The subject of Hanon exercises raises mixed reactions in the piano world but for those who express reservations there are many more who see huge benefits. Yes, the exercises are based on repetitive sequential patterns so maybe they are a little boring and lacking something expressively. On the other hand, the patterns are very quickly absorbed. Other sets of exercises, such as those by Czerny, are certainly more interesting musically but every bar has to be absorbed before they can be used. With Hanon one learns the patterns quickly and they become immediately useful. Rachmaninov was one of the main advocates of Hanon in pianistic history, claiming that Hanon had much to do with generating an impressive list of Russian virtuoso pianists during his day. Since the initial release of Hanon’s “The Virtuoso Pianist” in 1873 generations of pianists across the world have found them to be of great benefit.
Let’s accept from the outset that Hanon exercises are not primarily designed to enhance musicianship, though one can use any pattern to work at expressive skills. Let’s accept that, like many other exercises, Hanon exercises can cause physical strain if tackled incorrectly. Let’s also accept that repetitive patterns are not as exciting as other possibilities.
Now let’s turn to the positives. Unlike many other exercises, Hanon addresses the development of both hands equally. Hanon designs exercises that make regular use of each finger, unlike scales and many sets of exercises that make far less use of the 5th fingers than any other finger. This is particularly important when we reflect that the 5th is most likely to be the weakest finger. Hanon’s repetitive patterns are ideal for developing evenness of rhythm and evenness of tone, both issues that can be less transparent in other sets of exercises. Hanon’s repetitive patterns are great for building stamina. They also encourage the pianist to search out patterns in music they are learning or sight reading. These are all essential qualities for the pianist.
Six additional benefits to be gained from Hanon exercises beyond the original intention.
There are many useful ways of using these exercises beyond Hanon’s stated intentions “for the acquirement of agility, independence, strength, and perfect evenness in the fingers, as well as suppleness of the wrist”.
- Dynamics can be varied: One can work at delivering an even dynamic throughout by playing the whole of an exercise ‘forte’ or ‘piano’ or at any other level. This enhances consistency of dynamic control and helps to develop stronger awareness of how one dynamic level relates to another. Additionally, the patterns offer an ideal opportunity to work at grading crescendos and diminuendos. Furthermore, the student can play the two hands at different dynamic levels, affording skills in balancing textures. One can also deliver a crescendo in one hand while delivering a diminuendo in the other.
Articulation can be varied: The Hanon exercises can be played legato or can be used to develop consistent detached playing, with staccato lengths varied on different repetitions. One hand can be played legato with the other hand detached or alternating patterns of articulation can be applied between the hands.
- Rhythms can be varied: The exercises can be played in crotchets, quavers, semiquavers or in revised combinations of those rhythms. Dotted rhythms can be applied (dotted note followed by short note or vice versa), and triplet figures can be used.
- Hands can be swapped: By switching hands during an exercise students can gain confidence in hand crossing technique.
- Accentuation can be varied: The natural stress would come on the first of each group of four notes but helpful work can be done by displacing these stresses onto the second, third or fourth note of each group. Other patterns can be established in which the stress moves between repetitions of the four note patterns.
- The patterns can be transposed: The Hanon exercises are often criticised for being written in the key of C and it is certainly true that, as printed, there is no encouragement to work patterns in other keys or patterns using black as well as white notes. That said, there is nothing to prevent transposition. Apart from providing useful basic transposition skills, by playing the exercises in other major keys and in minor keys the pianist can explore a vast array of black and white note patterns and can be encouraged to think in other keys.
Further possibilities exist but hopefully this blog opens up the huge potential of the Hanon exercises. In addition, students across a wide ability range can benefit and there is certainly no need for every pianist to tackle all 60 exercises. So if you have reservations about Hanon or if you’ve never used them let me encourage you to try them.