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.
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 repertoire. Enlightened teachers who do this are using the note patterns for something very specific, and are therefore not using Hanon as per his instructions. Like all exercises, it’s how we do them that matters.
Given the interest this topic generates, I’ve compiled some some thoughts from a few well-known pianists and teachers on their view and approach to Hanon.
If you’d like to find out more about my approach to using exercises then you may be interested in joining my online workshops on Sat 6th Feb in which I’ll demonstrate how I use Hanon and other exercises (more information is available here).
Hanon exercises are certainly not the be-all-and-end-all of technique, but they do offer some benefits. What makes them useful is the varying patterns, which are challenging and help the fingers differentiate and get “smarter.”. Like anything else, their value depends totally on how we approach them, what our intentions are.
I think it’s a mistake to hammer through them heavily, stiffly, metronomically, pumping the arm up and down on every note, etc.! I prefer to use them freely as a warm-up, senza tempo, with deep tone through arm-weight and complete legato, checking constantly for comfort, relaxation, and a feeling of finger strength. When a particular finger feels weak, stop and just let the arm “wallow” more deeply for a while in that note (this feels great). This is not a mechanical approach; it’s more a kind of exploration of how the fingers happen to feel that day, and a way to give each one a chance to “wake up” naturally.
Click here to view William’s videos on revisiting warm-ups which include a demonstration of how he uses Hanon as part of a simple, effective warm-up regime.
When I have a pupil who definitely would benefit from developing good technique, but is not enjoying neither scales nor etudes, then I find Hanon’s Exercises to be a true “saviour”. Of course, the selection of exercises I prescribe would depend on a pupil’s needs and the purpose of each exercise would be clearly explained.
For example, I would always use Ex. 58 – for gentle stretching, for warming-up, and (especially if modified), for developing the activity of fingers 2 and 4. Exercises 50 and 54 are also among my firm favourites because playing thirds is always good for finger independence and for voicing skills. Any of Exercises 1-30 are extremely useful for polishing fluidity of wrists while maintaining firm and focused fingertips (this actually works best if to start at medium speed). And exercises 32 – 37 definitely will help sort out any stiff, low or collapsing thumbs!
I am not against the occasional use of some of the fingering patterns featured in the exercises but I am strongly against using the entire book as advised by Hanon, for various reasons. Firstly, the exercises focus almost exclusively on finger action, ignoring more coordinated movements of the whole arm. Hanon tells pianists to ‘lift the fingers high and with precision until this entire volume is mastered’. A high curved finger action is the main cause of pianist’s injuries and should be avoided: fast semiquaver passages should be played from the key surface with a light, fast finger action.
Hanon recommends playing the entire book daily to build stamina. We acquire stamina, not by repeating the same exercises with a faulty technique, but by learning how to coordinate the body so that the stronger muscles of the upper arm and shoulder support the action of the fingers, and by learning how to use the minimum of physical effort for the best musical result.
I know several pianists who do play the whole book daily while reading a novel! However, the repetitive nature of this work can encourage a pianist to dissociate his piano technique from any musical considerations, such as quality of sound and musical gesture, and to disengage the mind and the emotions when playing. I feel that the time spent could be used more profitably in practising a varied range of short exercises which have a clear musical purpose and are directly relevant to pieces that are currently being studied.
More information on Penelope’s approach to technical exercises is available in her book The Complete Pianist.
Further links & resources
- The Hanon Debate (Part 2) – Click here to view a post featuring further views on Hanon by concert pianist Peter Donohoe.
- How to Use Hanon – Click 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.