How to practice Hanon exercises?
There is a lot of controversy regarding the application of Hanon exercises. Some of the criticism addresses a rather ‘unmusical’ nature of those exercises and the tedious aspect of mindless repetition often applied to such technical drills.
In today’s article, I would like to mention several piano practising strategies which I found useful in my own practice and teaching. Those practice tips can help you use Hanon exercises to overcome various pianistic challenges.
The complete score of exercises discussed in the article (The Virtuoso Pianist by Charles Hanon) can be found here (www.imslp.org).
Pros and cons of practising Hanon exercises
- Both hands are treated equally (left hand is not neglected);
- No musical problems – you can focus exclusively on technique and sound quality;
- Made up of simple structures so it can be taught to or learned by absolute beginners;
- They can be used to teach endurance;
- They isolate various technical problems (finger speed, thumb shifts, double notes, octaves) so each of them can be addressed on its own terms;
- They can be used to develop a good singing sound from the piano as well as evenness and sound control.
- Can be boring and pointless if no clear goal has been set;
- Can cause injuries if practised incorrectly;
- Do not develop musical aspects of playing.
Practising Hanon exercises in the ways described in this article can be very useful, but without the help of a professional piano teacher, issues regarding the hand position and movement, as well as sound and rhythm inaccuracies can often remain unnoticed. Practising Hanon without proper guidance addressing those issues is often a complete waste of time.
Please practice the exercises below at comfortable speeds, always observing the physical well-being of your hands and body. At any sign of tiredness, please take a break. If the fatigue builds up, consult a professional teacher to adjust your hand position and movement to avoid injury. If you observe the pain, you must discontinue using the exercises. In fact, pain means that you have missed many earlier signals of tiredness which should alert you to make changes to your practice routine, or simply take a break.
Let’s begin by exploring the original version of the Exercise No. 1 from The Virtuoso Pianist by Charles-Louis Hanon (the full version of all exercises can be found here):
1. Vary the articulation between hands
If you are new to Hanon, or piano playing in general, this one can be challenging. In numerous pieces of music, hands have to perform varied articulation (one hand playing legato while the other playing staccato). This exercise increases hands independence.
2. Vary the dynamics between hands
This will help you balance the sound volume between your hands in pieces, but also help in shaping the music. See the examples of Hanon exercises below for some possible options:
3. Swap hands position
To better hear inaccuracies and issues related to the left hand (weaker fingers, uneven tone, unnecessary accents), one of the most useful exercises is to play Hanon swapping the right and left hand. This allows you to hear the left hand a lot better. It is also one of the ultimate ways to detect problems with synchronisation between hands (not playing precisely simultaneously).
If you have a problem executing this exercise well, your hands often behave differently, and their movement and position might need adjustment.
Tip: Practice hands separately to help them learn their parts independently before swapping them around when playing together.
4. Vary accentuation
This way of practising Hanon is quite popular and is used to strengthen and gain control over a particular finger. In each exercise, a different set of fingers gets your attention. For example, if you notice that your second finger is weaker than others, pick an exercise that places the accent on that finger to address its movement and position.
5. Double the speed of various finger pairs to gain speed
You can do these exercises at your regular tempo. The notes marked twice faster can be played lighter, and over time, they should become more transparent and well-controlled.
6. Vary the metronome beat
This strategy helps in developing a strong sense of rhythm. Most of the Hanon exercises are written in two crochets/quarter notes per each measure/bar, in semiquaver/sixteenth notes rhythm.
If you feel that you need to improve your rhythm and tempo control, use Hanon to vary the metronome beat:
- Semiquaver/sixteenth note = 240BPM (one note per beat)
- Quaver/eight note = 120BPM (two notes per beat)
- Crochet/quarter note = 60BPM (four notes per beat)
- Minim/half note = 30BPM (if your metronome permits such slow speed) (eight notes per beat)
Being able to control the speed at various metronome beats will assist you in developing a stronger sense of rhythm and tempo control. Practice those variants which seem most difficult to execute precisely.
7. Transpose and practice Hanon exercises in various keys
The main reason for transposing Hanon to different keys is that in keys other than C major, your fingers will play in less comfortable, or hardly accessible positions. In this way, they learn to develop and improve.
Below are two examples of how to do this.
8. Vary the rhythm
Those two exercises are very popular, but I do not favour them since the faster notes in this variant are often played untidy and unclearly.
If you decide to use them, please make sure that your tempo choice is slow enough so that the faster notes can still be well-controlled and clear even if played much lighter.
9. Build stamina – do not stop between exercises
This way of practising Hanon exercises can be dangerous. Continuing your practice across many exercises – particularly if your hands are tired or in pain – is a simple recipe for an injury. Use it only under the supervision of a well-experienced teacher!
You can begin by playing two exercises without stopping and keep increasing the number as long as your hands feel comfortable and not tired. Repeat the same process over weeks and months and observe your hand’s increased ability to perform extended sections without being physically exhausted. Remember: Playing all Hanon exercises as a continuous drill can only be achieved at proper speed after many years of practice.
To facilitate playing through all 31 exercises with no stops, here you can find exercises 1-30 fit into just four pages (IMSLP).
Tip: I would avoid practising this way to prevent injuries unless you are under the supervision of a professional teacher.
10. Listen to the evenness of sound and precision of tempo.
The final strategy in this article is not exactly a strategy but advice which will improve the quality of your Hanon practice. When performing the techniques mentioned above, listen and assess whether you can sustain a perfectly even rhythm, and if there are any notes which stand out by being:
- Too loud;
- Too soft;
- Longer or more legato than others;
- Shorter or more staccato than others.
Listening to your practice this way will help you apply various exercises to improve particular sound/technical issues directly.
Tip: Keep in mind that you can also combine various exercises described above. For example, you can double the first and second semiquaver while varying articulation or dynamics, or both.
The practice strategies related to the Hanon exercises discussed above apply to the first 31 exercises in ‘The Virtuoso Pianist’ book. The other types of piano technique represented in this book (such as octaves, double notes, thumb technique, etc.) require a different approach and are beyond the scope of this article.
I hope you enjoyed this quick run of strategies for practising Hanon exercises. Please let me know in the comments section of via Facebook if you would like any other variants added to the list. Happy practising and teaching everyone!