Piano Exercises … Yes or No

Scales and arpeggios.   Schmitt, Plaidy, Pischna, and Hanon …  the list is a daunting one and almost every teacher is familiar with the task of administering this “medicine” to all her students.  Those fingers must be strengthened and evenness of tone and velocity are essential.  And you have to start in right away with those very first lessons.

Or so most teachers believe.

However, very few teachers are willing to face the sad reality that most students aren’t going to take music lessons for more than three years. Three years seems to be an average after which the student’s interest tends to flag and a myriad of excuses for not practicing or attending lessons will suddenly appear. Most of us who love teaching are perennial optimists and we hope that each of our charges will advance to brilliant levels of performance. But the truth is that this is a chimera. Most will not. Most will stop lessons and never touch a piano again.

I know that discussing this reality with parents will most probably have them wheeling around and heading for the nearest exit. No parent wants to confront the fact that his child is statistically going to fall into that three-year black hole. No parent sees his child as a “norm”. Many are convinced that they are accompanying a new Mozart into my studio.

So I rarely broach this unfortunate fact with parents

But personally I  find it heart-breaking and have spent over thirty years working on ways to prevent this utter loss … of time and money and above all, of the opportunity to have music as an integral and wonderful part of each pupil’s life

Over the years, I’ve found I must work carefully around this truncated time-frame as part of my teaching ethos, making sure that those few years I have with each student are filled with as much MUSIC as possible. Which means I take a radical direction away from methods of teaching which encourage far too much technical work and thus stint on time spent actually making music.  At the end of those three years, who will ever care if the student can play a hundred tedious Schmitt finger exercises, all the scales in four octaves and raise each finger perfectly independently of the other if they can’t sit down and play a creditable “Fur Elise” or a simple Clementi Sonatina. Or pick up sheet music for a popular song or play a simple Christmas carol.

Many teachers devote as much as half the lesson time to technique. Apart from being an almost complete waste of time, this is a sure way to make the experience of learning to play the piano tedious and boring. Until the student reaches an advanced level and is actually hammering out Beethoven Sonatas, they are never going to have a scale passage much greater than an octave, arpeggios rarely extend the entire length of the keyboard and any tricky passage with odd fingering can be extrapolated from the music and used as an independent exercise.

Find the “exercises” right there in the portions of the music which the student is struggling with and save yourself and your student from useless tedium.

“Play those two bars ten times …. start slowly and as soon as you have two correct repetitions, increase the speed to the next level.”   Simple.

But the question then arises. How do you train your students in dexterity and finger strength without technical exercises? To be strong you have to lift weights. Well here we have to honestly consider how strong or dexterous the student has to be to actually play the music. The earlier and simpler pieces do not require finger gymnastics worthy of Rubenstein or Lang Lang. Those pieces can be handled nicely with minimal strength or dexterity.  And don’t forget that every time a piece of music is played, those fingers are being exercised.

The first months must be spent in luring the child into enjoying the lessons and that involves making the learning process fun.   I intersperse each lesson with a little humor, a few fragments of real concert pieces and a lot of praise for everything learned.   And I keep technical work to the minimum.

As the student progresses then the teacher can discreetly sneak extra technical work into the lessons. When a student is actively engaged in making music, it is much easier to add more technical work relatively painlessly. At this point the student wants the music to sound attractive and is invested in putting extra effort into it.

Some Questions for the Teacher

So you don’t offer any technical work for beginning students?

I start with scales from the first day. But I make them fun to learn. And I don’t give them disportionate time or emphasis. With younger students, I start by asking them to watch me play the C scale with the right hand only. I tell them I’m going to trick them, so they should watch carefully. Then I play the scale, being very careful to slip my thumb imperceptibly under the third finger to hit the F. I show them my hand and ask them to count my fingers. Then to count the notes for the octave from C to C.

When the student sees that my five fingers have played eight notes, I explain about the “sneak” finger trick. And that for scales we have to do “finger sneaks”. For some reason the idea of sneaking anything appeals to students of almost any age and when I call out, “Sneak that finger …” they oblige enjoying a little bit of mischief at the idea of playing a trick.

I teach the major and minor harmonic scales in the first year. I introduce contraries when the student is fluent with the two octave scales. And only for the more enthusiastic students. I do not teach arpeggios until much later as they don’t appear in the easier student pieces and I want the students to PLAY those pieces.

