As we’ve seen from our recent articles and postings, there are many different views on the subject of Hanon’s exercises. As a follow on from our previous post in which we featured a few different opinions, we are now delighted to be able to bring you the views of celebrated pianist Peter Donohoe on how he uses the exercises as part of his daily routine.

Mr. Donohoe is a celebrated name among Britain’s elite concert pianists, with an impressive range of recordings and an international performing career dating back to the late 1970s. It is very clear that the ways he has been using Hanon have done him no harm at all! We decided to publish Mr. Donohoe’s response in full, to show that there are those who stand by the exercises and use them to advantage.

Peter Donohoe on the Hanon Debate
Peter Donohoe at the BBC Proms (Photo credit Chris Christodoulou)

I write this immediately after playing through the first two volumes of Hanon’s ‘The Virtuoso Pianist’ – on this occasion extending the range from two octaves to three, and transposing it into Db Major. This version is my favoured one, although I also recommend E Major and of course the original C Major (the latter either in its original two-octave form, or any number of extra octaves up to seven).

This came, as it always does, at the end of a practice session of several hours on upcoming repertoire – to do it at the beginning of a practice session tends to render the practice session less than useful, because any useful technical work tends to prove too tiring for the fingers to function properly afterwards. 

Negative responses to Hanon

I have found that there are three types of negative response to this (all three are paraphrased):

‘A professional pianist is surely way past having to do beginners’ “technical exercises”’

Absolutely not. That would be similar to telling a professional sportsperson that they are past needing to train. Rachmaninov used Hanon throughout his professional life as a soloist, a regime he had adopted as a student at the Moscow Conservatory; if it is good enough for Rachmaninov, it is certainly good for me. (Something similar applied to Liszt, whose regime of technical exercises was extreme; as he pre-dated C.L. Hanon, these exercises would have probably been his own, or possibly Czerny’s)

 ‘You should never practise technical exercises; it makes your playing unmusical.’

This is simply a misunderstanding of both what the exercises are for, and of the true meaning of the word ‘musical’. I have never found anyone for whom there has been a negative effect on their playing, unless they have sprained themselves through over-doing it.

It is possible that labouring on finger exercises could prove ineffective and change nothing, but the notion that they are actually bad for your musicianship is an absurdity. Having good musicianship comes from the heart and mind, not from properly trained fingers.

‘How can you do that? It is so boring!’

I cannot reveal my solution to this, as when I have mentioned it in the past – particularly to students in a masterclass situation, I have always had the feeling that people thought I was making it up. All I will tell you is that I have read a lot of books and seen a lot of TV series and films over the last thirty years or so – ref. Liszt as mentioned above – and I committed the whole of the first two volumes of Hanon to memory when I was about 25.

Using the right exercises for you

An important thing to stress is nothing may be recommended as a formula for all; that Hanon has always seemed helpful to me does not make it a universal panacea. In any case, there are several other volumes of technical exercises that many people have found useful, and Hanon just happens to be the one with which I have been most familiar since I was introduced to it by one of my earliest teachers. 

One should also assess one’s own strengths and weaknesses i.e. are your fingers naturally strong, or is your natural facility based in your wrists or arms? The answers to these questions will determine whether or not Hanon works, or if some other such as Kullak, Brahms or Dohnányi would be more useful. And there is of course the ubiquitous Czerny. But I stress again that doing any of them, or even all of them, will never do anything detrimental to your playing – unless of course you overdo them and cause injury.

More than just strengthening fingers

I think one of the reasons the idea is often received negatively is that they are thought of as merely exercising the fingers for strength and independence. These are undoubtedly very obvious aims – and results – from regular use. However, in my experience, the ability to play chords genuinely together and to play rhythmically have also been major positive results. The main one however has been that finger strength creates an ability to use arm weight rather than relying on the fingers themselves; this gives one much more control over the variety of colour and diversity of sounds one can make. Lastly, but by no means most importantly, it gives one a sense of confidence in performance.

P.S. It takes about the same amount of time for me to read a page of a paperback novel as it does to play an exercise from Volume Two of the Hanon book!

Further links & resources

  • The Hanon Debate (Part 1)Click here to view a post in which some of our Online Academy contributors share their views on Hanon’s Virtuoso Pianist.
  • How to Use HanonClick here to find out how Ilga Pitkevica approaches Hanon’s exercises and how she recommends using them.
  • Developing a Balanced Technique – Ilga Pitkevica shares insights into approaches for achieving “pianistic fitness” based on her experience of the traditions of the Russian School of piano playing (includes two new videos on how to use Hanon!). Click here fore more information.
  • 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.