Almost every book of piano exercises has a chapter dealing with five-finger exercises, and a lot of pianists won’t feel warmed up and ready to face their practice session without having spent some time doing these. I have several colleagues who are at the height of the profession who swear by this, and I know a number who don’t believe they help at all. It is like following the American primaries – you are probably either in one camp or the other!
There have been those piano teachers who condemn five-finger exercises as not only a waste of time but also contrary to a holistic and natural way of using our body at the keyboard. But, like anything else we do in our practice, it is HOW we do them that counts. If we are doing five-finger exercises mindfully and for a particular purpose, then a few minutes daily can be of great value. My favourite warm-up (when I need it) is exercises in double notes followed by all major and minor common chords in all inversions, but I do occasionally assign five-finger exercises to students. I like to use modified versions of Hanon, whose patterns I use to my own devious ends.
For those who like practising Hanon, have you tried doing them in other keys? Perhaps this is obvious, but I don’t understand the value of sticking with C major when no piece of real music ever avoids black notes. The point is how we steer around the keyboard, how we negotiate the ever-changing black/white terrain. Playing in other keys means we end up using the whole length of the key as the short thumb slides in to deal with the black keys, and then back out again.
Practise them also in different rhythms. Play a rhythm in one hand and evenly in the other. Using different touches in each hand is a great thing to do too. In a lesson, I like to set up two-note slurs in one hand while the other plays staccato, then when I snap my fingers the hands reverse their roles. It is in this switchover where the value lies. At home, you might decide to do two bars one way before making the switch.
In addition to the standard diatonic positions we find in Hanon, how about using a chromatic hand position and then one based on a whole-tone scale? Let’s take the first couple of bars of the first Hanon exercise:
Here is our chromatic variation, excellent for a closed-handed attitude:
And the whole-tone version, great for an open hand:
PETER FEUCHTWANGER’S “FIVE-FINGER” EXERCISE
Peter Feuchtwanger teaches five-finger positions played with reverse fingerings. Instead of 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1 in a RH ascending/descending pattern, he uses 5-4-3-2-1-2-3-4-5. This necessitates the finger which has just engaged with the keyboard moving swiftly to the side, making way for the next finger. The exercise is played non-legato, and with an anti-clockwise elliptical/in-out motion of the arm which controls the whole thing (RH, that is – the LH will be clockwise). This same fingering is used in all keys, and (paradoxically) this becomes a sort of anti-finger exercise – more one for switching off finger action and allowing the arm to control the keyboard and steer the hand. Difficult to explain, easier to demonstrate, very hard to master!