Leatham Music

Hanon & Czerny

Are they worth your time ?

—Gregory Lewis

Nothing to gain

Pianists need to perform with understanding and expression, enriching their lives as they communicate directly with the minds of their audiences. Several hundred hours a year slogging through endless, equally loud repetitive note patterns won’t help them achieve musical artistry.

Hanon finger wiggling is pointless, no matter how many hours you waste. Playing the first 38 in C major as the vast majority of students do only steals time.

You will not learn much that is useful since all piano music uses black keys ! Playing Hanon in other keys is more difficult but in my view less valuable than a daily run of broken chords with inversions in all keys.

Both hands play identical notes and rhythms in Hanon’s book. Real music has different music in each hand …

Hanon’s strict instruction to “Lift the fingers high” in five-finger patterns and “Lift the wrists high after each stroke” for detached double notes is a sure recipe for pain.

There is no mention of rotation, weight, vibration, relaxation, walking fingers, arched weight-bearing hands, gravity or any other technical concept.

Passing of the hand over the thumb and shifting weight smoothly between groups of fingers is delayed until No. 32.

Bereft of musicality

Musicianship is not required. Conspicuously absent are: dynamic shading, tone colour, chord voicing, phrasing, cantabile style, volume balance between hands, finger-pedalling, rubato, and contrasting articulations. All that makes piano music worthwhile is ignored.

I can enter Hanon and Czerny studies into music software, invoke a suitable Bösendofer-ish waveform and hear perfect performances. Yet experiment with any concert masterwork and you will immediately hear that the computer, although note-perfect, is an insensitive clod. Music is more than clever sequences of lifeless notes.

Concert Études

There are of course dozens of important études for professional musicians building advanced technique. Many are compelling works by composers who created other masterpieces that are central to the classical repertoire.

Études by Chopin, Brahms, Liszt, Debussy, Godowski, Scriabin and Rachmaninov are often performed. These demanding works extended the technical and tonal possibilities of the piano when they first appeared. Today they continue to make fine show pieces.

Finger busting monotony

Hundreds of exercises by lesser mortals are no more than mindless mechanical drudgery. No imaginative use of harmony or melody is provided. They consist almost entirely of plodding five-finger patterns repeated dozens of times, with pointless space filling accompaniments.

The first 38 Hanon pieces are brain-numbing, time-wasting, arm-damaging, style-eroding, soul-destroying, joy-free, audience-hostile rubbish.

More advanced graded études may have some limited pedagogical value in exams where students can show examiners whether they can play repeated notes, arpeggios in all keys, double octaves, voiced chords, melodies in thirds and sixths, left-hand jumps and so on.

My philosophy is that the overly-long and harmonically uninteresting Czerny études should be entirely avoided unless you are in fact preparing compulsory technical items for formal assessment.

Unclear thinking – poor excuses

Reasons for repetitive exercises

“They warm up your hands.”

And yet… You can warm up just fine playing real music. Your hands and arms won’t know the difference and your mind will learn new and wonderful things !

Start your day with one of Bach’s 18 Little Preludes, Inventions or Sinfonias, or ten minutes of simple, joyous music by Joe Hisaishi.

On very cold days warm up your hands in a basin of warm water. ☺

“They strengthen your fingers.”

And yet… You probably don’t need stronger fingers but stronger mental command of your fingers.

Music is about passion, intellect, beauty and style, not weight lifting. Raising your fingers high above the keys and hitting the notes will damage your hands.

Short exercises that build a supportive arch with a relaxed arm and fingers that move from the key surface are appropriate.

A five-note whole-tone scale from E can be used for simple finger independence exercises such as note holding and legato thirds.

“They make your fingers accurate.”

And yet… It’s your brain that needs to be accurate. Accuracy can be developed by playing repertoire items staccato e pianissimo rather than repeating mechanical patterns hundreds of times.

Most of the Hanon book is written on white notes, which is how they are invariably played despite the good intentions of some students to play in other keys. What recital music exists that is all in C major ?

Recognising patterns and automatically forming correct hands shape are fundamental skills. Play some scales, broken chords and arpeggios each day. Intermediate students can benefit by playing from this set of basic technique exercises each day.

“They make your fingers faster.”

And yet… It’s your brain that needs speeding up. Understanding exactly what you need to do before you do it is far more important than hours of mindless exercises.

Scarlatti sonatas and Bach preludes are a far more interesting resource for the development of fast, accurate finger technique and quick movement around the keyboard.

