Recommendations on Useful Piano Technical Exercises (Part I)

A lot of readers and students have been asking me what exercises they should practice to improve their piano technical skills. To that I often answer, “scales“. I believe scales (and arpeggios) are the cornerstone of building a solid piano technical foundation, since you will find them (and variations of them) in all kinds of pieces. Being able to identify and execute scales quickly, smoothly and precisely helps not only in reading a new piece faster, but also learning and practicing it much easier in a shorter period of time. 

I usually do not recommend spending too much time on practicing technical exercises for the sake of it. Think about the purpose of practicing pure technical exercises, like playing a Czerny exercise for example. What exactly are you doing with it? Are you merely playing through an exercise simply with a belief that after you have practiced a so-called “technical exercise” (just because it is named as is), your technical skill will suddenly improve? Does it explain anything in the book anywhere how it will help you improve your technique after you practice a particular exercise? And what exactly is the technical command you want to improve here? Do you know what it means to have an excellent command of technical skills? What are the components of the skills and how do you acquire them? 

I certainly don’t believe merely by playing some technical “finger-independence” exercises over and over again with increased tempi without understanding what you are doing with the exercises in the exercises will help you with any technical improvement whatsoever. I mean, I had tried that, by the “teachers” I had in my teenage era. And believe me, it was a painful and futile act. Perhaps some people like to do and repeat things over and over again without thinking much about them, praying(/believing with no doubt – I wonder how) that one day their technique will magically improve, just because they have put a lot of time and effort into repeating certain exercises with absolutely zero understanding how the whole human body mechanism (and the piano mechanism) works in relation to piano playing. For one thing I can assure you, if you are ever taught with “finger-independence” exercises and you only focus on how to make your fingers play faster and faster in your whole life, I am sorry to say, it will never work to get to where you want to be.

If I ever recommend anyone – readers and students and teachers- on practicing any technical exercises, the exercises must be performing very specific goals to strengthen and activate (and sometimes relax or just be aware of) a specific part of the muscles/ part of body, whether it be the fingertips, the palm muscle, the wrist, the forearm, the upper arm, the shoulder joint, the shoulder blade, the upper body, the lower body, the weight transfer etc etc. And it would only take 5-10 minutes of everyday practice to start with, most importantly with focusing on a specific feeling/motion/set of muscle. One crucial point that most students forget (or ignore) is being aware of how they feel. What exactly are they feeling when they press a key down? Is there a lot of tension in the palm/finger/forearm? Do they keep pressing the key with a lot of force even after it is stroked down and held? How much tension are they holding, and how much relaxation are they giving in between the tension moments? Are they applying the different techniques required when playing different kinds of passages? Are they rotating their arms, or simply swinging the wrists? Are they using the fingertips with the support of palm muscles, keeping the wrist flexible, with the upper arm suspending in the air at all times?

The technical exercises must be simple enough for players to focus on performing the specific movement correctly and gaining that right movement with repetition, to the point it becomes an autopilot mode for the player to perform such movement without even having to think about it. 

So here I recommend a few exercises that I use with my students and student teachers:

Brahms: 51 Exercises

Pischna:Technique Studies for the Piano 

Hanon: The Virtuoso Pianist (Exercises No.21-30) (*yes I use it too but not the way it is usually practiced, so please bear with me here until I explain later)

and my own Technique Transformation Exercise Book

I shall talk more about them in the next post.

Until then, happy practicing, 

Teresa Wong

One of my favorite exercise books: Brahms' 51 Exercises
One of my favorite exercise books: Brahms’ 51 Exercises

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