Are Exercises A Waste of Time?

Originally published from 1922 – 1929, Alberto Jonás’ series of seven books entitled Master School of Modern Piano Playing and Virtuosity is a treatise on piano technique designed to embrace “all the technical, aesthetic and artistic features required for the highest pianistic virtuosity”. The series contains original exercises by Jonás himself (he was one of the most sought-after piano teachers in the USA in the early 20th century), as well as exercises he commissioned from some of the most important pianists of the day (Ferruccio Busoni, Leopold Godowsky, Alfred Cortot and Josef Lhevinne among them).

This fascinating resource and historical document came to my attention only fairly recently, with the republication in 2011 of the first two volumes by Dover, with an introduction by Sara Davis Buechner (click here to purchase on Amazon).

You can watch a video of Ms. Buechner talk about the first extension exercises here.

Alberto Jonás

But surely in the modern age such exercises should be consigned to the dustbins of pianistic history? A quaint reminder of how things used to be done, until we came to know better. Some authorities are very vocal about this. What disturbs me about the (often vicious) fighting that goes on in the pedagogical community is the scorn and venom that come up at the very mention of the word “extension exercise” or “finger exercise”. Normally civilised and well-mannered folk get on their high horse, thinking nothing of trampling on colleagues’ work with a kind of fundamentalist, religious fervour.

How fascinating, then, to find an interview with Stephen Hough in Pianist Magazine recently (Issue 88), in which he discusses how he has made a return to practising exercises.

“You can warm up by playing pieces, of course, but you might not have a real finger-by-finger warm-up so that your whole hand, by the time you come to play, is evenly, systematically prepared… Now I usually do 10 to 20 minutes a day and I’ve devised my own exercises. I’ve taken the Jonás, made some of them a bit more challenging and others more consistent, and I think it’s really helped.”

There are a few things that are worth pointing out here. Firstly that Mr. Hough is an international virtuoso pianist of the highest order, with an established career on the world’s concert platforms and in recording studios. This he has maintained for many years. Secondly, he is very much his own person – highly intelligent and articulate. Thirdly, he practises the exercises for just a few minutes each day for a specific reason – not two hours straight until his fingers are falling off.

Now, I am no fan of mindless finger exercises, but I do think there is a middle path somewhere here. I find myself assigning the odd exercise, very often jailbroken (adapted) for a particular student who needs a vehicle for a specific reason – something simple, easy to remember, and easy to use. We’ll do it for a short time and then drop it, perhaps moving on to another exercise or perhaps not. A colleague whom I respect enormously, who was brought up in the Eastern European tradition of Czerny and other exercises and studies uses these with his own students. A waste of time? Injurious? Hardly, not the way he does them. My colleague produces competition prize winners who play fabulously and don’t have a whiff of injury about them.

Another top-rank virtuoso pianist with a major career, Peter Donohoe, is known for playing some of the most demanding works in the repertoire – including concertos nobody else will go near. Mr. Donohoe practises Hanon.

“I was unwilling, but I was persuaded to do Czerny. And more specifically, or more relevantly actually, I was persuaded to do Hanon. And the reason that’s become very relevant is because I do it now. And I recommend other people do it now as well. And I know plenty of my colleagues who would say that was the opposite of what we should do; that it was some kind of anti-musical experience that you don’t need to do. And I don’t agree with them because I have definitely felt many improvements in what I do from playing those exercises.”

You can read and watch Melanie Spanswick’s interview with Peter Donohoe here.

I hope my readers will agree that it would be colossally arrogant to suggest that Messrs. Hough and Donohoe have been successful despite these finger exercises, or that they have been wasting their time doing them.

No one authority has all the answers, and piano playing is not an exact science. Trashing someone else’s work has the opposite effect of what is intended – it is hostile and disrespectful, it discourages healthy debate and fans the flames of animosity and hatred.