I follow a middle path when it comes to the studies and exercises I suggest or assign to students, preferring to work on technique from the music itself rather than have them learn a whole slew of dull and dreary studies they won’t especially enjoy. I supplement the repertoire with carefully chosen material, often culled from a variety of unusual sources – and some of it of my own invention. I am a fan of taking some exercises and using them off-label (finding a different way to use an easily memorable pattern of notes than what the author may have had in mind).
There are three main ways of categorising such material. I’m going to make one or two suggestions for each.
The shorter and simpler the better. Exercises should be easy to memorise, so that the whole attention can be focussed on the specific mechanical or technical goal we’re aiming to master. Exercises have no pretensions toward artistic merit, although they can be played musically. Hanon patterns are good examples of the exercise genre. Do them with a definite purpose and they can serve you; do them mindlessly and they will waste your time as well as ingraining whatever you are doing with them. If you practise them without aligning your hand and arm to the finger that is playing you are automating the habit of not aligning your hand and arm to the finger that is playing (seems so obvious, doesn’t it?) and you will develop technical problems and most likely tension. The exercises themselves are neutral, it’s how we do them that counts.
There are numerous books of technical exercises on my shelves. One I especially like for beginners is the Piano Safari series, nicely presented and based on sound, modern pianistic principles. For the intermediate level, I can recommend Fundamentals of Piano Technique by Lev and Olga Conus (an extremely thorough, no-nonsense approach from two professors of piano from the grand Russian tradition). Here is a very helpful exercise for scales (No. 5 – Groups).
If you want to do some finger exercises but are bored by the standard fare, I was introduced to Clare Fischer‘s Harmonic Exercises for Piano by a jazz pianist who came to me for the occasional lesson on technique. The exercises are based on jazz progressions designed to be transposed and practised in all keys. You’ll not only warm up very nicely using the exercises, they also make you use your ear and your brain. There is a pdf available on Scribd, but since I am uncertain about its copyright status I have decided not to link to it. You can find it easily though.
For more on advanced exercises, including Alberto Jonás’ series of seven books entitled Master School of Modern Piano Playing and Virtuosity, and a discussion into the pros and cons of exercises in general, follow this link.
A study is a more extended composition with elements of musical form and structure, designed with a specific mechanical or technical goal in mind. It may be satisfying for the player, but not usually for the listener. An exception are the studies of Burgmüller for the elementary-intermediate level. These are tuneful and really beautifully constructed, feeling more like music than studies.
How about Czerny? Some of Czerny’s studies are l-o-n-g. Personally, I am of the opinion that studies do not need to be long to get their point across. I therefore recommend his shorter works, such as the 160 Eight-Measure Exercises, op 821 but I do not feel it is necessary to repeat each one 8 times as Czerny instructs. Here is Kris Lennox demonstrating that they can be done musically.
There is another publication well worth looking at, a selection of Czerny’s studies arranged by Heinrich Germer and available in the Volonte edition. The publication includes examples from several different opuses, systematically organised.
3. Concert Studies
The artistic content of a concert study is of sufficient quality that it can stand alone as a piece of music; the listener can appreciate the study as a work of art without the need to know anything of the demands it makes on the player.
The 24-Étude Challenge?
It is an ambition of many advanced piano students to learn all 24 of Chopin’s Études from the op 10 and op 25 sets, first getting the notes into the fingers and then mastering them gradually (perhaps over many years). Yonty Solomon once told me he felt a number of the grand Chopin études were actually lifetime studies, works we will always continue to chip away at.
Why not consider applying the spirit of the 40 Piece Challenge to the Études by learning a whole bunch of them simultaneously? Instead of completing one before moving on to another, learn a few bars of several of them at a time. Since the difficulty is presented from the very first bar of each étude (apart from a couple of exceptions that have short introductions) and continues to the end, it makes sense to acquire the necessary knack for each one by taking only the first 4 (or 8) bars. As you get comfortable, add more bars – then add more études, learning them in this way until you have all 24 (yes, it’ll take some time to get there).
If you feel the need to set aside an hour or so a day to work on technique, this is a powerful and awesome way to do it.
Making Exercises from Pieces
The above are all shop-bought examples of studies and exercises, but how about making your own? Here are a couple of ideas.
- If you are working on Chopin op 10 no 2, for example, why not include chromatic scales using only the outer part of the hand (fingers 3, 4 and 5) as part of your daily warm up or technical work? Do this in both hands if you want the left hand to benefit. Then, practise just the top line in the RH of the study in a variety of different ways (using controlled stops, rhythmic groupings, etc.) before embarking on the Étude itself.
- If you are memorising a Bach fugue and want to develop your octave playing at the same time, consider taking one voice from your fugue and playing it in octaves in one hand against another voice in the other (i.e. RH plays soprano; LH plays bass) – from memory. Go through all the combinations of two voices like this a section as a time until you have exhausted them. By playing a voice in octaves, you will not be relying on muscle memory and it will test how well you know the structure by mind and ear – plus you’ll be getting an octave workout. I suggest the thumbs play the actual notes, and the 5th fingers do the doubling.