My Technical Regimen

The relevance of technical drills must be obvious to the student or he will not practice them seriously. An intermediate or advanced student will be able to see how a particular exercise will aid the playing of a troublesome passage.

A beginner, however, does not have a fund of past musical successes on which to draw. For him, relevance should be replaced by satisfaction. For example, short technique assignments will enable the beginner to finish one or more each week, providing concrete evidence of advancement.

Hints for Presentation of Technical Material

Attitude

In addition to making it relevant, the key to having students who do technique studies willingly and well is presenting the exercises properly.

A beginner has no idea what piano study entails. Therefore, the teacher has an opportunity to instill respect for technical exercises if these are treated as vital parts of the curriculum, introduced within the first month of study, and called for always at the beginning of every lesson. Listing them first on the assignment pad is another way to reinforce the importance of technique drills.

A more advanced student already has encountered some physical challenges he has had to overcome in order to play a piece. Harking back to those in the recent past is a good prologue to presenting technical material designed to prevent the problem's reoccurrence. (Obviously, no one should be at the intermediate level without having had some technical studies! I speak here of specific studies to correct a difficulty or prepare for the physical demands of upcoming music, such as octave exercises.)

Technical studies can be used as a mark of accomplishment: "You have now earned a technique book!" Each new drill added to the technical battery is a confirmation that the student has reached a new level of expertise.

Demonstration

It is best to demonstrate the first exercise(s) rather than use written notation. If you choose an easy pattern - - such as a five-finger pattern using Middle C as the bottom note, rote learning will not be a problem. (Note: I am very much against rote learning of pieces, and therefore I am not a fan of pre-notation with pictures and finger numbers only; or of strange hieroglyphic notation, such as Lo-No-Pla.)

In demonstrating, remember that a child is extremely literal: he will attempt to play at the tempo you play, regardless of whether he is able to. He does not understand that you are demonstrating only the pattern; he will think you mean for him to play the same notes at exactly that same speed. He is unable to see that you are essentially saying "and so on and so forth " by playing at a rather swift speed. A colleague could figure this out immediately (suppose you were describing a technical pattern to a fellow teacher) and grasp the pattern itself (the Gestalt), but a child will try to reproduce exactly what you demonstrated. Therefore, choose a very conservative tempo to demonstrate the first exercise, despite your own impatience playing at that that speed. Quarter-note = 52 is good, I find.

A teen or adult beginner also will benefit from a demonstration tempo of quarter-note = 60-63. Even a beginner of this age will have trouble if you demonstrate quickly and ask the student to reproduce at a speed of which she is capable. (Speed should not be a concern. It will increase naturally - - without the student's even knowing it - - as facility increases.)

Retrenching

If it is clear, after sustained effort, that the child does not have the physical ability to play a given exercise, the teacher should either restructure the drill, subdividing it into its smallest possible units, or withdraw it until later.

Finger Dexterity Drills

At the first couple of lessons, you will be presenting the basics of note-reading and the child will not be ready to play a song, yet the child is anxious to "make sounds" on the piano. A technical exercise is the perfect solution. (-Please- do not be lured into the seemingly-attractive but ultimately-damaging practice of pre-notation, etc. Eventually the student will have to use "real notation" with black and white dots, and he'll be mightily upset to find out that he has been fooled all these weeks by playing with pictures and numbers, symbols he already knows well!)

You will have not trouble combining a good amount of information about note-reading, counting, hand position, and such during the first lesson of an older elementary child, teen, or adult, but keep track of the time. Be sure to leave enough to introduce a technical drill so something physical takes place at home during the week.

I call these exercises Finger Builders. To a child, I will say, "We need to build your fingers to be strong so you can play loudly!" (With the teen or adult, I discuss flexibility, endurance, and agility.) We also discuss hand position for the first time. The child probably won't be able to get it right all (or even most) of the time, but she will at least have heard of the concept!

To avoid a graphic and its load time, please imagine or write on paper a five-note pattern in treble clef starting on Middle C and another one in bass clef starting on small C [that's the C one octave lower than Middle C]. Notes in both hands are C - D - E - F - G - F - E - D - C.

