Jail-breaking Hanon (1)

The three books that make up The Virtuoso Pianist by Charles-Louis Hanon have been a mainstay with piano students since they were first published in 1872. It is interesting to note that Hanon had up until then been active as an organist and through his own publishing house had published various works, mostly method books. He was not known as a pianist. Because of its success in the Exposition Universelle (Paris’ third World’s Fair) in 1878, as well as through his acute business acumen, Hanon managed to get The Virtuoso Pianist accepted into various conservatories, and piano professors and their students quickly adopted it.

Hanon Devotees

There have always been first-rate concert pianists at the top of the profession who swear by Hanon's exercises and practise them daily – Sergei Rachmaninov is one such devotee, and I can think of at least two concert pianists who practise them religiously.

Because these pianists are eminently worthy of our respect, it would be colossally arrogant of me or anyone else to suggest they are wrong, misguided, or that they play the virtuoso repertoire despite their Hanon practice. Such virtuosos - highly intelligent people - clearly derive benefit from practising these exercises or they wouldn’t do them. And they clearly practise them in ways that are beneficial and not detrimental.

So what is the controversy surrounding these exercises?

Having said this, modern piano teaching has moved away from an insistence on mechanical exercises devoid of musical meaning, and away from the notion of isolating finger movements from the rest of the hand and the arm as Hanon’s exercises tend to do. By spending hours drilling the fingers in the way Hanon indicates, we not only risk wasting practice time that might better be spent on music but – worse - we may be ingraining muscular habits that could be detrimental.

So why bother with Hanon at all?

There are times when we might wish to explore specific technical issues away from the complexities of a real piece of music, or to develop basic coordination between the two hands. As a supplement to the piece of music requiring such skills it can be useful to turn to a contraption such as a five-finger pattern that is quick and easy to understand, and that can be done without reading from a score.

I do not practice Hanon, I never have. Nor do I assign it to my students because I feel the exercises are a waste of time if they are done in the way that Hanon suggests. I use Hanon exercises for the precise opposite of what they were intended for – when a student has been overdoing fingers, for example. Provided we remove Hanon’s instruction “lift the fingers high and with precision”, and dispense with the idea of doing all his repetitions, we can jailbreak Hanon and use the exercises for our own ends.

Let us remember one very important thing: by themselves the exercises are innocuous – it is what we do with them that matters!

Jailbreaking Hanon

As I have mentioned, Hanon’s exercises are nothing more than patterns of five-finger positions where a note is missed out on the way up or the way down in order that the exercises can move across the keyboard.

Jailbreaking is the process used to modify the operating system running on an iPhone to allow the user greater control over their device, including the ability to remove restrictions imposed by the manufacturer and install apps and other content through other unofficial online stores.

I have a variety of uses for some of the patterns found within The Virtuoso Pianist and will share these over a series of articles and lessons, starting with how you might use Exercise No. 1 to develop control of the wrist and No. 6 to develop forearm rotation.

Wrist Flexibility Exercise No. 1: Hanon No. 1

Quite contrary to Hanon’s instructions, in this jailbroken exercise the fingers do not operate as single digits but as extensions of the hand and arm.

Practise this exercise with each hand separately (instructions are given for the RH, but obviously apply to the LH as well). The tempo is very slow – crotchet = c. 50. One octave is more than sufficient, and if time is pressing don’t bother with the descending part of the pattern, or do the descending part with the other hand.

It is really important to keep mindful as you do this exercise, the mind focused on what you are commanding the arm and hand to do.

  1. On the first half of the minim:
    With the RH thumb in contact with the key, allow the wrist to drop from a high to a low position in a controlled, smooth and rhythmical motion. As the wrist falls, the key descends and the note sounds. The motion, which describes an arc, will involve the whole arm. There is no separate movement of the finger itself - the finger is an extension of the arm, and the weight of the hand and arm takes the key to the bottom. Do not allow the wrist to drop much below the parallel position (i.e. level with the arm) as this results in strain and tension.
  1. On the second half of the minim:
    Bring the wrist from the low position back to the high position in a controlled, smooth and rhythmical motion. The wrist can rise up as high as is comfortable as long as the fingertip remains in contact with the keyboard. Notice that the upstroke is not used to produce a tone.
  1. Repeat these steps with the each finger in turn (the fingers are naturally curved). The down-up of the wrist proceeds as one connected and continuous movement throughout the exercise. Ensure the range and speed of motion is the same on the upstroke as the downstroke.

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Wrist Flexibility Exercise No. 2: Hanon No. 1

Following on from Exercise 1, we now allow the next finger to sound by using the upstroke rather than wasting it. If the next finger is in contact with its key (and firm enough), the key will trip as the wrist rises up. Although the speed of the down/up motions is the same as in Exercise 1, we are in effect playing twice as fast because we are using the upstroke to produce tone. Again, there is no discernible movement from the finger itself.

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Forearm Rotation Exercise No. 1: Hanon No. 6

  • Put the RH thumb in position on the keyboard.
  • When you decide to start, by way of an upbeat, turn the forearm to the right to make the preparatory movement. The thumb will form a 45 degree angle with the keyboard.
  • Swing the arm to the left and drop the thumb into the key (a movement known as pronation).
  • As you swing into the thumb, allow the pinky side of the hand to lift as a result of the forearm rotation in the other direction (a movement known as supination).
  • Keep the elbow quiet - there is no dropping or lifting in the elbow at all.
  • Pronate towards the 4th finger, then supinate back to the 5th finger, and so on.
  • The range of movement in one direction matches the range of movement in the other.
  • One motion flows seamlessly into the next.

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Further reading and resources

  • Printable PDF of exercises (click here to download)
  • More information on the anatomy of forearm rotation (click here)

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