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A Guide to Technical Exercises for Piano

By Robert Boer, Director of MusicTutorOnline.

A guide to technical exercises for piano by Robert Boer from www.musictutoronline.com

What are technical exercises for the piano?

They concentrate on a specific aspect of playing the piano that needs practice.


Why practice them?

Practicing technical exercises helps develop technique and makes playing the piano more manageable and fun. A good technique allows you to concentrate more on making music. Having a good technique will also make people enjoy listening to your playing more because your sound will be more organic and free. Do you know how famous concert pianists can make even the most challenging piece seem easy?


Should I practice them at all?

I will explore the answer to this question in depth below. However, I would like to start by saying that the answer is yes and no. Some exercises are needed, some are not, and if selected carefully, the purpose of many exercises can also be found in repertoire pieces. As you can see, there is a lot more to this answer...


Let's explore!


It is vital to first talk about the importance of finding the right balance between practicing technical exercises and your repertoire pieces. During the 19th century, there was a widespread belief that spending hours and hours on technical exercises would lead to excellence, which is not our belief nowadays anymore. Too many hours spent on technical exercises can lead to a mechanical way of playing and, if overdone, can also cause injury.

Like with everything in life, balance is key! Technical exercises can be of great benefit when used in moderation, for warming up, for maintaining and building a solid technique, and when used to help trouble spots in your pieces. But remember, too much of anything isn't good.

A guide to technical exercises for piano by Robert Boer from www.musictutoronline.com

Two chapters:

  1. What technical exercises are out there, and which ones should you practice?

  2. How to practice, how much to practice, and when to practice technical exercises.

A guide to technical exercises for piano by Robert Boer from www.musictutoronline.com

Chapter 1.

What technical exercises are out there, and which ones should you practice?


If you practice exercises in thirds every day, will you be able to play the etude in thirds by Frederic Chopin? The answer is no because it is often set differently in pieces. This may confuse you, so let me explain how I view technical exercises. Technical exercises are there to help develop specific muscles and movements that will refine your playing. For many of us, practicing technical exercises can also work as a sort of mental training or even be like a daily meditation at the piano.


Practicing technical exercises without total concentration, without the most careful listening to ones playing, and without attention to every detail could very well be a waste of time. It is only through mindful practicing that one can achieve great things. (Read my previous blog post on mindful practicing.)


There are tons of books with technical exercises out there. How to choose?

When I was young, I faced some problems in my playing. On top of that, I always wanted to know exactly how things worked. Through these many years of experimenting, trying, reading, and searching, I found answers to many problems. I have discovered the importance and value of specific exercises, and on the other hand, also how useless some others are. Now you may ask me, isn't everyone different, and don't we need different exercises for everyone? The answer is yes and no. Therefore, I recommend seeking the advice of an excellent teacher to help you on your journey. I believe that certain exercises are a must for everyone, and there are exercises needed only for some. Exercises required only for some should be used depending on the weaknesses of the player, the character of the player, and the actual level of playing a student is seeking to achieve.

It is, therefore, that I split technical exercises into two categories:

  1. A "MUST" for everyone.

  2. "MAYBE" for some.

A guide to technical exercises for piano by Robert Boer from www.musictutoronline.com

--Exercises that are a "MUST" for everyone:


Let's discover exercises that are a "MUST" for everyone seeking to become a good piano player;

  • Scales and Arpeggios. Right from the early stages of learning a must. Scales and arpeggios each have their own distinct use of finger numbers. If practiced regularly, these finger patterns become second nature, which helps with the playing of pieces. Most music is made up of scale patterns, broken chords, parts of scales, etc. Being able to play these patterns instinctively is a crucial aspect of piano playing. Another reason why practicing scales and arpeggios is a must, is to become familiar with all the different key signatures and the scales and chord patterns within these keys. And same as mentioned above, this, in turn, helps with the playing of all music.

Furthermore, playing scales helps us focus on other important aspects of piano technique, such as developing agility, speed, touch, evenness of sound, and strength. If done correctly, practicing scales gives tremendous benefits. Always work on making all notes in the scale and arpeggio sound equal. A commonly heard mistake is creating a louder sound on notes played with the thumb versus other fingers. Scales and arpeggios should be practiced in legato as well as staccato. Focussing on a beautiful sound, thinking beat, and equality of sound is vital. I recommend getting a good scale and arpeggio book, as it is an investment in your piano technique that has actual value. I can recommend "the book of scales, chords, arpeggios, and cadences" by Palmer, Manus, and Lethco. This book contains all major, minor, and chromatic scales and is excellent to start your daily practice with. There are many other excellent scale books out there.