Note: Some students demand perfection of structure and are uneasy if the pitches don't match. Some don't care. If a student asks if both hands should start on C, I say, "If you like. It's not important." Play this one as it lies.

For beginners in about 2nd grade and up, try starting the hands together in parallel motion. You'll see right away whether this is physically feasible. If not, say nothing except, "Let's try it this way," and demonstrate contrary motion.

Wee ones need to start with contrary motion; that is, playing thumbs together, then index fingers, and so on down the line. Then they can move to hands in parallel motion.

Many students in kindergarten and below have very undeveloped small motor skills and therefore need to start hands apart, working up to hands together in contrary motion. Then they will do hands together in parallel motion.

Some students, especially the 4- to 6-year-old set, need to start with sub-units. I call these "twosies" (only two fingers - - start with thumb and index fingers, working your way to the "super wimps": 4 and 5), "threesies," "foursies," and "fivesies." There are four possible finger combinations for twosies (1-2, 2-3, 3-4, and 4-5), three for threesies, and so on.

Some children need to do twosies, etc. with hands apart. You may wish to start many of them with twosies using thumb and index finger, as described above.

The next step is hands together in contrary motion. Now the challenge: hands together in parallel motion. It may be necessary to go back to twosies, threesies, etc. again; that is, RH 1-2 with LH 5-4 and so forth. If this happens, usually the student will catch on somewhere in the middle of threesies, and foursies/fivesies will not be needed.

If there seems to be physical coordination problems, say nothing aloud. Instead, praise when some success is achieved or praise the effort. If a student has had a struggle - - even a moderate one - - getting Finger Builders accomplished, I like to remind them several weeks later: "Remember when you couldn't do that at all?!"

After the student is able to play the five-finger pattern in parallel motion, we embark on rhythms.

Next comes LH staccato versus RH legato, again with all rhythms. I address LH first in all my exercises because most people have more difficulty controlling the fingers of this hand. Even some lefties have this problem! After the LH is learned, we switch hands so the RH is the staccato hand. A method I have used with 100% success is, "When I say 'down,' you play with both hands. When I say 'up,' you lift only the left hand." 90% of my students have caught on to the motion by the 4th note. Sometimes I must tap on the underside of the wrist of the staccato hand in initiate the lifting of the hand.

Finally, we do forte versus piano, again starting with LH, and doing all the rhythms. Then hands are exchanged, and all rhythms are done with the RH forte. My method here is to start with (let's use LH f), LH alone "very loud." Then it's either RH "touch," or, if possible, a combination of the two. "Touch" means only touching the surface of the key; the key is not depressed at all. Watch that complete legato is maintained in the "touching" hand. This is the critical step because the student masters the concept of multiple pressure. Many students will want to substitute a quick note (staccato) in place of a soft note (what I call "hit and run"), so watch. Another problem is what I call "trampoline," in which the touching finger allows the up-weight of the key to "bounce" the finger off the note. After this is mastered, we go to "RH press a little" (no sound necessary), then "RH press a little more" (still no sound), and finally "LH f + RH p". Some students must spend several weeks on "press a little" and "press a little more." Some may need to backtrack. I tell them, "This is difficult. Be gentle with yourself."

After this five-finger pattern has been completed, I use six more of my own five-finger patterns, addressing problems that still are likely to be present (such as motion between fingers 5-4 or 4-3; and contrary-motion cross-overs using 2-3-4-5 crossing over the thumb).

We next progress to patterns taken from Aloys Schmitt's Preparatory Exercises for Piano, Op. 16. (Note: His exercises #1 and #2 are the same notes as my Finger Builders #1, but I let the student find this out by asking him to start with #1. Usually the student tumbles to this right away, so I remark, "If it's ok with you, we'll skip these." Chuckles and agreement. Since these are written on two scores, it seems like a lot, and the student is very pleased that he is able to skip over this big section. We're off to a very positive start on this book.)