I also introduce Hanon which is extremely popular with nearly all my students of all ages. The simplicity of the repeated pattern moving up and down the keyboard doesn’t require reading the notes and even beginners can enjoy the volume of sound and relative ease of speedy playing. Hanon offers a lot of “Bang for the Buck”.  Those exercises are not only great fun, they’re terrific for developing velocity and dexterity.

♥    Remember … I am tailoring my beginner’s classes with the aim of having  the student move as quickly as possibly into actually playing the piano.  I want to engage attention and stem boredom so I can foster enthusiasm and love for music.  When a child “falls in love” with his piano, then I can introduce more technical material.  Allowing the child to play more melodies with less unnecessary fingerwork at the beginning is the key.  And of course I regularly play snippets of the world’s loveliest classics  … without of course naming the composer to avoid that knee jerk response to “classical” music.    I never had a child who didn’t love the Mozart Fantasia, played with a concert pianist’s flourishes.

What are the best technical books for beginners?  For advanced students?

HANON … hands down.  For ALL levels.  This is my Bible as far as teaching technical work is concerned.

http://javanese.imslp.info/files/imglnks/usimg/1/1b/IMSLP91547-PMLP03129-Hanon_Final.pdf

Hanon … The Virtuoso Pianist

This link will allow a free download of the entire volume.   But I would advise purchasing it as a bound volume since it contains virtually every technical exercise a pianist will ever need and can be used for every level of proficiency up to that last rehearsal before mounting the stage at Carnegie Hall.

Part I consists of 20 excellent exercises employing relatively easy patterns which even the beginner can learn by rote.  The second group of 18 focuses on much more complex  fingerings.  For all levels. Not only does it contain those excellent digital workouts, the Hanon also includes all the scales and arpeggios printed with standard fingerings as well as scales in thirds, sixths and octaves.    Repeated note exercises are covered as well as a set of trills, including some in thirds … which will probably be encountered only a handful of times in a concert pianist’s entire career.   In short, Hanon covers just about every keyboard contingency.  It is a classic and armed with just this one volume of piano technique, the serious pianist can indeed merit the title’s guarantee and become a true “virtuoso”.

As a little diversion from the admittedly rather dry Hanon, a teacher can add Carl Czerny’s classic Opus 261,  a collection of brief and delightfully melodic exercises. These studies  are for the most part relatively easy to play and they are short, which appeals to many beginners. They provide a taste of romantic style music and  are so melodic that one can easily forget that they were written as exercises and not mini-concert pieces. Lovely music and popular with almost everyone at every level of skill.

Carl Czerny Elementary Exercises

♥ My only caveat here is that if one is going to learn these mini pieces, it might be better to concentrate on the easier Bach, Clementi and Haydn works which in many cases are not much more difficult.   But as an “introduction” to these longer classics, the Czerny is excellent.

What would you not recommend?

I don’t really like to advise against any specific style of teaching or teaching materials. But I personally avoid anything which is tedious and repetitive for the younger students.   I like to pull supplementary exercises right out of the piece of music the student is actually learning to play. Anything with which the student is struggling is a potential “exercise”. And then mastering that exercise becomes part of learning a real piece of music, rather than merely repeating an isolated fragment with little musical value.

Plaidy, Pischna and Schmitt are other volumes of technical exercises used by piano teachers around the world.   Pischna uses difficult key signatures for many of the included studies and these will not be suitable for beginners.   Plaidy and Schmitt consist of pages of repetitive exercises containing not a shred of melody and none of the exhilarating momentum of the Hanon.   ( Okay I can’t restrain myself here.  As a child I remember these horrors with extreme distaste and don’t want to condemn my students to them.)

PlaidyPlaidy Technical Studies

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What is the most important technical skill which all students must learn?

READ THE DAMNED NOTES

Sorry … this is so important that the only way I can stress it is to demand attention. I censored the original expletive since I am a respected ( and happy) piano professor. But I can’t stress this enough. There is no other skill so important as learning those notes.  It is the key to learning quickly and enjoying the process.

Jettison the extra technical work and concentrate on the notes.   A package of flash cards is essential and should be part of every lesson for the first year or so.

