their touch, they would go a very long way towards developing a fluent piano technique.

Therefore, I believe in (C) above: mixing exercises (played musically!) with repertoire pieces. One vital tip is to pick etudes that are musical but that won’t become “real” repertoire pieces for you. That way you’ll learn technical concepts that you can then bring into your work on your performance repertoire: in your performance repertoire you’ll then be free to concentrate on expressing the music rather than on learning “technique,” since you’ll already have learned that technique from the etude.

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