Technique Matters - Technical Exercises - To be or not to be?
by Hao Huang
number of respondents to this column have asked me about piano technique exercises - whether they are useful, and how to practice them. I believe that they, like medicinal drugs, must be used in small doses. There is nothing more dulling than hours spent mindlessly going over finger patterns. This does not prepare you to be either a pianist or a musician. Too often, teachers assign technical exercises as a shortcut to technical mastery. It is easier to assign pages from an exercise book than to analyze and break down the physical elements in a specific difficult passage of music. Teachers need to guard against the idea of technical exercises as panacea.
Dorothy Delay is one of the well known pedagogues who campaigns against
technical exercises, asserting that they do far more damage than good. Certainly,
indiscriminate practicing of exercises can damage a pianist just as forcing repetition of
a difficult piece. In my mind, the question should not be whether or not to use technical
exercises, as much as how to think physically at the piano. To avoid repetitive motion
injuries, one basic principle to keep in mind is: if it hurts when you play, you are not
doing it right. You need to find another way to play without undue strain and pain. Do not
continue to drill away, in the vain hope that the pain will go away. You are doing damage
to yourself when you play without thinking.
Let's begin with exercises away from the keyboard. Often, the minute we sit at the piano, old habits of bad posture and physical stress surface. We must not lose sight of the fact that pianists are athletes -- athletes of the smaller muscle groups, but athletes who need to coordinate a dazzling combination of motions nevertheless. The two most important areas to stretch before playing are the neck and shoulders. These are the parts of the human body which commonly hold a great deal of tension. Begin by doing neck rotations and stretches to the sides, with the head resting on the shoulders. Be sure to stretch slo-o-ow-ly -- a sudden jerk can cause your neck to spasm. Shoulder rotations forwards and backwards can help to loosen the joints. I have found that the most helpful motion for me is to use the shaking motions practiced by advanced swimmers, who shake their arms and hands from the shoulder joint, in order to release tension. Stretching your arms upwards and outwards and rotating them can also be useful. Many people suffer from lower back pain, which is exacerbated by sitting. Consult a doctor about appropriate back exercises for your particular physical condition. Some of the best combine leg stretching with slow back bends. Proper "tuning up" of larger muscle groups of your body can help you avoid problems later on.
Now to the smaller muscle groups. Different pianists have different exercises which they do with the hands. I would like to warn against relying on hand exercises, because the truth is, pianists are not interested in building a stronger grip. In order to function properly at the piano, our fingers need to be agile and flexible, able to release instantly and articulate cleanly. In fact, using grip machines is akin to dancers using heavy weights. Too much muscle mass prevents dexterity, instead of enhancing it. Stretching exercises for the hand and wrist can be moderately useful, but we must not lose sight of the anatomy of our pianistic mechanism. The major finger muscles are located in the forearm. We want to avoid over extension of joints, since the best piano technique is the most efficient piano technique. Bending wrists or fingers to absurd angles is counter-productive and can induce permanent damage. Remember, the best technique for each individual is the most comfortable technique, because it alone allows full musical expressiveness.
Finally, let's talk about some "warm-up" technical exercises. Scales and arpeggios are the backbone of a pianistic technique - pianists from Rudolph Serkin to Yefim Bronfman advocate them. They are useful precisely because they include patterns which are commonly found in pieces of music. Slow, methodical practice of these finger patterns, with attention to accuracy through comfort, is essential. Only once comfort is achieved should pianists begin to push up the metronome. There is no artificial standard of speed -- everyone progresses differently. It is true that the physical motions involved in playing fast are somewhat different from those used in playing slowly, and it is important to be aware of this while practicing. However, comfort is comfort, and it is absurd to accept a lot of tension in fast playing. This would indicate that the fingers are not yet independent enough, or that the wrist is locked, preventing finger independence. Hanon, Schmitt or Czerny have been useful for beginning pianists, affording variety as an alternative to endless practicing of scales and arpeggios. However, practicing these exercises does not ensure anything. I would recommend that the teacher or student choose specific exercises that relate to the musical works which they are trying to play. Philip and Pischna have also been found to be useful by some pianists. The key is not to become infatuated with technical exercises -- they are only a means to an end. At best, they suggest ways to think about technical problems.
For me, the most interesting exercises are those created by great pianists
or composers. Cortot has some very interesting exercises, particularly for dexterity of
fingers three and four. Brahms has written some very useful stretching exercises, perfect
for small hands preparing to spread out to encompass his vast chords. Liszt has also
composed some very valuable exercises, perfect for preparing the student who is attempting
to match the speed and power demanded by his compositions. I have used Scarlatti Sonatas
to build finger speed and agility in younger students. I welcome ideas and suggestions
from other pianists, which I will include in my next column, which will focus on Etudes. I
have known pianists who have had to soak their arms in ice water after practicing. Does
this make sense? What kind of technical mastery can be achieved, at such a price? What
kind of music is made with pain?
The wisest saying about technique which I know was uttered not by a pianist, but by the great Hungarian violinist Sandor Vegh, who offered this thought: "Do not confuse technique with mechanique. Mechanique is the way to play the notes. Technique is the way to make the music". Keep this in mind while practicing exercises. They are NOT the music we wish to make.