I love technical exercises: for me, they have become an essential part of my daily practice routine, and the best way to keep myself in good pianistic shape. Even just 20 minutes a day can be plenty to build strength, stamina and flexibility at the keyboard.
I always encourage my students to maintain a regular diet of exercises too, but it is important to make sure that they are practised in a way that engages the player and cultivates a pianistic mind. When we think of exercises, it is all too easy to conjure up images of an unhappy pupil, marching their fingers up and down the keyboard and following the same depressing motions as their ears grow weary with the sound of C major. It doesn’t have to be this way, and I hope that this blog will help you to make technical study an enjoyable part of your practice.
The first thing to discuss is which exercises to choose: this is a hotly debated topic in the world of piano playing, and the choice is ultimately yours, but for me it has to be to these two particular volumes:
1. Oscar Beringer, Daily Technical Studies for Piano
2. Ernst von Dohnányi, Essential Finger Exercises
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In my experience I have found them to be the most thorough and effective exercises: the Beringer is a wonderfully encyclopaedic volume covering just about every area of technique, while the Dohnányi are incredibly economical and take a particular focus on finger coordination and strength training.
How to practise exercises:
Remember to warm-up before practising technical exercises. You wouldn’t walk through the doors of a gym and go straight for the heavy weights without warming-up first, would you? Musicians are athletes in training, and we must treat our bodies with the same respect as a sportsperson would treat theirs. You could warm-up with some light stretches followed by gentle improvisation or sight-reading — when you feel suitably ‘warm’, then progress to technical study.
Alternate between open and closed hand positions every couple of minutes. This is a very effective way of making sure that you cover a lot of technical ground in your session, and it is also a good protection against muscular fatigue. Rather than spending long periods of time on one aspect of technique, you could do something like this: start with octaves (open hand), then move on to scales (closed hand), followed by some large chords (open hand) etc. This is also a more accurate reflection of how passages are constructed in repertoire, as we are often required to change techniques and hand position every couple of bars — I can’t think of one example where you‘ll be required to play 10 minutes of octaves!
Be sure to practise in different keys. By working in a variety of keys, especially ones that may be less familiar to you, you will develop a greater sense of keyboard geography and harmony. You may also find that an exercise in one key presents challenges that you may not be met with in another. An additional thing to try could be a different key in each hand — this is especially brain-twisting with scales played in octaves!
Make them musical. We should aim to create a beautiful sound, even when we’re playing exercises — it should not become a purely mechanical process, although this does occasionally have its place too. Try to experiment with different articulation and dynamics, or even different articulation/dynamics in each hand! It will make the session far more engaging, and once again reflects what will ultimately be required of us in repertoire.
Be consistent. Consistency is key with technical study as the results are cumulative over time. In fact, if I am met with a particularly busy schedule which makes it necessary for me to choose between exercises or repertoire in my practice, I will always choose exercises. Consistent action creates consistent results.