*****

A little parable

In my final year of High School we had a semester in Home Economics which included a sewing class. Each of us was taught to take basic body measurements and choose a commercial Simplicity pattern.  We were instructed to select a simple sundress with no sleeves or collar and to purchase the full yardage specified on the pattern envelope. No exceptions. Then we laid out the paper pattern on the fabric strictly according to the template offered in the pattern instruction sheet and we all carefully cut the pieces out.

We followed the exact order of construction given on that sheet and made up our dresses, learning to put in a zipper, make a neck facing,  attach a gathered skirt to the bodice and make a neat hem.

Each of thirty girls graduated from that class with a new sundress she’d made herself. A simple dress without collar or cuffs, no french seams, no ruffles, no belt loops, no interfacing …. nothing complicated. A simple dress. And we were all delighted and many of us continued sewing to some degree for the rest of our lives.

One carefully choreographed class which gave a life skill to many young girls

Now had we been inundated with instructions on how to create our own pattern from our body measurements, how to reduce required fabric amount by making our own cutting layouts, how to make collars and cuffs and interfacings and bound button holes and zipper plackets and a myriad of other fine tailoring details, most of us would never have finished the class and virtually none of us would ever have looked at a sewing machine again.

*****

Piano lessons are exactly the same. Get the student to play some music. Attractive and simple music which they can enjoy. Let them feel the pride in creating MUSIC. Then even if they don’t learn more than a few basics, they’ll have music in their lives and chances are pretty high they’ll enjoy it too.

♥  Don’t forget that you will always have a few exceptional  students who fall so completely in love with their lessons that they will advance beyond your grandest expectations.  Then they will surprise you with their resilience and willingness to work through whatever technical hurdles you toss their way.  And some of them will go so far that one day you’ll be astounded  … and humbled  … by their skill.

You can nurture and give the gift of one of life’s most profound joys.  It is a tragedy to do otherwise.

The Happy Piano Professor.

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12 Responses to Piano Exercises … Yes or No

  1. Merréll O'Brian says:

    I like you. You’re informative, straight-shooting, viably relevant and, I bet you’re an extremely rare experience as piano teachers go. So, you’re a Hanon fan. I’ll trust you. Been reading far too many opinions on the Internet and in forums with no idea who is writing or what skill level they posses. If you wouldn’t mind a question…do you transpose Hanon in all keys? Since I’m pressing my luck, do you mind taking a shot at being a fortune teller? I’m left-handed. Extremely left-handed, just like Satan. Do you think this will kill me if my goal is Chopin and Liszt? What strength might it provide?

    • nikkitytom says:

      Thanks so much. Comments such as yours fuel my enthusiasm for this project.

      To answer your first question … No there’s no need to transpose Hanon. The exercises are designed to encourage dexterity and worrying about transposed notes would be a distraction and serve no real purpose. Just plunge right in and gradually work up speed and accuracy. I love these exercises because their benefits sneak up on a student who is relaxing and having a bit of fun.

      Second question. Left handedness should be far less of a handicap than you imagine, Satan’s limitations notwithstanding. Rachmaninov and possibly Beethoven were lefties. Gary Graffman and Leon Fleisher both suffered from focal dystonia … a nerve problem … in their right hands and went on to very successful careers. I have a deformed small finger in my right hand and can’t comfortably manage an octave. I took my Juilliard entrance exam playing those right hand octaves with my thumb and third finger, supported by the fourth. Either the adjudicators didn’t notice or decided to ignore my unorthodox handling of the problem.

      Here is a lengthy, but very encouraging article on left hand piano playing by James Marchand.

      http://www.marchandmusic.net/images/LH_Intro.pdf

      I would say you can anticipate Chopin and Liszt without trepidation. You may have to pick and choose a bit like I do. But a small hand is a much bigger problem. You can stretch it only so much. But your right hand can be developed to be almost as agile as your left. Go for it!

    • nikkitytom says:

      Sorry for such a delay. I located the comment section after switching things around a bit.

      To your first question I would say that transposing Hanon is unnecessary. Hanon is a physical exercise for the fingers and rote playing is the perfect vehicle, requiring no worries about the notes. And to your question regarding left-handed pianists, rest assured you’re in great company. Horowitz, Gould and Rubenstein were all lefties. There is even some serious speculation that Beethoven himself was left-handed.