I use exercises #3-4 through #15-16, but only the first nine notes (as the rest is repetition). The difference between these exercises and the original Finger Builders is that the student will now move the hand up one key ascending and down one key descending. Conveniently, there are eight possible positions (including the octave position) and four rhythms, so the student does two of each rhythm "on the way up" and then two each "on the way down." I ask the student to "pretend you're still on C" to get the patterns going in the other placements.

Some students are bothered by the fact that their eyes are seeing C - D - E (whole step, whole step) but -hearing- D - E - F (whole step, half step) when they get to the second position. By this time, the student is well along into late beginner literature, and she is subconsciously "trained" to hear a half step when seeing E to F. Usually just pointing out the problem is enough to solve it. In any event, after a week with this at home, the problem is no more.

Following Schmitt #15-16, we move to Hanon with much fanfare and continue with staccato v. legato and forte v. piano with rhythms through #36.

If needed, after playing other exercises in Hanon, we begin again at #1 but in D Major. If the child graduates before we reach this point, I ask him to do this on his own. "This way you'll never run out of Hanon! Happy Graduation!" Groans.

That takes care of the "wiggle your fingers" type of exercises, as my dad would call them.

Patternistic Drills

At about the 3-month point, most child beginners have "earned a technique book!" For children, I use John Schaum's Finger Power, beginning with the primer level (red). Sometimes I use the Level I (green) if the child is young. If not, I say, "Now we've finished this baby book, so let's go on to the book I use for my grown-ups." Big grins all around.

Sometimes, especially with a pre-teen, I skip Shaum (which pre-teens tend to find "insultingly easy," even if some of the exercises would challenge them) and go right to Schmitt. Nothing particularly lost, I feel, as later exercises will cover any of the points Schaum makes in his early levels. I use Schmitt's exercises as discussed in detail just below (again omitting #1-2).

The three-month point for a child is just an average. The student needs to be able to read pitches from small F to one-line G (these are the notes the two hands span if both thumbs are placed on Middle C).

Adults and go directly to Schmitt after about three months' study.

It usually works out that the student is on exercise #10 in Schmitt at the very least before we come to the point of re-using Schmitt in place of my Finger Builders patterns.

As to the Schaum, I do not do them in the order given. I paint out a great deal of the fingering (95%) and eliminate other elements of notation that students of this level regard as excess clutter. Other exercises must be rewritten using stem-up and stem-down rather than clef changes in order to make them accessible to students at this level. The particulars:

2002 Update: Schaum has dumbed-down his primer book, so I had to make changes in the changes! For example, when I used to add only "fives," now I add "fours and fives" (#22). The chromatic scale exercise (#24) is shown going only to [the super challenging!] E above Middle C/A below it. To "balance," he added some more difficult exerises! Go figure.

When I use Book I (green), I make changes there but generally not so many. In the final arpeggio exercises, for example, I just show the student when to start them.

I follow Schmitt pretty much as it is. Either the Alfred or the G. Schirmer edition is fine, although the former is laid out more generously. Details:

After the Schmitt book has been completed, I either go back and re-do exercises #3-169 in D Major (and then E Major, etc.), or I go on the Henri Herz' Passages, Studies, and Exercises, for which the G. Schirmer edition is best, surprisingly. Or I move to Ernst von Dohnányi's Essential Finger Exercises. These are difficult exercises for the advanced student. (I follow the suggestions in the book's forward for exercise order). Sometimes I use Isidor Philipp's Exercises for Independence of the Fingers, depending on the student. These, too, are demanding.

Arpeggios

From the earliest weeks, my students play triad arpeggios. I begin with hand-over-hand major triad arpeggios. Some students may need preparatory steps: If the student's arms are long enough, we then play four arpeggiated triads ascending (starting with LH on great C [two octaves below Middle C]), a plink on 3-line C [two octaves above Middle C], and then back down. Some students are "large" enough to begin at this point right away.

Now is the time I introduce the metronome in technique drills. We will take each triad to quarter-note = 208, I inform the student. I set the metronome at 208, and the sometimes the student's eyes widen in surprise at how brisk that speed is. "Don't worry. You'll get there, I promise." There is a -great- feeling of exhilaration upon reaching 208! It is a real accomplishment!