  • Finger isolation/independence. If done correctly, practicing this kind of exercise reaps tremendous benefits. However, it is important not to overdo these exercises! If done in moderation and seen as a moment of focus and concentration, incredible benefits will come from it. Some examples are; the five-finger exercise from T. Leschetizky, Czerny, Opus 108 No. 9, and a few of the piano studies from F. Wieck - especially No.6. The exercise from Leschetizky is challenging to execute flawlessly. A lot of aspects need to be carefully observed. I want to advise you to do these under the guidance of an experienced piano teacher.

  • Speed/velocity. I would recommend mainly using appropriate repertoire pieces from different style periods. However, some of the etudes from F. Burgmüller Opus 100 & Opus 109 are excellent and beautiful pieces of music. Many of the Burgmüller studies are related to some aspects of piano technique, like developing speed, tone control, pedal use, scale playing, etc. They are beautifully written and, therefore, fun to play. Famous are the books from Czerny and Hanon. For developing speed especially, the Czerny Opus 299 is excellent. However, the Czerny pieces require students who are very diligent and disciplined and see their practice time as a means to overcome problems. I must say that Czerny and Hanon's pieces sound mechanical and uninteresting to most of us and may, therefore, not be suited for all students. That said, they do serve a purpose, and viewing them in that context helps. Teachers must always be careful in finding the most suitable material for each student. Czerny and Hanon's etudes are considered a bit old-fashioned and might especially bore the younger generation of players. Also, if not observed carefully might result in a mechanical way of playing.

At this point, I feel it is necessary to mention the importance of "making music" in everything you do on the keyboard. Even while practicing scales, always try to imagine creating beautiful music and putting expression into everything you play.


It is important for all students to understand why exercises matter and what is being developed.


--Exercises that are "MAYBE" needed for some players:


As mentioned above, some exercises are beneficial for everyone but not necessarily a must for everyone. Apart from the "MUST" exercises, most everything else can be developed through playing a well-balanced selection of pieces, and as you improve, gradually growing in level of difficulty. Some players who have trouble overcoming specific problems should be given extra exercises to help deal with these problems, and these are what I like to call the "MAYBE" exercises. The required level of playing is another aspect that affects this. Of course, college students require a different approach than the average piano studio student.


One excellent book I would like to mention is the piano studies by F. Wieck. He was the father of Clara Wieck-Schumann, and Clara was the wife of Robert Schumann. F. Wieck was a very famous teacher and wrote this book that contains a selection of excellent piano studies. They are well written, with many of them sounding very musical and, therefore, fun to play. Countless other good books can be used to solve specific piano technique-related problems like the F. Liszt Technical studies, the books of Czerny, Heller, Cramer, Loeschhorn, Moszkowski, The Chopin Etudes, Brahms' 51 etudes, and many more. I like to stress one more time that, wherever possible, using beautiful repertoire pieces as a means to work on specific technical aspects is always preferable.

All the above books mentioned can be used for developing various aspects of piano technique;

  • scales

  • arpeggios

  • chords

  • daily exercises

  • finger dexterity

  • right hand

  • left-hand double notes: 3rds, 6ths, octaves

  • touch: legato playing

  • touch: staccato playing

  • agility

  • velocity

  • trills

  • embellishments

  • fugal playing

  • style and expression

A good teacher will recognize your specific needs and can advise.

A guide to technical exercises for piano by Robert Boer from www.musictutoronline.com

Chapter 2.

How to practice, how much to practice, and when to practice technical exercises.


Including the "MUST" exercises mentioned above in your daily playing is recommended.

Regular practice is the key to success.

Try to see the "MUST" exercises as a part of your daily routine. You go for a walk, you eat your breakfast, you practice your "MUST" exercises, and you practice your pieces. Exercises are nourishment for the brain and muscles involved in piano playing.

  1. Being aware of what matters and what is being developed is essential.

  2. Balance and moderation. Too much of anything isn't good.

  3. Seek the advice of an experienced teacher.

For more on how to practice, I would like to direct you to my previously published blog post: a-guide-to-practicing-the-piano


Robert Boer

Director of MusicTutorOnline

Teacher of Piano, Music Theory, and Analysis.

© MusicTutorOnline

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