Problems with Hanon Exercises

Since about 1900, Charles Louis Hanon's (1820-1900) exercises have been used by numerous pianists in the hopes of improving technique. There are now two schools of thought: those who think that the Hanon exercises are helpful and those who do not. Many teachers recommend Hanon while others think they are counter-productive. There is one "reason" many people give for using Hanon: that is to keep the hands in good playing condition from day to day. This reason is most frequently cited by the type of person who wants to warm up the fingers with the brain shut off. I suspect that this habit grew out of having learned Hanon early in the person's piano career, and that this same person would not be using Hanon if s/he were not so habituated.

I used Hanon exercises extensively in my youth but I am now firmly in the anti-Hanon school. Below, I list some reasons why. Czerny, Cramer-Bulow, and related lesson pieces share many of these disadvantages. Hanon is possibly the prime example of how intuitive methods can suck entire populations of pianists into using methods that are essentially useless, or even harmful.

  1. Hanon makes some surprising claims in his introduction with no rationale, explanation or experimental evidence. This is exemplified in his title, "The Virtuoso Pianist, in 60 Exercises". Upon careful reading of his introduction, one realizes that he simply felt that these are useful exercises and so wrote them down. It is another prime example of the "intuitive approach". There is no experimental evidence or even any rational explanation for why these exercises might work as advertised. In fact, most advanced teachers reading this introduction would conclude that this approach to acquiring technique is amateurish and would not work. Hanon implies that the ability to play these exercises will ensure that you can play anything -- this is not only totally false, but also reveals a surprising lack of understanding of what technique is. Technique can only be acquired by learning many compositions from many composers.

    There is no question that there are many accomplished pianists who use Hanon exercises. However, all advanced pianists agree that Hanon is not for acquiring technique, but might be useful for warming up or keeping the hands in good playing condition. I think there are many better pieces for warming up than Hanon, such as etudes, numerous Bach compositions, and other easy pieces. The skills needed to play any significant piece of music are incredibly diverse and numerous - almost infinite in number. To think that technique can be reduced to 60 exercises reveals the naiveté of Hanon and any student who believes that is being misled.

  2. All 60 are almost entirely two-hand exercises, in which the two hands play the same notes an octave apart, plus a few contrary motion exercises in which the hands move in opposite directions. This locked HT motion is one of the greatest limitations of these exercises because the better hand cannot practice skills more advanced than the weaker hand. At slow speed, neither hand gets much workout. At maximum speed, the slow hand is stressed while the better hand is playing relaxed. Because technique is acquired mostly when playing relaxed, the weaker hand gets weaker and the stronger hand gets stronger. The best way to strengthen the weaker hand is to practice that hand only, not play HT. In fact, the best way to learn Hanon is to separate the hands as recommended in this book, but Hanon never seems to have even considered that. To think that by playing HT, the weaker hand will catch up to the stronger hand, reveals a surprising ignorance for someone with so much teaching experience. This is part of what I meant by "amateurish" above; more examples below.

    Locking the two hands does help to learn how to coordinate the hands, but does nothing to teach independent control of each hand. In practically all music, the two hands play different parts. Hanon doesn't give us any chance to practice that. Bach's Inventions are much better, also teach independence of the two hands, and (if you practice HS) will really strengthen the weaker hand. Of course, the two hands will also become well coordinated. The point here is that Hanon is very limited; it teaches only a small fraction of the total technique that you will need.

  3. There is no provision for resting a fatigued hand. This generally leads to stress and injury. A diligent student who fights the pain and fatigue in an effort to carry out Hanon’s instructions will almost surely build up stress, acquire bad habits, and risk injury. The concept of relaxation is never even mentioned. Piano is an art for producing beauty; it is not a macho demonstration of how much punishment your hands, ears, and brain can take.

    Dedicated students often end up using Hanon as a way of performing intense exercises in the mistaken belief that piano is like weight lifting and that "no pain, no gain" applies to piano. Such exercises might be performed up to the limit of human endurance, even until some pain is felt. This reveals a lack of the proper education about what is needed to acquire technique. The actual number of students who irreversibly injure their hands playing Hanon is probably small. Besides, such students will likely use other pieces other than Hanon that can be even more injurious. The wasted resources due to such misconceptions can mean the difference between success and failure for a large number of students, even if they don't suffer injury. Of course, many students who routinely practice Hanon do succeed; in that case, they work so hard that they succeed in spite of Hanon.

  4. The simplified, schematic structure of these exercises takes all the music out of them so that students can (and too frequently do) end up practicing like robots, totally devoid of artistry. It does not require a musical genius to compile a Hanon type series of exercises. The joy of piano comes from the one-on-one conversations with the greatest geniuses that ever lived, when you play their compositions. It makes no sense to practice something devoid of music; remember, technique and music can never be separated. I do recommend one-hand scales, arpeggios and chromatic runs, followed by some two-hand play. Scales and arpeggios should provide more than enough "routine exercises" for everybody. For too many years, Hanon has taught the wrong message that technique and music can be learned separately. Bach excels in this respect; his music exercises both the hands and the mind. The Hanon exercises are actually a small subset of Bach's 2 part Inventions. In fact, Hanon probably excerpted most his material from Bach's famous Toccata and Fugue, modified so that each unit is self cycling. The remainder was probably also taken from Bach's works, especially the Inventions and Sinfonias.

