Technical Exercises and Regimes

Introduction (1)


When I was a student, I was struck by the two camps I noticed among my peers. There were those who did finger exercises religiously each day, and those who didn’t. My teachers had given me specific exercises when necessary, and once these exercises had done their job I was instructed to stop practising them, or to do them only once in a while. Apart from the mandatory diet of scales and arpeggios, I was never assigned reams of Czerny, Clementi or much else in that department, except for a few judiciously chosen studies along the way. Such a middle path is the best solution to the question of technical work. It is not the amount of it we do that matters, but how we do it.

My teachers believed, as do I, that we develop our technique gradually over time, mostly from the repertoire we study. In other words: from real music, not dry mechanical exercises. In the early years, the music we learn needs to be carefully graded so we don’t bite off more than we can chew, although the occasional piece that is a little too hard can present a good challenge that will stretch us, and from which we will grow. But we must never forget that technique is our ability to realise the composer’s message as we understand it, in the most natural and efficient way possible. Clarity of line and texture, producing a beautiful sound from the piano, expert and sensitive pedalling and skilful chord voicing are as much hallmarks of technique as the ability to play fast and loud, or to toss off flashy octaves and thunderous chords. It is not at all hard to make a big sound out of the piano, whereas a true pianissimo requires much more control.

Technique must relate to the music; it cannot exist by itself. My mechanical ability to play superfast double thirds means nothing unless it expresses musical or artistic meaning. Even though I have mentioned this before, it is worth recalling the principles of Grigori Kogan, who was something of a legend during my years of study with Nina Svetlanova (she mentioned him frequently):

  1. We need to be able to hear the music inwardly in all its details.
  2. We need to have a passionate and intense desire to realise the image we have.
  3. We need our full concentration on this task in everyday practising.

So why, then, a whole section of this book on technical exercises? One thing I have noticed among students of the piano is a desire to work on pure technique, and they will tend to do so no matter what I tell them. A certain amount of this type of work in our diet can certainly be beneficial, and I would not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I am fortunate enough to have an excellent pedigree as a pianist: my teachers have all been experts in their field, representing the world’s main schools and traditions of piano playing. This is part of my heritage and I would like to pass the best of this on.

In this series of articles, I look at exercise regimes, making the distinction between exercises that warm us up and those that build up our technique. Given the divisions in the piano world about this subject, is it necessary to do traditional finger exercises at all? How do these help? And do they do more harm than good?

A Short History of Technical Exercises

In the nineteenth century there was a widespread belief that hours a day spent practising finger exercises would lead to mastery of the instrument. Many method books were published, filled with exercises and studies. 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 the exercises 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 leads to playing that is fixated on mechanics, to the detriment of artistry or musical merit, as well as to pain and injury. Not only is this kind of mechanical practice largely a waste of time, it can actually do more harm than good.

The word technique comes from the Greek word technikos, meaning “of, or pertaining to art; artistic, skilful”. This should highlight to us the close connection between the technical, and the musical or interpretative. Interpretation and technique are one and the same, since every sound that we strive to produce has to be achieved by physical means. Most modern piano pedagogues discourage their students from separating purely technical work from music for this very reason. And yet, we need to understand how to meet the demands of the music we play. A thorough training in the mechanics or gymnastics of piano playing is therefore essential.

Although practising repetitive mechanical exercises is out of favour amongst many teachers at the moment, I believe that it is very possible, and sometimes preferable, to study a particular aspect of the mechanics of playing by using an exercise. Exercises serve three main purposes: to warm us up, to build and maintain technique, and to tackle 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.

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, and this is infinitely preferable to mechanical repetitions with the mind somewhere else.

The single most important thing to remember about exercises is not which ones you do or how many you do, but how you do them.

Types of Exercises

We can distinguish between exercises that warm us up and those designed to build and maintain technique. Other types of exercise we might practise are those we invent to tackle trouble spots in our pieces.

Warm-Up Exercises: Necessary or not?

Ballet dancers begin their daily work with stretching exercises at the barre. This ritual is a fundamental part of their tradition. Similarly, some pianists put in an hour or so of warm-ups before they start their daily practice. They might have a strict regimen of finger exercises, scales, double notes, chords, octaves, and more, and in days gone by might even have done these on a weighted silent keyboard (such as the Virgil practice clavier). Others believe that if we are already in shape pianistically from playing daily, then all we need is a small amount of stretching and light limbering up. This might entail beginning the practice session gently by playing through a familiar piece slowly and lightly without any exertion until the muscles have woken up. If they haven’t played for a few days, they might also go through a set of exercises. Since there are master pianists and teachers who adopt both of these approaches with equal success, the extent and nature of our warm up comes down to personal choice.

Technical Exercise Regimens

A technical regimen is a tailor-made selection of exercises and/or studies addressing specific aspects of technique. This is similar to the kind of training an athlete would be required to undertake, and involves repetition to keep reflexes active and automatic, as well as to develop or maintain stamina. The exercises might be of one’s own invention, or we might draw on those designed by others (see further reading and resources list at the end of this article for examples). It is best to vary the exercises from week to week to ward off boredom and to keep the mind fully engaged.

Broadly speaking, these exercises can be broken down into the following categories:

Further reading and resources

  • Charles-Louis Hanon, The Virtuoso Pianist in 3 volumes (Click here)
  • Tankard and Harrison, Pianoforte Technique on an Hour a Day (Click here)
  • Dohnányi, Essential Finger Exercises (Click here)
  • Beringer, Daily Technical Studies (Click here)
  • Jonas, Master School of Virtuoso Piano Playing (Volume 1 and Volume 2)
  • Cisler and Hinson, Technique for the Advancing Pianist (Click here)
  • Pischna, 60 Progressive Exercises (Click here)
  • Philipp, Complete School of Technic (Click here)
  • Theodor Kullak, The School of Octave Playing (Click here)
  • Alfred Cortot, Rational Principles of Pianoforte Technique (Click here)
  • Moritz Moszkowski, School of Double Notes Op. 64 (Click here)
  • Isidor Philipp, School of Double Notes (Click here)