Jailbreaking Hanon

Graham Fitch shows how Hanon’s exercises can be used creatively as a blank canvas to experience and develop movements encountered in real music.

A Balanced Approach to Exercises and Studies

A balanced approach to using exercises and studies to solve specific pianistic problems.

The Hanon Debate (Part 2)

This blog post features the views of pianist Peter Donohoe on the use of Hanon’s Virtuoso Pianist as part of our debate on the subject.

By |February 9th, 2021|Technique|0 Comments

The Hanon Debate (Part 1)

As we saw from responses to last week’s post, the exercises of Hanon are a hotly debated topic. It seems there is nothing more provocative than uttering the name of Hanon to a group of pianists and teachers in a social media forum. The ensuing discussion about the use of the exercises in The Virtuoso Pianist so often becomes tainted by bias and polemic and ends up like a debate on religion, with neither side coming out the winner. Those against cannot imagine there might be such a thing as “using” the blank patterns we find in Hanon for various specific reasons, rather than “doing” Hanon as it says on the tin. I think it is very important to make this distinction. Many drugs developed by pharmaceutical companies are found to be useful for other purposes and end up being prescribed off-label. This principle can certainly be applied to Hanon’s exercises. The Controversy Modern piano teaching has moved away from an insistence on mechanical exercises devoid of musical meaning, and away from the notion of lifting and isolating the fingers from the rest of the hand and the arm (as Hanon’s exercises will do if you follow his instructions to the letter). By spending hours drilling the fingers in the way Hanon indicates, we not only risk wasting practice time that might better be spent on music but – much worse – we ingrain muscular habits that will almost certainly be detrimental and potentially injurious. The Middle Path It can be convenient to use the blank, easy-to-remember (and totally harmless) note patterns we find in the exercises as vehicles to easily experience choreography or coordination between the hands so that these skills can be transferred across to […]

By |February 4th, 2021|Technique|2 Comments

How to Use Hanon

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

By |January 28th, 2021|Technique|1 Comment

On Technical Exercises

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 […]

The History of Piano Technique: Studies and Exercises

There has been much feedback and lively debate on last week’s post about Czerny and his legacy of studies and exercises. It seems some piano teachers firmly believe in assigning them, whereas others are dead against them. Some take the middle path and may use them (and studies by other composers) when necessary. When discussing this controversial subject, I feel there are certain things that need to be clarified. Let’s first of all distinguish between an exercise and and a study, since these two are certainly not the same thing: Exercise Often short – a contraption for practising and mastering a specific mechanical or technical goal Not usually very complex, with just one basic pattern (usually repeated several times) Easy to memorise No pretensions toward artistic merit Study A more extended composition with elements of musical form and structure  For practising and mastering a specific mechanical or technical goal May be satisfying for the player, not usually so for the listener! Concert Study  The artistic content is of sufficient quality that it can stand alone as a piece of music The listener can appreciate it as a work of art without the need to know anything of the demands it makes on the player One thing that strikes me a vital in all discussion on this subject, that should be emblazoned above the door on all practice rooms: HOW we do a study or exercise matters more than WHAT we do When I studied Peter Feuchtwanger’s exercises with him back in the early 90s, I quickly came to appreciate this truth. The exercises themselves would look simplistic on paper and actually cannot really be taught from the printed page. Proper realisation of them relies on demonstration […]

Five Fingers

My piano chum, Leon Whitesell, has a brand new Facebook group called Piano Playing Questions. In a recent post, Leon referred to the five-finger exercise formulae of famous Russian teacher, Vasily Safonov (who was the teacher of Scriabin, Medtner, Josef and Rosina Lhévinne, amongst many others). This reminded me that somewhere on my shelves I had a copy of Safonov’s “New Formula for the Piano Teacher and Piano Student”, and after a bit of digging around I managed to find it. I assume it must be long out of print, but I have found the German edition on Petrucci and can link to the pdf here. I was particularly interested in what Safonov recommended for five-finger positions. Using a basic position from G up to D and then down to G again, he suggested changing the fingerings from 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1 to various other combinations, thus: Having outlined the fingerings and referenced them with upper and lower case letters, he goes on to supply a formula for combining the fingers when practising hands together. This is well worth exploring:   While you’re about it, I like Leon’s suggestion carry this idea further by using additional fingerings, such as: 2-3-4-5-1-5-4-3-2 3-4-5-1-2-1-5-4-3 4-5-1-2-3-2-1-5-4 5-1-2-3-4-3-2-1-5 Practising in a whole variety of different rhythms enhances control. Experiment also with using different touches, and also different five-finger positions than diatonic major (minor, chromatic and whole-tone positions are also very useful). It strikes me that these alternative fingerings can also be applied to some of the Hanon exercises, certainly the first one. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I like to practise Peter Feuchtwanger’s five-finger exercise, 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 […]

Some Thoughts on Five-Finger Exercises: Variations on a Theme by Hanon

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, […]

Overpracticers Hanonymous

It is not so much what we practise, but how; it is the quality rather than the quantity that matters. We need a specific aim when practising an exercise, a piece, a phrase or anything else come to that – we simply can’t afford to go onto autopilot, think of what we’re going to have for dinner and hope the fingers will somehow do it all by themselves. The daily ablution of dull finger exercises (in C major) seems to encourage this, however. The three books that make up The Virtuoso Pianist by Charles-Louis Hanon have been a mainstay with piano students since they were first published in 1872. It is interesting to note that Hanon had up until then been active as an organist and, through his own publishing house, had published various works, mostly method books. He was not known as a pianist. Because of its success in the Exposition Universelle (Paris’ third World’s Fair) in 1878, as well as through his acute business acumen, Hanon managed to get The Virtuoso Pianist accepted into various conservatories, and it was quickly adopted by piano students. And they are still at it! I wouldn’t want you to think I am dead against these exercises. While they certainly do have their uses if done intelligently, they are so often done mindlessly, and lend themselves to this treatment. This is one of their pitfalls. The instruction to crank up the metronome with each repetition already implies a lot of extra time, as does having to play through a whole book in one sitting. Time that might be better spent on music? For those aspiring to serious pianist status, knowing they have to practise for x number of hours per day, Hanon is a gift! It […]

By |September 11th, 2011|Practising|4 Comments