From C, I move to G, then F, then D, then B-flat, and so on, around the circle of fifths for the major triads. Usually I do not discuss why we are doing the triads in this order. Some system is needed, though, so I can keep track of things (maybe your memory is better than mine!), and circle of fifths is very workable since the early triads are "all vanilla" or "reverse Oreos."

Note: B-flat is a particularly difficult triad - - perhaps the most difficult of all the 48 - - because a "short finger" is required to play the black note in each hand. When we reach B-flat, I tell the student that this one is hardest of all and that she must be very gentle and patient with herself. Men don't much care for E-flat when their fingertips are "too fat" to fit between G-flat and A-flat.

After majors, we do minors. I use am/em/dm as a group (and many students can do all three to 208 in one week) and cm/fm/gm as a group so I can point out that their "opposites" have the "other color look" (that is, "reverse Oreo" and "all vanilla"). Then comes bm, which is a rogue pattern. (If you stop to think about it, all triads built on B are unusual.) After bm, I do c#m, d#m, and so on in order. Sharps seems to flummox most students, so I try not to miss an opportunity to call a triad by its sharp name.

Then it's augmented triads, presented chromatically (C+, C#+, etc.) and diminished, also chromatically. Chromatic order is just a convenience for me; there is no "method to my madness."

All along here, I have had the student construct her own triads so that she knows how triads are formed and will be able to derive anything for herself in case she forgets.

After hand-over-hand arpeggios come what I call "4-note arpeggios," which is the triad plus the plink all in one hand. We move chromatically up and down the span of one octave. We start hands apart, LH first, and then put hands together. This takes at least a month to accomplish with any facility for most students. It seems to take a while before they "see" the triad and the plink on the keyboard even though they understand the pattern intellectually.

I ask the student to call out the name of each triad, using sharp names on the way up and flats on the way down. So a student is muttering, "C [play this blocked, then arpeggiated, and then blocked again], C# [blocked, arpeggiated, blocked], D" and so on. (Yes, this sounds like a choral warm-up! At this point, many are already or are ready to accompany their school or church choruses, so "4-note arps" provides an added bonus!)

Next come continuous arpeggios, done in triplets. These are done to one triplet = 100, hands together. See Hanon #41, but note that these are written in quadruplets. I think triplets work better. After C is C#, D, etc.

Inversion arpeggios are next, again in triplets and again to triplet = 100, hands together. By this I mean, a 4-note arpeggio in root position, in first inversion, second inversion, root position, and so on, up the keyboard; then descending, for three octaves. (Ex.: C - E - G; E - G - C; G - C- E; C -E -G and upward for two more octaves; then descending). These are also studied in chromatic order.

The end of my arpeggio regime is what I call "crab arpeggios," in which the player "backtracks" to a note from the previous inversion. This may be found in the Knecht appendix as "Chord Passages" and in Hanon as #49. Hands together, of course. Triads presented in chromatic order.

Scales

As I mentioned above, I put off diatonic scales until they are needed in the literature under study, but chromatic scales are just fun to play, so I introduce chromatic scales as early as the middle beginner level.

We teachers tend to teach the way we were taught, and many of us started with scales. That's the way it was done back then! Scales! Ack! Awful stuff! I'd bet that more than half the kids who quit piano as a child did so because of the diatonic scales they were forced to play before they saw why scales were important.

Why are diatonic scales important? Because the hand learns the "feel" of a key and certain finger crossings and thumb tucks become automatic. But these sorts of finger Gestalts aren't important until intermediate-level music, where rapid and sustained scalar patterns are common. (Beginner music does have scales and scale fragments, of course, but not played quickly and often divided between the hands.)

Back to chromatic scales. As I said, these we start first because they're fun. I start in contrary motion because the fingering is identical. The student is cautioned to start in different places on the keyboard and to change directions in different places, too. It is not unusual for a student to have to spend a week or so just practicing the "turn-arounds." I ask that someone at home call out, "Turn!" so the student does not always change directions at the same point in the scale. Little brothers and sisters especially delight in "helping" in this way.

