That dreaded fourth finger. You know the one I’m talking about! It slurs the notes it plays, like someone who’s had too many drinks, and stumbles as he walks, stumbles as he speaks, extending some syllables and sprinting—involuntarily—through others. Your fourth finger refuses to cooperate with you, and is always lagging far behind the other fingers like the youngest, weakest and slowest child. It’s even weaker than your smallest finger, who by virtue of being last, and benefiting from the weight and strength your wrist can lend it, can much better camouflage its fragility.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, it should not be this way if you want to progress as a pianist. The fourth finger's, and the fifth’s, physiological weaknesses are probably the biggest technical challenge separating the beginners from the intermediaries, the intermediaries from the advanced, and everyone else, - from the virtuosi, who have glided over the mountain and reached the other side, where each finger can be independently controlled and all fingers sound equal.
You can achieve this. You can play the Chopin pieces that require fluid cascades of legato notes, just like the Bach pieces with clear and resonant non- legato. The secret? A French pedagogue whose life spanned the greater part of the 19th century.
Charles-Louis Hanon was not much of a composer, and certainly not one in the great Romantic pianistic tradition that spawned Liszt, Chopin, Schumann and Beethoven. He lived what appears to have been a modest and ascetic spiritual life. Despite having produced some programmatic piano pieces that have been qualified as ‘salon music’, his greater interest, and his legacy, was in piano method.
His claim to fame is a book titled “The Virtuoso Pianist in Sixty Exercises”.
If there is an equivalent in the piano world to going to the gym, this would be it. More than that, however, it’s akin to having a personal trainer who not only knows your body’s weaknesses, but having assessed them, coaches you through targeted exercises to strengthen them.
The book opens with an introduction by Hanon himself, in which he lays out the motivation and the philosophy behind the method. The goal of the exercises, he explains, is to achieve agility, independence, strength and the perfect equality of all five fingers. Added to that are supple wrists, and a left hand as strong as the right. He promises technical virtuosity as a reward to the pianist who perseveres in practicing each exercise learned, every day, until the whole book is mastered. Once all sixty exercises are learned, playing them in succession should take no more than an hour, he says.
This might sound daunting, but don’t be misled. The Hanon exercises are not like complex melodic études you can play in a recital, or more ‘gymnastic’ ones like those by Czerny. They are simple and systemic in form.
In the first thirty exercises, left hand and right hand play the exact same notes, first ascending, and then descending, the left hand always starting on the C two octaves below middle C, with the right hand one octave higher. In each exercise, the first measure is the only one you’ll need to sight read, and ideally, memorize. All subsequent measures of the same exercise replicate the first measure, and start progressively one note higher. The ascending first half of each exercise trains your right hand, the descending second, your left.
All these things are precisely the reason why the thought of ‘sixty minutes of Hanon’ shouldn’t discourage you.
I remember putting a novel in front of me on the piano, and reading while I played these exercises. Your mind can more or less switch off while you let your fingers work. What contributes to this is also the fact that the exercises can be played consecutively and without interruption, since they all end exactly where the following exercise begins. This means you can repeat the exercises until your warm-up is satisfactory (and you need to turn the page of that novel you’re simultaneously reading). In fact, Hanon himself recommends that each series of exercises are played one after the other, and several times in a row.
The best part of these thirty exercises? Everything is on the white keys. Despite this, the technique your fingers will develop will equally reveal their benefits when you come to play pieces with black notes (Chopin’s Black Keys Étude anyone?). With time and practice, any frustrations you noticed while playing intervals, chords (whether broken or solid) and arpeggios will noticeably melt away.
Exercises 31 to 43 are either preparations for scales, or scales. Most students, by the time they start studying Hanon, will have already acquired a good basis in scales, therefore this part might elicit less interest. In any event, whether one learns scales as part of an integrated Hanon programme, or separately, their importance does not need to be revisited here. It is nevertheless curious that while most piano students will start their studies by learning scales, Hanon only thought it necessary to introduce them to his programme thirty exercises in.
Exercises 44 to 60 contain both the driest, and the most challenging of the lot. They vary in length, structure, aim and content. No longer are they suited to daydreaming or novel-reading. Your mind must engage at this stage! You must now train your fingers in solid intervals, note repetition, octave work, and trills, all of which lay the foundation for the sixtieth and final exercise in the book, the crowning achievement for the Hanon student: the tremolo.
At six pages long, the final exercise is the most challenging and difficult. It tests every weakness, and compiles into one exercise all the technical challenges Hanon wants to help you solve—not least being the suppleness of your wrists, which the strengthening of your fingers should by now have freed up. Also, it is the closest to a melody you will find in this book (nuances are even included for good fortune!).
Watch this decent attempt, but keep in mind the preambular note included in most editions of the book, which points out that the pianist Steibelt would make his audience shiver when he played the tremolo!
The danger lies not in Hanon’s method, however, but in the student (or teacher) who ignores his or her physical limitations. As in everything, perseverance and a healthy dose of moderation are key, and as with any muscle, you need to know when to stop!