“They train patterns for Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven.”

And yet… Real music by Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven is fun !

If you find a few bars that feel unfamiliar in a new piece then turn that section into a personal étude and figure how to play it with the least effort. Trying to learn every conceivable tricky bit from the Classical repertoire in advance is futile.

Alternative resources

Basic routines include scales, arpeggios, broken chords, thirds and octaves appropriate to each student’s experience.

At elementary level Keith Snell Scale Skills and Burgmüller’s Op. 100 are useful. Music from the Anna Magdalena Bach book are, I think, mandatory for the development of independent hands.

Heller Op. 46 and Op. 47 will benefit students from grades 3 to 6. With close attention to articulations, finger-pedalling and dynamics, these provide a sound basis for a cantabile pianistic technique.

Serious piano students should play Scarlatti regularly. The AMEB lists these intermediate sonatas in order of difficulty: K.63, K.95, K.391, K.455, K.35, K.85, K.3, K.239, K.484, K.342, K.427 and K.513.

The AMEB Certificate of Performance offers candidates the chance to play a Scarlatti sonata — K.28, K.96, K.140, K.141, K.366, K.335 or K.552 — in lieu of an étude from Czerny’s Op. 740. What a splendid idea !

Bach is essential

Great pianists play music by many different composers, yet the biographies of outstanding artists across the past 250 years have a common thread—as students they all played Bach.

J. S. Bach trained his children using short pieces that mimicked concert music. Pianists do not prepare for Bach by playing studies first.

Preludes from The Forty Eight can replace finger exercises, building speed, power, accuracy and confidence in multiple keys, with the obvious bonus that the technical difficulties will be mastered in repertoire.

It should be a goal of intermediate pianists to play all 48 Preludes. There is a life study in these miniature overtures, dances and fantasias.

Larissa de Carvalho’s article on Pedagogical Approaches to the preludes describes some of their many forms.

Heinrich Neuhaus, the teacher of Radu Lupu, Emile Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter, gave the following Bach Preludes in place of all exercises by Czerny and Clementi.

Bach fugues require finger independence and musicianship of the highest order. Legato playing without pedal, part sharing between hands, different articulations within a single hand, finger substitution, and recognition of musical architecture are developed across all keys.

For the highest example of the type of teaching method I have mentioned—the complete coordination of musical and instrumental teaching (with the former prevailing)—we have to go back to the great Bach.

All his Two and Three Part Inventions, Little Preludes and Fugues, the Anna Magdalena Book and even the 48 Preludes and Fugues and the Art of the Fugue were intended in equal measure for teaching music and the playing of music as well as for the creative study of music, the study of its very nature, which probes the musical cosmos and fashions the inexhaustible wealth of “tonal ore” concealed in our musical universe.

— H. Neuhaus.

Music is more than fast notes

The idea of learning every finger pattern in advance in case you need them for a bar here and there in a repertoire item one day is one of the most stupendously dull ideas of all time. DON’T DO IT (except for exams).

There are many could-a-been pianists who have wasted their lives on repetitive finger exercises in the vain hope that they would gain insight into how real music works. They exercised their hands only, working towards dubious technical goals when they could have been training their musicianship.

They spent hundreds of hours playing notes instead of music. Sadly, some have also made videos to show their tricky fingers. They post clips for the benefit of other artists…

How long can you bear this ?

Listen to Hanon studies

I ran screaming from the room after 30 seconds. It is too ugly to bear. I won’t ask my students to hear it. That would be cruel.

One final question that seems to have escaped the Czerny disciples. How did Czerny himself become such an accomplished and celebrated pianist? It certainly was not by playing his own studies as a boy…

Quotable quotes

I want to appeal to teachers to make unswervingly and directly for their goal, without delaying too much on the way. And that goal is the musical performance of musical literature, the embodiment in sound of the soundless printed note.

— Heinrich  Neuhaus

What it all comes down to is that one does not play the piano with one’s fingers, one plays the piano with one’s mind. If you have a clear image of what you want to do, there’s no reason it should ever need reinforcement. If you don’t, all the fine Czerny studies and Hanon exercises in the world aren’t going to help you.

— Glenn Gould

Scarlatti, Handel, Bach, Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven laid the foundations of all keyboard music without studying Hanon or Czerny. Follow their footsteps. Life is too short for bad music.

— Gregory Lewis