I use the metronome as a method of increase speed and also to reinforce the idea that sometimes the pianist must follow someone else's tempo! We start at one note to a tick = about 63 and go to 208. Then we do two notes to a tick, again reaching 208 (equivalent to 416). Again, emphasis is on control, not speed. The student may not move faster until he's "bored."

Now comes the switch to parallel motion. This causes some confusion, but the student usually "gets it" in about a week. Students must start slowly, of course! As before, parallel motion chromatic scales are worked to two notes per tick at 208.

With many students, to expand the ear and to make the chromatic scale fingering absolutely automatic, we now begin doing parallel motion chromatic scales at intervals other than the octave. The minor 2nd is first. With this one and several more at small intervals, it's best to start an octave apart to avoid traffic jams. Then major 2nd, and so on. This is when I begin to discuss intervals by their proper names (instead of step, skip, empty triad, etc.), talk about how an Augmented 4th is the same as a Diminished 5th, which intervals are perfect intervals, and so on. It is also when I discuss enharmonic interval names and tell the story about diabolus in musica and the Papal Bull of 1388 (I think this is the right date; sometime in the 1300s, at any rate). Some students do all intervals (all pre-music-majors do, of course), and some students do only selected ones. Again, speed is to two notes per tick at 208 for each.

Octaves

I begin octave work whenever the student's hand is large enough to reach an octave without discomfort. This is usually at the 3rd- or 4th-grade level, but occasionally it is earlier. Or later. I remind the student that the hand will "feel like it's stretching a little because you're not used to reaching this far," but require that the student -stop- "if it hurts."

The first octave exercise, after the student and I agree that octaves are quite comfortable, is "broken octaves" (a.k.a. "walking octaves"). Hanon #56 shows these. (For those of you Web surfing on a Pacific island and without benefit of your Hanon nearby: by "broken," I mean "melodic" or non-simultaneous notes: low-high, low-high, etc. Then I seek out music with blocked octaves in it. By "blocked," I mean "harmonic" or simultaneous high and low notes.)

To embark on specific octave exercises, then, we begin with broken octaves, hands together, ascending and descending, over the span of three octaves. Goal: two notes at 208.

Then we do blocked octaves. Same details and goal. The student is really impressed with himself as he thunders up and down the keyboard at two notes at 208, and I am, too! This is always another milestone.

Pre-majors do both these scale types in contrary motion, as well. Same details and goal. We also do Hanon #57, which is crab arpeggios in blocked octave form.

Last, both types of scales are tied together: the student does chromatic scales in octaves, first in parallel motion and then in contrary motion, as always to two notes at 208. This is du rigeur for my college-bound students, but optional (my choice!) for others.

Trills

These must be addressed separately, especially to increase LH speed and facility. For more information, refer to the file about trills I wrote for students. The Mozart Trill Exercise, mentioned in that file, may be found at the end of Hanon #46.

The three-finger trill exercise of Thalberg/Clementi is there, too. In my experience, however, most students prefer two-fingered trills, so I generally note that the three-finger trill is there should the student want to take a look at it sometime.

Études

In my opinion, études should be reserved for the advanced level. They are, literally, studies in a particular technical difficulty. Until the student reaches this level, he is too busy attending to many things at once. At the advanced level, I believe, is a good time to focus on specific minutia, such as quick repeated notes, legato sixths, legato chromatic thirds, etc. Not all my students play études, but all the college-bound ones do.

For études, I like short ones, such as Carl Czerny's 160 Eight-Measure Exercises, Op. 821.

I'm not particularly fond of Henry Lemoine's because I find don't find them very interesting musically, but this is personal taste.

I do like Stephen Heller's various études (opera 45, 46, 47, and 125) and Johann Burgmüller's famous opus 100 but use them as pieces of -music- to be studied, rather than strictly as études for technical merit. Donald Waxman has four books of études, and some of these are useful. Some (the glissando études, for example) make good novelty pieces, though difficult ones. And, of course, there are the Chopin études! As I said, for "étude études" (as opposed to "pieces études"), I like short études because they get the job done, and Czerny's Op. 821 fills the bill for me because they're succinct as well as challenging.

copyright 1998-2002, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
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Last updated on Feburary 28, 2002.