The subject of technical exercises is a thorny and controversial one. At one stage in the evolution of piano playing, it was mandatory to spend hours a day practising technical exercises and studies that were often extremely dry and unmusical. In the nineteenth century many method books were published, filled with them. Some teachers even instructed their students to read a book while doing all the copious repetitions, to ward off boredom!
The rationale behind all this was that such gymnastics would allow the pianist to cope better with the greater size of the pianos being manufactured, the increase in the touch weight of the keys and of course the increase in difficulty of the music composed for the instrument. Rather than find a new technique more suited to the heavier keyboard and the greater technical demands, players and teachers stuck with what they knew. Without realising it, they were flogging a dead horse. Unfortunately, endless drill often led to playing that was fixated on mechanics, to the detriment of artistry or musical merit, as well as the real risk of pain and injury. So not only is this kind of mindless mechanical practice largely a waste of time, it can actually do more harm than good.
Although spending a lot of time practising repetitive mechanical exercises is out of favour amongst many teachers at the moment, it is very possible, and sometimes preferable, to study a particular aspect of playing by using carefully chosen exercises and studies that have enough musical interest to hold the attention. Exercises serve three main purposes: to warm us up, to build and maintain technical skills, and to help us tackle general difficulties or specific 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.
In his chapter, The Road to Mastery in The Russian Piano School (ed. Christopher Barnes), legendary Russian pianist and teacher, Samuil Feinberg, makes an important distinction between gymnastics and exercises. The point of gymnastics is to strengthen muscles, increase physical endurance and improve stability, whereas an exercise targets a specific movement or habit we wish to embed.
I believe that the pianist…should overcome specific technical problems by performing particular exercises, and not through indulging in general manual gymnastics. If we compare the physical features of a splendid piano virtuoso and someone unable to play the piano, it may well turn out that there is little difference in their musculature. The difference between them is simply that one of them can play the piano and the other cannot. I am the last one to deny the importance of training for piano technique. But a pianist should focus his main attention not on gymnastics but on exercise, if only because there is an element of gymnastics present in every exercise and every practising session.The Russian Piano School, ed. Christopher Barnes, 27-28
Feinberg gives the example of learning to ride a bicycle. Nobody would think of first undergoing a gymnastic training to strengthen the muscles; instead you would simply need to practise until you acquired the coordination to keep your balance.
Feinberg goes on to list his 10 basic requirements of an exercise. So useful are these observations that I am going to share them with you here.
1. So far as possible, an exercise must relate directly to a pianist’s current artistic work. It must be directed to the resolution of a particular aesthetic problem.
2. It is essential to learn to distinguish what is difficult from what is easy, what one can do from what is unmanageable. A pianist should not work on imaginary problems.
3. An exercise should be easier than the difficulty that you want to master.
4. An exercise should be based on simple, natural elements of piano technique.
5. An exercise should be short.
6. An exercise should be based on the principle of “from the simplest to the complex”, and not vice versa.
7. An exercise must yield positive results in a short time.
8. An exercise should be based on the exchange of experience between the right and left hand.
9. An exercise should be executed with maximum technical perfection.
10. It is essential when doing exercises to concentrate on beauty of tone, and on efficiency and complete freedom of movement.
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. The single most important thing to remember about exercises is how you do them.
So what about studies? Some of the Czerny studies (the shorter ones) can be very useful when included in a balanced diet of pianistic work. If you really want to do some Czerny, I can recommend the Eight-Measure Exercises, op 821 (they are mercifully short and to the point) and the selection made by Heinrich Germer (offering a digest of the most representative items from several different opuses).
However, one of my favourite sets of intermediate studies is the Twenty Short Studies, op 91 by Moritz Moszkowski, in two volumes. I like these not only because they are short, but also because they come from the modern school of piano playing and are full of interest, vitality and pianistic value.
Another evergreen set is Burgmüller’s 25 Easy and Progressive Studies, op 100. I am featuring teaching notes and a video walkthrough of each of the studies on the Online Academy at the moment. Follow this link to find out more.
At the advanced level, we move to the great concert studies of Chopin, Liszt and others too numerous and well-known to mention.