Introduction: Intrinsic, Limbering, and Conditioning Exercises
Most published finger exercises are not useful because of an overwhelming number of disadvantages [see section (h)]. One objection is that they waste a lot of time. If you are exercising so that you can play difficult pieces, why not spend the time practicing the difficult pieces instead of the exercises? Another objection is that most exercises are too repetitious, requiring no musical input so that you can play them with your musical brain turned off which, according to any knowledgeable piano teacher, is the worst way to practice piano. Mindless practice is harmful because exercises are supposed to increase stamina - however, since most of us have plenty of physical stamina to play but insufficient brain stamina, mindless repetitive exercises can actually decrease our total musical stamina. If the students are not carefully guided, they will practice these repetitions mechanically and give piano practice the reputation as a punishment for anyone unfortunate enough to have to listen to it. It is one way to create closet pianists who can practice only when no one is listening because they never practiced making music. Some accomplished musicians use such repetitive exercises for warming up, etc., but this habit arose as a result of early training and concert pianists do not need them for their practice sessions.
Instead of these harmful exercises, I discuss here a whole different class of exercises that help you to diagnose your technical deficiencies, to acquire the technique needed to correct these deficiencies, and to play musically. In section (b) I discuss the exercises for acquiring technique, especially velocity. Section (c) discusses when/how to use them. In sections (d) to (g), I discuss other useful exercises. I have assembled most of the objections against the Hanon type exercises in section (h). Historically, the Hanon type repetitive exercises became widely accepted because of several misconceptions: (i) that you can acquire technique by learning a limited number of simple exercises, (ii) that music and technique can be learned separately, and (iii) that technique requires mostly muscular development without brain development. Such exercises became popular with many teachers because, if they worked, the students could be taught technique with little effort from the teachers! This is not the fault of those teachers because these misconceptions were passed down through the generations, involving such famous teachers as Czerny, Hanon, and many others. The reality is that piano pedagogy is a challenging, time-consuming, knowledge-based profession.
Before we discuss specific exercises, we must understand the different categories of exercises and what they do for us.
If we define technique simply as the ability to play, then it has at least three components. It has an intrinsic technique component, which is simply your skill level. Having the skill, however, doesn't mean you can play. For example, if you haven't played for several days and the fingers are frozen cold, you probably won't be able to play anything satisfactorily. So there is the second component of the degree to which the fingers are "limbered up". There is also a third component, which will be called "conditioning" here. For example, if you had been chopping down huge trees for a week, or you had done nothing but knit sweaters for days, the hands may not be in a good condition to play the piano. The hands have physically adapted to a different job. On the other hand, if you had practiced at least three hours every day for months, your hands will do things that will astound even you. Conditioning involves the entire body and probably the brain in a major way, so that it should not be called “hand conditioning” although hands are obviously the most important parts involved.
Exercises can contribute to all three components of technique (intrinsic, warm-up, and conditioning) and students often confuse warm-up or other ineffective exercises with intrinsic technique acquisition. This confusion arises because practically any exercise can contribute to warm-up and conditioning, but the students can easily mistake these for intrinsic improvement if they are not aware of the three components. This mistake can be detrimental if, as a result of spending too much effort on exercises, the students do not learn all the other, more important, ways of developing intrinsic technique. Knowledge about the components of technique is also important when preparing for recitals because, in that case, you need to ask: what are the best ways to warm up and condition the hands?
The intrinsic skill level and limbering up or warming up of the hands are easy to understand, but conditioning is very complex. The most important factors controlling conditioning are the length and frequency of practice and the state of the brain/nerve/muscle system. In order to keep the hands in their best playing condition, most people will need to practice every day. Skip a few days of practice, and the conditioning will deteriorate markedly. Thus, although it was remarked elsewhere that practicing a minimum of three days a week can yield significant progress, this will clearly not result in the best conditioning. Conditioning is a much larger effect than some people realize. Advanced pianists are always acutely aware of conditioning because it affects their ability to play musically. It is probably associated with physiological changes such as dilation of blood vessels and the accumulation of certain chemicals at specific locations of the nerve/muscle system. This conditioning factor becomes more important as your skill level rises and as you begin to deal routinely with the higher musical concepts such as color or bringing out the characteristics of different composers. Needless to say, it becomes critical when playing technically demanding material. Thus each pianist must be conscious of conditioning in order to know what can be played or practiced at a particular time.
A more elusive factor that affects conditioning is the state of the brain/nerve system. Thus for no obvious reason, you can have "good" days and "bad" days. This is probably analogous to the "slumps" that afflict athletes. In fact you can have "bad days" for extended periods of time. With the awareness of this phenomenon and experimentation, this factor can be controlled to some extent. Just the awareness that such a factor exists can help a student better cope psychologically with those "bad" days. Professional athletes, such as golfers, and those who practice meditation, etc., have long known the importance of mental conditioning. Knowing the common causes of such bad days would be even more helpful. The most common cause is FPD, which was discussed near the end of section II.25. Another common cause is deviation from fundamentals: accuracy, timing, rhythm, correct execution of expressions, etc. Playing too fast, or with too much expression, can be detrimental to conditioning. Possible cures are to listen to a good recording, or enlist the help of a metronome or to revisit the music score. Playing a composition slowly once before quitting is one of the most effective preventive measures against inexplicable "bad playing" of that composition later on. Thus conditioning depends not only on how frequently you practice, but also on what and how you practice.
We shall see below that parallel set exercises are useful for developing intrinsic skills, scales and arpeggios are useful for warm-ups, and practically any playing can help conditioning.