Jailbreaking Hanon Exercises – Practising the Piano

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 piano professors and their students quickly adopted it. 

jailbreaking Hanon's virtuouso pianist

Modern piano teaching has moved away from the concept of so-called “finger strengthening” using mechanical exercises such as these, and certainly from lifting each finger high and in isolation from the others. However, many concert pianists and top teachers still use Hanon’s exercises, presumably in ways that differ from Hanon’s original instructions for how to play them.

Jailbreaking Hanon’s Exercises

Since the exercises are nothing more than patterns of five-finger positions that move up and down across the keyboard, they are innocuous in themselves. It depends entirely on how we do them, and what we are doing them for. I use a selection of the exercises as blank canvasses to teach specific choreography. I call this “jailbreaking”.

Jailbreaking is the process used to modify the operating system running on an iPhone to allow the user greater control over their device, including the ability to remove restrictions imposed by the manufacturer and install apps and other content through other unofficial online stores. By using Hanon “off-label”, we can ignore his outdated instructions and instead use his easy-to-remember note patterns as vehicles for developing pianistic skills that have nothing to do with finger strengthening, rather with coordination and alignment.

Using Exercise No. 1 for Different Purposes

To give an example of my jailbreaking approach, let’s look at the first exercise which is a simple five-finger pattern in which I use for a variety of purposes:

jailbreaking Hanon exercise No. 1

As a thumb exercise, try this hands separately using just the thumb and 2nd finger, then thumb and 3rd finger. You can follow this with thumb and 4th and 5th if you can do so comfortably. This gives you a useful exercise for developing some flexibility in the thumb (provided the elbow does not dip up and down).

If there is a tendency to lock in the wrist during passagework, the fingers will tend to take over and the playing soon feels tight and uncoordinated. Using Hanon No. 1 to choreograph the lateral wrist adjustments necessary to line up with forearm with the playing finger is often more expedient than aiming to experience the movements in a complex piece of music. The note pattern is easily memorised, and we can look down at the hand in order to focus fully on the movements involved.

In this excerpt from my Online Academy video series I demonstrate how this works:

If you’d like to find out more about my approach to using Hanon’s exercises creatively and adapting them for various purposes then please click here to view my video series on the Online Academy. Several further blog posts on using Hanon are also available here.

Try It for Yourself!

If you’d like a live demonstration of how Hanon’s exercises can be used creatively and a chance to try this yourself, then don’t miss our online workshop on Saturday 17th July @ 14:00 BST (GMT +1). Using specially designed exercises and activities, Graham shows how the exercises can be adapted to experience and develop various wrist movements and touches, thumb flexibility and rotation. Click here for more information and to book your place!