    One of the greatest harm that Hanon inflicts is that it robs you of the time needed to make music playing compositions that you have already learned and practicing the art of performance, or even just learning new pieces. The student often ends up with insufficient time to develop their repertoire. Hanon can be harmful to technique and performance!

  5. Many pianists use Hanon routinely as warm-up exercises. This conditions the hands so that you become unable to just sit down and play "cold", something any accomplished pianist must be able to do, within reasonable limits. Since the hands are cold for at most 10 to 20 minutes, "warming up" robs the student of this precious, tiny, window of opportunity to practice playing cold. This habit of using Hanon for warm-ups is more insidious than many realize. Those who use Hanon for warm-ups can be misled into thinking that it is Hanon that is making their fingers fly, while in reality, after any good practice session, the fingers will be flying, with or without Hanon. It is insidious because the main consequence of this misunderstanding is that the person is less able to perform, whether the fingers are limbered up or not. It is truly unfortunate that the Hanon type of thinking has bred a large population of students who think that you have to be a Mozart to be able to just sit down and play, and that mere mortals are not supposed to perform such magical feats. If you want to be able to “play on demand”, the best way to start is to quit practicing Hanon.

  6. There is little question that some degree of technique is required to play these exercises, especially the final 10 or so. The problem is that Hanon gives no instructions on how to acquire these techniques. It is exactly analogous to telling a penniless person to go earn some money if he wants to become rich. It doesn't help. If a student used her/is “Hanon time” to practice a Beethoven sonata, the results will be better as far as acquiring technique is concerned. Who wouldn't rather play Mozart, Bach, Chopin, etc., than Hanon exercises with similar, or almost certainly better, results and end up with a repertoire you can perform?

    Even if you can play all the Hanon exercises well, if you get stuck at a difficult passage in another composition, Hanon will not help. Hanon does not provide any diagnostics for telling you why you can't play a given passage. The parallel set exercises are different. They provide both the diagnostics and the solutions for practically any situation, including ornaments, etc., that Hanon does not even consider.

  7. What little advice he does dispense, have all been shown to be wrong! So let's look into them.
    (A) He recommends "lifting the fingers high", an obvious no-no for fast playing, since that will be the biggest source of stress. I have never seen a famous pianist in concert lift the fingers high to play a fast run; in fact, I have never seen anyone do that! This advice by Hanon has misled an enormous number of students into thinking that piano should be played by lifting the finger and plonking it down onto the key. It is one of the most non-musical and technically incorrect ways to play. It is true that the extensor muscles are often neglected, but there are exercises for treating this problem directly.
    (B) He recommends continuous practicing of both hands, as if piano technique is some kind of weight lifting exercise. Students must never practice with fatigued hands. This is why the HS method of this book works so well - it allows you to practice hard 100% of the time without fatigue, because one hand rests while the other works. Stamina is gained, not by practicing with fatigue and stress, but by proper conditioning. Besides, what most of us need most is mental stamina, not finger stamina. Furthermore, stamina is a minor issue; what we really need are technique and relaxation.
    (C) He recommends playing every day, regardless of skill level, all your life. But once you acquire a skill, you don't need to reacquire it over and over; you only need to work on technique that you don't already have. Thus once you can play all 60 pieces well, there is no need to play them anymore -- what will we gain? Does he think that our hands will mysteriously deteriorate once we stop playing Hanon in spite of all the other lesson pieces?
    (D) He is apparently aware of only the thumb under method, whereas the thumb over method is more important.
    (E) In most of the exercises, he recommends fixed wrists which is only partially correct. His recommendation reveals a lack of understanding of what “quiet hands” means.
    (F) There is no way to practice a majority of the important hand motions, although there are a few wrist exercises for repetitions.

  8. The Hanon exercises do not allow for practicing at the kinds of speeds possible with the parallel set exercises described above. Without the use of such speeds, certain fast speeds cannot be practiced, you cannot practice "over-technique" (having more technique than necessary to play that passage - a necessary safety margin for performances), and it takes unnecessarily long to acquire any technique.

  9. The whole exercise is an exercise in waste. All the editions I have seen print out the entire runs, whereas all you need are at most 2 bars ascending and 2 bars descending and the final ending bar. Although the number of trees cut down to print Hanon is negligible in the broader picture, this reveals the mentality behind these exercises of simply repeating the intuitively "obvious" without really understanding what you are doing, or even pointing out the important elements in each exercise. "Repetition is more important than the underlying technical concepts" -- this is probably the worst mentality that has hindered students most in the history of piano. A person who has 2 hrs to practice every day, playing Hanon for 1 hr as recommended, would waste half of his piano lifetime! A person who has 8 hours to practice, on the other hand, doesn't need Hanon.

  10. I have noticed that teachers can be classified into two schools according to whether they teach Hanon or not. Those who do not teach Hanon tend to be more knowledgeable because they know the real methods for acquiring technique and are busy teaching them -- there is no time left for Hanon. Thus when you are looking for a piano teacher, choose from among those that do not teach Hanon, and you will increase the chances of finding a superior one.