In the nineteenth century there was a widespread belief that hours a day spent practising finger exercises would lead to mastery of the instrument, and many method books were published, filled with exercises and studies. The prevailing opinion was that you needed to separate the study of technique from the study of music – by practising endless drill, you would be able to play the repertoire more easily. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work that way.
Hours spent on exercises and boring studies leads to playing that is fixated on mechanics, to the detriment of artistry or musical merit. It can also lead to a lack of coordination, pain and injury. Not only is this kind of mechanical practice largely a waste of time, it can actually do more harm than good.
The word technique comes from the Greek word technikos, meaning “of, or pertaining to art; artistic, skilful”. This should highlight to us the close connection between the technical, and the musical or interpretative. Interpretation and technique are one and the same, since every sound that we strive to produce has to be achieved by physical means. Many modern piano pedagogues discourage their students from separating purely technical work from music for this very reason. And yet, we do need to understand how to meet the demands of the music we play. Is a thorough training in the mechanics or gymnastics of piano playing essential, or can we develop our technique solely through the music?
Read about Samuil Feinberg’s ideas on what constitutes an exercise
Although practising repetitive mechanical exercises is out of favour amongst many teachers at the moment, I believe that it is very possible, and sometimes preferable, to study a particular aspect of the mechanics of playing by using an exercise. Exercises serve three main purposes:
- to warm us up
- to build and maintain technique
- to tackle trouble spots in our pieces
The same types of exercises might be used for any of these goals, but the focus and intention would differ. No matter the type of exercise, our work with them must be done consciously, with a specific goal in mind. We need to concentrate fully on the sound we are producing and the feelings and sensations in our hands, arms and body. The number of repetitions does not need to be excessive. Two or three repetitions with the full involvement of the mind and the ear will usually suffice, and this is infinitely preferable to mechanical repetitions with the mind somewhere else. The single most important thing to remember about exercises is not which ones you do or how many you do, but how you do them.
Hanon, for example, which has for more than a century carried with it the stigma of boredom, can be exceedingly rewarding when approached both musically and with a variety of choreographic movements.Seymour Bernstein
Celebrated British virtuoso, Peter Donohoe, is also a keen Hanon devotee.
I was unwilling, but I was persuaded to do Czerny. And more specifically, or more relevantly actually, I was persuaded to do Hanon. And the reason that’s become very relevant is because I do it now. And I recommend other people do it now as well. And I know plenty of my colleagues who would say that was the opposite of what we should do; that it was some kind of anti-musical experience that you don’t need to do. And I don’t agree with them because I have definitely felt many improvements in what I do from playing those exercises.Peter Donohoe
When it comes to beginners, many piano methods of the past perpetuated the tradition of the fixed hand spanning a five-finger position (usually middle C). Each finger is supposed to lift up in a curved position, independently of the other fingers which rest either on their key surfaces or on the key beds (depending on which method or which exercise you are following). Nowadays this seems prehistoric – modern trends in piano pedagogy tend not to isolate fingers (fingers 2, 3, 4 and 5 lift together as a unit), but the weight of tradition makes it hard to rethink methodology from the past that was delivered by illustrious, respected and successful teachers who in turn received it from their teachers.
One such exercise comes from the Bartók-Reschofsky Piano Method, published in 1913. Apparently, it was Sándor Reschofsky who was responsible for the technical exercises. He had come from the grand Hungarian tradition, and from 1946 to 1958 he taught piano at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest.
In this preliminary exercise, the notes in the circles are touched by the fingers but not depressed. At the rest sign, you are supposed to lift the finger in readiness (the fingers on the keyboard are not supposed to move). The raised finger then approaches the keyboard firmly, and always from a distance.
Even though I was given exercises like this by my early teachers, I do not assign them to my students and find I cannot recommend them. Much of my work lies in undoing the unhelpful effects of isolating fingers from the hand and from the arm, instead finding ways of movement that are coordinated and holistic rather than tense and awkward. However, and I think this is important to state, many great pianists have come from this tradition and there are bound to be teachers who use such exercises who get great results from their students.
In my new video lecture series on technique on the Online Academy, I offer this introductory video in which I discuss and demonstrate this Bartók-Reschofsky exercise:
I came across this fascinating interview with the young Martha Argerich, where she discusses the subject of scales and technical exercises. Apart from a few days as a teenager, the great virtuoso has never practised scales and works on technical skills directly from the music itself.
If you study in a book of exercises considering only a certain aspect of the difficulty you won’t necessarily be able to achieve this in the piece. Because it is settled in differently. Quite often if you train thirds you won’t necessarily be able to play the thirds Chopin Étude. If you train octaves, you’re not necessarily going to be able to play the octaves in this or that piece. I always have technical problems for sure, but technique is not a separate matter. You cannot say I possess my technical skills and that’s it. I think each piece involves a specific and quite personal difficulty. In my case I always felt it like this. Some people say you have tremendous technical skills so everything is easy for you, but when I begin to study something it’s difficult for me also!Martha Argerich
On the flip side, Josef Lhévinne (no less of a virtuoso by all accounts) seems to have been a stickler for scales.
Scales, it seems to me, are the basis of the development of a perfect technic. I always have been a firm believer in them. I am aware that some seem to think that they are not necessary, but anyone who has sat beside pupils and watched the almost magical effect that the right kind of scale drill produces upon pupils at a certain stage of advance could not fail to be convincedJosef Lhévinne
The subject of whether scales, Hanon and other finger exercises are good or bad for pianists has been polemical for decades. The debate is set to continue, and while it does let’s aim to be polite and respectful to those whose opinions might differ from our own.
The Practice Piano Technique Lecture Series which includes further videos is available for once-off purchase here or with an Online Academy subscription. Please click here to find out more about subscription options, or click here to view the series index if you are already a subscriber.