A Guide to Technical Exercises for Piano

By Robert Boer, Director and Teacher of Piano & Music Theory @MusicTutorOnline

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 therefore makes playing the piano easier and more fun. Having a good technique gives you the ability 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. You know how famous concert pianists can make even the most difficult 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 with 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!

I feel it is important 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. This 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.

Two chapters:

  1. What kind of 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.

Chapter 1.

What kind of 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. Now, this may confuse you, so let me explain how I view technical exercises. Technical exercises are there to help develop certain muscles and movements that in turn 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 full 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 great things can be achieved. (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 own playing. On top of that, I always wanted to know exactly how things worked. It was through these many years of experimenting, trying, reading, and searching that I found answers for many problems. I have discovered the importance and value of certain 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. It is therefore that I recommend seeking the advice of a good teacher to help you on your journey. I believe that there are certain exercises that are a must for everyone, and there are exercises needed only for some. Exercises needed 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.

--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 early stages of learning a must. Scales and arpeggios have their own distinct use of finger numbers. If practiced regularly these finger patterns become second nature, and this in turn 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 very important 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, the playing of 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 legato, as well as staccato. Focussing on a beautiful sound, thinking beat, and equality of sound are key. I recommend getting a good scale and arpeggio book, as it is an investment in your piano technique that has true 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 very difficult to execute perfectly. A lot of aspects need to be carefully observed. I would like to advice to do these under the guidance of an experienced piano teacher.

  • Speed/velocity. For this I would recommend mostly using appropriate repertoire pieces from different style periods. However, some of the etudes from F. Burgmüller Opus 100 & Opus 109 are excellent, plus, as well as being beautiful pieces of music. Many of the Burgmüller studies are related to some aspect of piano technique, like developing speed, tone control, pedal use, scale playing, and so on. 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. It must be said that Czerny and Hanon pieces sound mechanical and boring 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 always have to be careful in finding the most suitable material for each individual student. Czerny and Hanon etudes are considered a bit old fashioned these days and might bore especially 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 needed to mention the importance of "making music" in everything you do at the keyboard. Even while practicing scales, always try to imagine creating beautiful music and put 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, there are exercises that 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 certain 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 in particular are the piano studies from F. Wieck. He was the father of Clara Wieck-Schumann. 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. There are countless other good books out there that 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 certain 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 recognise your specific needs and can advice.

Chapter 2.

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

It is recommended to include the "MUST" exercises mentioned above into your daily playing.

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 important.

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

  3. Seek 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 and Teacher of Piano & Music Theory @MusicTutorOnline

© MusicTutorOnline