Technique Exercises: Pros and Cons

Piano students and teachers in Hong Kong should be quite familiar with names such as Hanon and Czerny (and maybe even Burgmüller and Beyer), as these are the composers of the all-so-popular technique exercises that train our fingers to be “independent” and “strong”.

In my experience, I was trained when little (at graded levels) to work on many books of Czerny (Op.849, 599, 299 etc, and the last one 740, “School of Velocity”) and Hanon of course. I am not sure if I drilled on Burgmüller and Beyer but I most probably did. Later during my teenage years I was introduced to work on more “advanced” exercises such as Pischna’s “Technical Studies”, and much later during my undergraduate study, Brahms’ “51 Exercises”, Donhanyi’s “Essential Finger Exercises” (introduced by a fellow schoolmate to me during my summer study in Canada, but did not really work on it), Cortot’s “Rational Principles of Pianoforte Technique”, and of course Chopin’s “Études”, which in my opinion (and I am sure most readers would agree) are not really exercises but concert pieces.

Looking back at those technical exercises I did, I would say they had been useful in various ways. For instance, I worked on so many Czerny exercises that my fingers were comparatively fast in executing running passages with much clarity already when young. Hanon wise, I did not know until much later that the exercises were supposed to be transposed and practiced in all different keys obviously without teacher’s explanation (she probably
did not know that herself either) so I always practiced all the exercises given in C major only. They were probably good for developing the so-called “finger independence” at the early stage of my training as well. Later during my undergraduate years I picked some of the exercises and used them for weight transfer practice, incorporating arm movement into finger works. It was then when I found with the same exercises one could use them for training of different/specific techniques, only on the condition that one knew how and what to do with them.

Other than these obvious and familiar exercises, I also made up some exercises to work on the weight transfer and different arm movements, based on what I read in the books by Bernstein and Sandor. For weight transfer, I used some weight straps wrapped around my wrists to emphasize and feel the weight under my fingers. I would make up some exercises based on the pieces I was working on in order to improve my technique at the same time get more familiar with the pieces. These were the exercises that I did in the past years.

For me, practicing technical exercises can be beneficial, as long as one knows what techniques s/he is working on and how to implement them in the exercises as well as in real playing, that is the repertoire. Otherwise, if one practices these exercises mindlessly without understanding what s/he is doing, one can easily strain his/her hands or even develop long-term injury in the hands/arms. As always, mindful practice is the key to enhance one’s playing and bring it to the next new level.

Teresa Wong

P.S. If any readers would like me to elaborate on how to work on specific exercises/techniques, please do let me know.

Read more of my articles about piano techniques on:
On Five-Fingers Exercise
On Wrists and Fingers
Technique and Sitting Posture (Brahms’ 51 Exercises)
Brahms’ 51 Exercises (No. 10)
Brahms’ 51 Exercises (No.16a)

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