Overpracticers Hanonymous – Practising the Piano

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 fills in loads of time and costs very little by way of concentration (after a while). I question what it actually achieves, apart from dulling the imagination and the ear, and causing the fingers to operate like little pistons (insistence on this is positively detrimental to skillful and artistic modern piano playing).

For a long time we have been acting against nature by training our fingers to be all equally powerful. As each finger is differently formed, it’s better not to attempt to destroy the particular charm of each one’s touch but on the contrary to develop it. Each finger’s power is determined by its shape: the thumb having the most power, being the broadest, shortest and freest; the fifth [finger] as the other extremity of the hand; the third as the middle and the pivot; then the second [illegible]. And then the fourth, the weakest one, the Siamese twin of the third, bound to it by a common ligament, and which people insist on trying to separate from the third-which is impossible, and, fortunately, unnecessary. 

Cortot, Alfred, ed. In Search of Chopin. Translated by Cyril and Rena Clarke. New York: AbelardPress, 1952, p. 41.

I maintain that it is possible to reach a very high level of skill using fingers, but virtuosity cannot be achieved without a blended activity involving the arm. I find I use Hanon exercises in my teaching, but not for what it says on the tin. Actually, very often I use them for the precise opposite of what they are intended for, when a student has been overdoing the fingers. When all is said and done, Hanon exercises are just variations on five-finger positions with a note missed out so the patterns can move up and down the keyboard. There are times when, to teach a specific skill, such a contraption can be useful. You can put your full concentration on the activity “at hand”.

Some examples:

  • I use the first one as a wrist exercise, the fingers not operating as single digits but as extensions of the hand . I start in minims with a “down” wrist movement followed by an “up”, not playing on the “up”. I make sure the range of motion is the same in both directions, and that the motion is smooth and controlled. Then, in crotchets so that the “up” motion is now used for the second note, see-saw-like. Again, there is no discernible movement from the finger itself. Then in semiquavers, one down and three up. It is important that the range of the “up” motion be shared equally between the three notes.
  • Other exercises can be played with an elliptical movement, again controlled by the arm. The role of the finger is to be on the key and to be firm enough to transfer the arm energy. Concentrate instead on how little the fingers need to move.
  • Having once studied for a while with a student of rotation guru Dorothy Taubman, I have seen how forearm rotation is at the root of so much that we do at the keyboard. Hanon numbers 6 and then 5 (in that reversed order) are good to develop rotation. I start with number 6 because every other note is the 5th finger, which enables a full supinated movement with the palm of the hand at right angles to the keyboard. Once this has been mastered, the same skill can be transferred to number 5, but watch that the movement between the 4th and 5th fingers is still rotary. The range of the rotary motion will depend on the interval in question – a second’s span clearly smaller than a fifth’s. Important: movement toward the thumb side of the hand (pronation) will achieve a much smaller angle than toward the 5th finger side of the hand (supination). Between each rotation, the hand returns to a level position, the rotary movement itself happening quickly and at the last instant. Oh, and the elbow needs to be passive. For those interested in the anatomy of this, here is a somewhat tedious YouTube clip. For those who want to explore this further, I can recommend the TaubmanGolandsky YouTube channel, which has 48 clips.

If you are going to practise Hanon, you might want to think about using the exercises for your own devious ends, or at least be imaginative with how you do them. I see very little point in playing them in the printed key of C. Why? I can’t think of any piece of music that avoids black keys, so transpose the exercises into two or three different keys. A distinguished colleague once told me a story of how in the middle of his career as an international concert pianist he suddenly became aware of a fact about the piano. I was intrigued as to what this might be. In a flash of insight, he told me he realised that the black keys were higher up and further away!

There is a website where you can actually get transpositions of Hanon. I don’t see why they can’t also be played in the minor. Obviously practise them in different rhythms, but also try playing one hand in a dotted rhythm, say, with the other in even notes. How about switching this every third repetition of the pattern? This is great for general coordination. Change touches as well – try slurring one hand in pairs while playing staccato in the other. Play one hand p, the other f. Have you tried crossing hands? Changing the metrical grouping from fours to fives is also constructive, especially if the first note of a group of five gets an accent.  The indefatigable piano teacher John Thompson brought out his own edition, introducing various touches – a great use for these exercises. There is also a publication that looks interesting, Hanon Revisited.

So in conclusion, Hanon is fine if done well and as part of a balanced diet. I occasionally play through a book of it when I am out of shape (after a vacation) and it will warm me up nicely. But there are other things that, frankly, do the job far better – look into the Brahms 51 Exercises, some of which are almost music…

For further reading:

Since publishing this, I stumbled across another blogpost on the subject, which is certainly of interest.

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If you enjoyed this blog post, then you may be interested in the following resources:

Practising the Piano eBook Series 

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From the Ground Up

From the Ground Up is a series devoted to learning individual pieces using outlines and reduced scores that help you to practise more effectively, memorise more consciously, and interpret music more creatively. Each From the Ground Up edition starts with a reduced score or foundation which reveals the essential structure of the music. Detail is then added in layers through successive scores thus enabling learning a piece from the ground up rather than the top down. Please click here to find out more about From the Ground Up on the Online Academy or on one of the following links to view the first two editions:

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