In this week’s guest post, Ilga Pitkevica discusses the ubiquitous exercises of Hanon and shares her views on how to use them effectively.

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Mastering all core types of piano technique is essential for the freedom to successfully express musical ideas and communicate them to an audience. It can be quite frustrating to have a piece one wants to play and to be unable to do it just because some technical challenges seem impossible to master.

I have heard complaints on this matter many times in many different and, at the same time, very similar contexts. In my opinion, the solution is fairly straight forward: We pianists need to exercise regularly to maintain our physical ability to play at the standard we want. And if we know how to exercise and warm-up, it does not take too much of our time at all.

Hanon’s Virtuoso Pianist in Sixty Exercises

Hanon’s The Virtuoso Pianist in Sixty Exercises is one of the exercise books which can be used for this purpose. However, the opinions on this book are divided. On one side, I think its popularity lies in its “simplicity” of notes (in comparison to etudes, for example). In these busy times, when everyone is looking for fast problem-solving solutions, this simplicity can be very important.

How to use Hanon

On the other side, because of this simplicity and plainness, “Hanon” (as its widely referred to as) is often called repetitive, boring and dull. I would argue that repetition makes things permanent. But regarding dull and boring…. well, this is up to us as the pianists! What we think and practise is what we get. If we play Hanon in a dull, boring, hammering way then that is what we will get. Will this benefit one’s technique or musicality? Certainly not.

But do we need to play it this way? Hanon is merely collection of exercises, and we just need to know how to use them to our advantage for developing the pianistic skills we or our pupils need. To use Hanon (and indeed any type of exercises) successfully, we must know the purpose. What are you struggling with, either generally or specifically?

Using Hanon with purpose

If you’re struggling with weak fingertips or have tension in the wrist and the arm, then many of these exercises could be useful to you. Various exercises can also be used for developing a smooth legato tone, improving finger independence, or mastering voicing in double notes. It can also be used effectively for developing rotation and octaves. And yes – the exercises are very well suited for developing speed – if it is done thoughtfully. The list is extensive!

Excerpt from Ilga’s video lecture showing how she uses selected exercises

We can improve all the points listed above (and more) by using Hanon with purpose. It does not need to be played fast all the time. We have to think creatively, to listen to and to analyse our own playing. And not just “drill” it in away which Saint-Saëns mocked so perfectly in “The Carnival of the Animals”. 

Hanon for warming-up

In addition to developing specific areas of technique, Hanon can be very useful as a short daily warm-up. It works best if we choose a selection of exercises for different types of technique. Say, a few for finger technique, scale patterns, then one or two for double notes, one or two for octaves and chords, etc. This can be varied in many different combinations – depending on your needs.

I was advised by my teachers that the safest way of warming-up is to start with chordal patterns slowly and gently, as this gives a gentle stretch to the whole hand and the blood supply to the hands increases. After this one can move to double notes at a medium speed followed-by faster finger exercises. Then, for example, you can go back to double notes or chords and work on their speed if necessary.

Developing healthy roots

The famous novelist, Agatha Christie, who as it happens was also a very highly accomplished pianist, described in her autobiography how she questioned the amount of exercises she had to play. The advice of her German piano teacher was:

“…You must the good grounding have…. These exercises, they are the reality, the necessity. The tunes, yes, they are … like flowers, they bloom and drop off, but you must have the roots, the strong roots and leaves!” (from Christie. A. , An Autobiography, 1977, Collins, London).

I cannot agree more. Hanon’s exercises, if used effectively and with purpose, can help you to cultivate your technique (your “healthy roots”) so that the beautiful pieces (“the flowers”) can keep blooming and delighting you even more!

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Ilga provides a more detailed demonstration of her favourite exercises from The Virtuouso Pianist and what she uses each of them for in a two-part video on the Online Academy.

These videos are available with an Online Academy subscription (click here to view if you are a subscriber) or can be purchased as a stand-lone from our store as part of Ilga’s Developing a Balanced Technique series.

Further links & resources

  • Foundations of Good Technique – Video lecture series on how to teach good pianistic habits and ease of movements from the start, and tackle problems in piano playing caused by lack of flexibility. Click here to view.
  • Elementary Technique (Introduction and Basics) – The first module in the Online Academy’s technique library exploring the basics of piano technique, covering seating position, posture, whole-arm and legato touches. Click here to view or click here for more information on other modules.
  • Mastering Piano Technique – Part 2 of Graham Fitch’s Practising the Piano eBook series provides an overview of different schools and traditions through to an extensive listing of technical exercises. Click here for more information.

There are many further resources on piano technique in the Online Academy’s growing technique library. Click here to view an index of available resources.