Non-specialists and lay people have this idea that serious pianists spend hours and hours, every day, practising scales, arpeggios and other technical work and exercises to keep the fingers, and the mind, nimble. When I was in my early teens, working towards my Grade 8, I practised my technical work religiously, rattling up and down the keyboard until my fingers tingled and my head hurt. This was an essential part of my daily practising: as a result I can remember nearly all the scales I had to learn for Grade 8. As I said to some students who were waiting to take their Grade 6 piano exams at the exam centre yesterday, “Once learnt, you never forget your scales! It’s like riding a bike.”
I am quite fierce with my students about learning scales, partly because, as I tell them, scales are useful: they teach good keyboard geography, and are crucial in understanding key signatures. They also encourage quick thinking and nimble fingers, and assist in playing by ear and grasping the basics of chords and harmony. Some of my students love scales: Laurie (11, working towards Grade 2) always insists on commencing his lesson with a scale warm up. As a consequence, his technical work is very secure and he has quickly mastered playing scales hands together (a requirement for Grade 2). “Do you practice your scales, Fran?” my students ask me, and I smile and look apologetic and admit that I don’t.
And nor does my teacher, a professional concert pianist and Professor of piano at one of London’s foremost conservatoires. Nor does she recommend rigorous exercises such as Cramer or Hanon (which I know some people swear by). Instead, she prefers to create exercises from the piece itself, something she has encouraged me to do, and which I find incredibly useful. The great thing about doing this is that you have an instant finger exercise which is relevant to the music you are currently learning, but which can also be adapted and applied to other music. Take the drop slur: a simple, plaintive little piece by Bartok from his suite ‘For Children’ called Former Friends (Quasi Adagio) has proved invaluable in teaching drop slur technique. The opening bar is perfect as the right-hand notes (A-E E-D) sit easily under the fingers and the thumb can be dropped down on to the first A, while the fifth finger floats up and off the E. After teaching this piece to a number of students (it forms part of the current Grade 1 repertoire), I then applied the technique to the Chopin Etude I was learning (Opus 10, No 3). There are some tricky drop slur measures (mm. 32-33 and 36-37) which have benefitted from “the Bartok Effect”. And later, in the “dread sixths” measures (mm. 45-54, marked ‘Con bravura’, just to add to one’s woes!), applying this technique had a remarkable, transformative effect on my ability to cope with this passage.
One of the pieces by Debussy I am working on at the moment, the ‘Prelude’ from the suite Pour le Piano, requires playfulness and nimbleness in the fingers throughout. The interaction between the hands is quite difficult to achieve in the opening measures and the second theme: in many ways, one is trying to create the sense of “one hand playing” while retaining a playful, swirling movement. This piece is Debussy’s nod back to his Baroque antecedents, and, with that in mind, I turned to Bach for some finger exercises. I’d downloaded the infamous ‘Toccata and Fugue in D minor’ for one of my students, and playing it, in a very tongue-in-cheek way the other day, I discovered plenty of useful material to help practice the Debussy. Meanwhile, a little prelude by Delius (from the ‘Three Preludes’) has a nice figure of thirds in semiquavers which is great for training fleet fingers.
The Etude or ‘Study’ was intended for pianists to practice specific techniques, such as rapid passage work, octave playing, playing in thirds and so forth, and, before Chopin, the Etude was very much a student exercise (the most well-known composers of piano etudes are probably Clementi, Cramer, Moscheles and Czerny). Chopin, in his Opp. 10 and 25 Etudes, elevated the genre to something far, far greater than the dry student study, and his Etudes are considered some of the greatest, and most challenging music in the piano repertoire. To the pianist, they offered an entirely new set of technical challenges, while also becoming a regular part of the concert repertoire, combining technique and musical substance to create a complete artistic form, which was taken up by later composers, most significantly Franz Liszt. Thus, the first of the Opus 10, for example, is a crystalline, filligree of a piece, lasting just under two minutes, while the Opus 25 No. 7 (which I learnt last year), is a 5-minute melancholic meditation on perfect tone and phrasing, particularly in the left-hand. Some have become very famous – the ‘Revolutionary’, the ‘Winter Wind’, the ‘Tristesse’ and the ‘Aeolian Harp’.
Applying techniques I mastered from learning two of Chopin’s Etudes last year (the Opus 10, No. 3, and the Opus 25, No. 5) proves that despite their high artistic form and musical values, they are still studies, offering the pianist the opportunity to learn particular techniques which can be applied to other music. Both Etudes have informed my learning of Liszt’s sublime Sonetto 123 del Petrarca – and coming at this piece with a degree of “prior knowledge” has made the learning of it easier. And that drop slur exercise has proved invaluable in the recurring “rocking lullaby” motif in Messiaen’s Regard de la Vierge (no. 4 of the ‘Vingts Regards….’)
Don’t feel you should stick rigidly to traditional technical studies, like Cramer and Hanon (and, believe, me I’ve “been there and done that”, and I’m not convinced of the usefulness of such learning aids). Make up your own exercises from the pieces you are working on, and, if you can’t play a whole Chopin Etude, take an element of it and turn it into your own exercise.
Bartok – ‘Former Friends’ (Quasi Adagio), from For Children
Claude Debussy, from Pour le Piano: Prelude p1
Delius – Prelude II
Chopin, Etude Opus 10, No. 3
Brahms, 51 Exercises
Richter playing Chopin’s Etude Op 25 No. 7
Messiaen – Vingt regards de l’enfant Jesus. No. IV. Regard de la Vierge (Pierre-Laurent Aimard)