      Here’s a terrific article about left-handed pianists. Enjoy!

  2. Teresa says:

    I absolutely love your ideas! I am with you on performing in recitals one-hundred percent! My students do not get enough time at the piano. Practicing is the greatest wish I could ask for. How can you get students to practice more? I had passion for practicing when I was a student. Rewards for time practiced spurred me on greatly. It seems there are too many other things crowding my students’ lives. I have lost many students that began playing sports in school. Sports takes so much time from kids living in this locale.

    • nikkitytom says:

      Thank you, Teresa …
      I think teachers .. and parents must be realistic about the reasons for taking music lessons. We know that very very few students will go on to professional careers and that most will pick up a little basic knowledge and possibly be able to play a few simple carols or popular tunes. That’s the truth and we have to accept it. And work around it.

      My whole ethos is radically different from most teachers … and those parents. I want to instill in each of my students a love and appreciation of music. Good music. When most students hear a beautifully played classic, nearly all respond. Who can resist the ever-popular “Fur Elise” or even a simple Bach minuet. Without the “classical” label, most people are sensitive to the sheer beauty of the music.

      That has become my main focus. I accept the fact that those teenage activities … the sports and after school event DO take over. But a student who truly loves his music will find time to practice. The others will naturally drift away. I had only one student who broke my heart with her decision to continue with vollyball rather than piano. Because she was truly talented and loved music and I knew that in a very few years, volleyball would be irrelevant.

      Unless the student has an eye on a professional sports career, I think its very sad trade-off. But I admit I’m biased. The facts are facts and we have to accept them. But I try to have crammed as much good music into the few years I have with each student and accept that sports and other activities will probably take them away when they reach their teens.

      As to the question of getting your students to practice more, I use the same basic technique from that first lesson. It is PRAISE. I make sure to find at least some small thing in each lesson to offer an encouraging word. It is far better to ask the student to find the missing F# than to point it out as an error. When he finds it, then you have a chance to praise him . Turn things around a bit. Don’t linger on the mistakes, let the student correct them. It is far easier to keep a student’s interest alive, if the student feels he’s doing well. And when the student feels confident, then he’s much more liable to accept corrections … and even more difficult challenges. Which in turn keep his interest alive and breathing. It works like a charm. ( and charm always works )

  3. Carl Hackman says:

    I am an older (53) piano beginner (only 5 days so far). I would love to have a structured practice routine as I have the time to practice 2-3 hours daily (usually I play more than that LOL).

    I am starting from day one reading music and have managed to complete a few simple pieces such as a 16 bar minuet in G by Bach. I am also practicing scales (1 and 2 octaves, C Major and A Minor to begin with. As per your recommendation I have downloaded Hanon and will be adding that to my practice routine.

    As an expat living in a 3rd world country there are no piano teachers within easy reach for me so I will be self taught and would like to start with good practice habits to allow me to progress steadily. Any advice you can pass on to this fossil piano novice would be greatly appreciated.

    Best regards, Carl

  4. Aleksey says:

    Hello!

    Thanks for this article! I read it Russian translation and then I found original one. It was very interesting for me especially about Hanon’s exercises. I read negative mind about Hanon, but your opinion is more closely for me, because I think It’s really helping me (i learned first 20 exercises). And thanks for recomendations about Czerny studies. It’s really very boring me to play a classical long composition (I’m sorry :/ ), but short Czerny studies is really good alternative. Oh, I forgot to say that I was self-taught and played piano for pleasure. So my mind may be naive. But now I’d like to imrove my technical skills (I have a reason 🙂 ). And It’s must be crazy idea, but i want to do it myself :/ I really tried to improve piano playing with other teachers (about 6-8 mounths), but unfortunately I understood that Russia have a really strong school of professional piano playing, but don’t have it for self home playing (it’s only my imho).

