A Balanced Approach to Exercises and Studies

This week I was working with a student who expressed a certain frustration that they were unable to control the two-against-three cross rhythms in Rachmaninov’s D major Prelude, op 23 no 4, especially the second section from bar 19.

All was fine when I suggested experimenting with playing both hands at the same dynamic level, but the trouble started when the left hand duplets needed to retreat into the background so that the top melodic line could project. By focussing the listening onto the right hand, the left hand took on an unpredictable rhythmic life of its own. 

Rachmaninov prelude op 23 no 4

My student asked if there were any two against three studies they might practise in order to address this problem. Of course, there are hundreds, but my first response was to take something they already knew, the common-or-garden scale, and adapt it to fit this particular situation.

By practising scales with the left hand in 2’s (pp) and the right hand in 3’s firmer (mf, say) in the same tempo and with the same sort of feeling as the Rachmaninov extract (and with the possibility of some pedal), we don’t have to worry about reading any notes or dealing with any other challenges presented by the actual passage. Instead, we can look at our keyboard and use the long-familiar scale as a vehicle for creating the particular sound and coordination needed for the piece.

Using exercises and studies

The developing pianist might practise exercises and studies to help build technical skills; the advanced player might use them for warming up and to keep in shape. For myself, when I need to be in shape for performance, I will do some daily chord exercises and also something for double notes (usually thirds).

“Finger” technique is a problematic concept, because we really don’t want to practise anything that isolates individual fingers from the arm (an old-school concept), but we can certainly use Hanon off-label to choreograph certain movements in these easy-to-remember patterns of notes (innocuous in and of themselves). 

For example, the movement of the thumb in this adaptation of Hanon No. 1 may be useful to experience the sensation of arm alignment behind the 5th finger in a player who is aiming to fix the problem of keeping their thumb extended:

exercises and studies adapting hanon

How about using Hanon exercises fingered only with the thumb and 2nd finger (then thumb and 3rd finger, etc.) to develop some flexibility of the thumb? And it should go without saying that these exercises need to be transposed. 

To return to the subject of polyrhythms, one of my favourite types of “finger” exercise is something along these lines:

exercises and studies for polyrhythms

If we think of the hand as being made up of two teams (a team of three fingers versus a team of the remaining two fingers) we can adapt the exercise. There are several possibilities: try with thumb and 5th playing the duplets and 2nd, 3rd and 4th playing the triplets. In addition to playing both voices legato, we can practise the triplets legato and the duplets staccato, then reverse this. We may of course do this with both hands together, but this is not really necessary – each hand alone is just fine. 

I am certainly in favour of a balanced approach to exercises and studies that address specific pianistic problems, but too much of a focus on these risks taking valuable time away from the study of real music. The well-established book, Pianoforte Technique on an Hour a Day by Tankard and Harrison assumes we have several more hours available to us daily and that the technical skills we are supposed to acquire from practising the exercises can be transferred across to real music (not everyone would agree that this is necessarily the case). It’s surely preferable to pick a few of these exercises, varying them regularly, and spending a certain percentage of the practice time we have on any given day. Less is definitely more when it comes to regimes like this!

Lastly, if you would like to know more about my approach to exercises and studies, then please join me on Saturday 13th March for an interactive online workshop on using technical exercises and studies effectively (please click here or see below for further information).

Using Technical Exercises and Studies

In these interactive workshops, Graham Fitch shows how several technical exercises and studies can be used effectively to improve your technique. The workshops follow a hands-on format with demonstrations of exercises interspersed with short-supervised breakout sessions for you to try them out. 

The workshops are a more practical follow-on from our introductory workshop on using exercises and studies effectively. Although you don’t need to have attended this workshop in order to participate, you can find out more about it and purchase access to the recording and resources here. 

Click here for more information or to book your place!