Some people swear by them; others detest them with a passion. Love them or hate them, exercises are a crucial part of the pianist’s technical regime, and discussions about the pros and cons of exercises in online piano forums and elsewhere are often as heated as the Brexit debate!
Finger exercises developed alongside the development of the piano as pianists and teachers realised that the instrument required a different technique to playing the harpsichord or clavichord, and by the nineteenth century countless volumes of mostly tedious drills were available, promising dramatic improvements in finger strength, dexterity and velocity.
Some of the best-known, and well-regarded exercises are by Czerny, Clementi, Cramer, Hanon, Brahms and Dohnanyi. Claude Debussy poked fun at these exercises in his Dr Gradus ad Parnassum from Children’s Corner, and while the piece is essentially humorous, it is also an ingenious study in finger independence, with an early twentieth century musical vocabulary, which requires a high level of technical assuredness.
Alongside piano exercises, the Étude, designed to provide practice material for perfecting a particular aspect of technique, emerged in the nineteenth century with the growing popularity of the piano. Fryderyk Chopin elevated the student study into a work of great artistry and poetry, turning humble exercises into glittering concert pieces, and his Opp.10 and 25 Études remain amongst the most popular works written for piano, regularly performed in concert and on disc. Each Étude tests a particular aspect of technique, such as arpeggios, octaves, left hand melody, but these glorious works never feel like exercises. They reveal Chopin’s profound understanding of the mechanics of the pianist’s hand and fingers, and although very difficult, they are some of the most satisfying piano music to play.
Franz Liszt built on Chopin’s model in his Transcendental Études, Concert Études, and Paganini Études. But rather than concentrate on specific aspects of technique, these Études offer challenges within the context of performance at the highest technical level: i.e. one must already possess the requisite technique in order to play them successfully, and their difficulty reflects Liszt’s own prowess at the piano.
Debussy also wrote piano Études, describing them as “a warning to pianists not to take up the musical profession unless they have remarkable hands“. They are extremely difficult, each showcasing a different set of finger gymnastics, from a seemingly simple 5-finger exercise in No. 1 to playing in thirds (No. 2) or cascading arpeggios in No. 11. Humorous and witty, they are, like the Études of Chopin and Liszt, not limited simply to pedagogical concerns and are tremendous concert works in their own right.
Exercises and studies serve a number of purposes to the pianist, whether you are a fan of exercises like Hanon or Czerny, swear by scales and arpeggios or prefer to create your own exercises based on the repertoire you are working on:
- To warm up the fingers, hands and body
- To practice and improve technical facility
- To help understand the ‘mechanics’ of the music
- To approach problem areas in repertoire
Warming up need not be done at the piano and a set of simple exercises drawn from yoga done standing up is helpful in warming up hands and arms, opening the chest and relaxing the neck and shoulders. Doing the sequence away from the piano is also useful in allowing the mind to focus on that session’s practising.
Any technical exercise can be harmful if badly understood and/or mis-taught by the teacher and poorly executed by the student; exercises should therefore always be done with care and attention. Mechanical repetitions are not useful – there are anecdotes of pianists practising technical exercises while reading a book or newspaper as an antidote to the monotony – and we should always fully engage with the activity, remaining aware of sensations in fingers, hands, arms and body, and listening to the sound we are producting.
Always practice exercises, including scales and arpeggios, musically as this makes the process more enjoyable and artistically useful, and continually reflect and self-critique, just as one would when practising repertoire. This kind of deliberate, thoughtful practice should yield noticeable positive results in a short amount of time.