    So, I’d like to ask you a question, but If it’s a really stupid question, I wouldn’t be offended If you don’t answer me 🙂 So how should i learn Czerny’s exercises? hmm, I know it’s curious question 🙂 I should play it until I will be able to play a exercise with original tempo? Ofcourse if i do it correctly (with all strokes and grace notes etc.). And i don’t want have a excellent technique (more so it’s impossible), but I just like to play piano and I’d like to do it better 🙂 I’m frightfully sorry for so long message. But If you could answer me or may be to recommend other ways for, I’d be more than the happy piano student 🙂 If it’s more comfortably you could answer me via e-mail or there.
    Thanks in advance!
    With best regards, Aleksey.

    p.s. Sorry for my bad english, i’ve just started to study it :/

    • nikkitytom says:

      Aloha Aleksey …

      I am so sorry for the long delay in my reply to your letter. I have been working on composing some music for a choir … and have almost no experience with choirs. So have had to “school myself”. in four part writing.

      I am glad that you are using the Hanon. Each of those first twenty exercises is equally good for your fingers. Just pay them at random … one or two at a time is enough. If you want to go a little beyond the Czerny … and are a little bored by long classics … try some of the lovely Clementi Sonatinas. Each of the movements is only a page or two at most and the music is lovely and melodic. It’s quite easy to correct a bad note. You can download free at IMSLP,

      Without actually hearing you play the Czerny, it is difficult to know what to suggest. But I would say that it’s not necessary to worry about the tempo at first. You must be patient and move slowly from a comfortable speed to a higher one ( if indicated ). The problem with so many students is that they get much too concerned with tempo and then when their fingers miss notes or they are having trouble locating the correct one .. and begin to stumble … then they get frustrated.

      Check out my article on the “Best Learning Trick Ever”. When you begin to learn a piece, make sure that you NEVER play a wrong note. And each note had the CORRECT finger. You may have to slow down a lot to do this. But if you play one line very very slowly with the correct notes and fingers … from the first time you see that music .. then your learning process will be shortened dramatically. It is an absolute rule.

      You may have to slow down a LOT while you think about each note. Don’t be afraid to stop and do that. Each time you play a wrong note or a wrong finger, your “computer brain” records it .. and it’s terribly hard to erase it with the proper note. Do it correctly the first time.

      There is NO better rule than this one … Nothing will work so consistently and well. Print out the chart I have provided in that article to remind you.

      There is a lot of beautiful classical music out there which isn’t too long or too difficult. Clement, Kuhlau, Haydn and Mozart all wrote lovely shorter pieces. Check some of them out. I’m sure you’ll like them! 🙂

      Aloha from Hawaii … NikkiTy

      P.S. Your English is excellent! 🙂 🙂

      • Aleksey says:

        Thanks for answer! And thanks for your advices, especially about slowly move! It’s really hard to me, because i have no control and i want to play faster and faster… But I understand It’s bad idea. I decided first to play slow compositions and so I don’t have to play fast 🙂 It’s kind of piano lifehack 😀 It look weird but maybe… About Clementi – it’s a good advice, I’ll try it.
        And I thought about recording mistakes in my brain. It’ll may be a very big problem in future and I decided to work out with teacher again. I think It’s best decision. And when my fingers and mind will be more self and “adult”, I’ll be able to move myself. I’m going to do it more responsibly. Thanks to you I hope I made the right decision!
        I wish you success in your project with choir, I’m sure I’ll be something great!
        With Peace and Best Regards from Russia, Aleksey 🙂
        p.s. I really happy for your assessment my english, thanks 🙂

  5. Les says:

    Professor,
    Your comments on Hannon exercises is very reassuring and it gave me reassurance with my piano practice. I have been learning piano for only 2 years and Iam currently on exercise 9 in the Hanon book at 80 bpm. I have found they give me more dexterity and finger strength.I enjoy learning the exercises and complement my overall training.
    I believe scales and Hanon exercise are like DNA in leaning the piano
    By the way—— I was 64 when I started to take piano lessons.

    Regards,
    Schoey

  6. Norma Watkins says:

    I totally agree with you on Hanon. The exercises does strengthen the fingers and even gets your fingers dancing on the keys. 🙂 Of course I do include Czerny and a few of the others you have mentioned.

  7. utahryder says:

    I agree that most stents don’t need the really strict classical technical exercises. I used to use Fingerpower, but now I like A Dozen a Day even more. Short, quick, and not as dry and I feel that the students actually practice them. Enough technique to strengthen the fingers and help work out issues, but not too much to turn anyone off.
    If they stick around and get serious, I use Hannon and Plaidy. But I teach Plaidy by rote at first. Those pages are intimidating.

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