Simple way to develop a virtuoso level piano finger technique

 In Piano technique

This is a post I wrote for an online piano teacher’s forum on the subject of how to develop a virtuoso piano finger technique.

This is a post in answer to those of you who after seeing the video of my 15 year old student playing all 12 opus 10 Chopin études,

Asked to know more about how I use Hanon as the basis for teaching piano finger technique. First of all I want to thank you for the kind comments. I won’t lie, he is the most talented student I have ever had and knowing that he has the potential to do international competitions by the time he turns 18, I consider his progress to be a great and at times daunting responsibility and appreciate the feedback I have received from the people in this group as well as other pianists who have heard him over the last four years here in Montreal.

Now, on to  the magic of Hanon 😉 First of all, the very first teacher who introduced me to Hanon was Louis Lortie, whose reputation speaks for itself. If it was good enough for him, it’s good enough for just about anyone. Believe it or not, another inspiration for my approach to Hanon is the movie Karate Kid! Remember the scene where Mr. Miyagi tells his student to : wax on, wax off? Well, it applies. If you can’t do hanon at a reasonable speed then runs in Mozart and Haydn will be more difficult than they need to be.

Here are the reasons why I consider Hanon to be very useful:

  1. Very easy patterns to memorise
  2. Incredible at building endurance when played in succession
  3. An excellent way to guarantee that your left hand will always be as strong as the right. We all know that 90% of piano repertoire has difficulties mostly for the right hand. So doing even 15 minutes a day of Hanon is a way to keep that left hand articulate, especially in phases where we are practicing pieces difficult for the right hand that take up so much time ( ie: the first two Chopin etudes which need to be practiced for hours a day until they can be played)
  4. Very challenging to play WITH the metronome at very high speeds.

This having been said, here is how I do Hanon with all my students who really want to improve their piano finger technique:

I ask them to learn only the first five. Yes, it seems strange. ONLY the first five. Because you would be surprised how difficult it is to play just those first five at a fast tempo. And by using this particular approach, once a student can play them at quarter note =152, their fingers are definitely in good shape.

I start very slowly for those who have never done them. Quarter note =72 or even slower in some cases and then have them increase the metronome in increments that correspond to a regular mechanical metronome ( 60 + 4 till 120, then +6 till 152 then +8 till 160 or 168 if they can).

They all can reach 120 to 126 with the first four, but all struggle with the 5th one. It’s really hard especially for the left hand going down. This is when increasing the metronome may no longer be enough at which point I introduce rhythms. For this, Josh Wright has an excellent video about how to do rhythms.

But as for how to use the first five Hanon with this approach, simply practice the turn around at the top of the 2nd and 3rd exercise ( those two are difficult especially at a fast tempo). Start with 5 fast notes starting on the first note of the last bar before the exercise goes down, and then do 5 fast notes starting on the second 16th note, the 3rd, 4th etc until you have done both bars of the turnaround, meaning 16 16th notes. Then go back and do 6 fast notes, 7 fast notes, 8 and 9 if the student is willing. This process can take a few weeks for younger kids ( my youngest at the age of 11 can play the first five with metronome fairly comfortably at 144).

This can be done with the turnaround of the 3rd exercise and the most difficult, the turnaround of the 5th one.

So once a student can play those first five at 126 to 132 I give them a first movement of a sonata ( most first movements of Haydn and Mozart sonatas as well as the concertos have 16th notes that need to be played at quarter note = 132 aprx). Their fingers have the endurance and ability to navigate the runs quite well at this point. This is where I do what most teachers to and simply create exercises using the passages from the music.

The next level in terms of speed is the first five Hanon exercises at quarter note = 152. Always WITH the metronome. Really difficult. Try it. When a student can play these, I often assign them the first movement of the Waldstein. It’s in C major and the tempo is exactly 152. I have done this three times and all three times the student played it very well. It’s like a reward for working on the Hanon.

There is another thing that I do that is very useful although unusual. Once the can play the first 5, I have them play only 2 and 3 without stopping but I increase the metronome even more. This is because it doesn’t take too much time, and they really love the challenge. By isolating 2 and 3, they can go much faster than when they play the first 5 as a group because 5 is so difficult that it limits the speed they can go. My student Moxi ( who plays the Chopin etudes ) can play 2 and 3 at 216 with the metronome. It’s insanely fast. My top speed is 208 and I only managed this a few times. He does it with his eyes closed on command and never falters. It’s almost depressing L . Here is a video of him doing them at 200.

Some may think it’s not that big a deal, but I urge you to try it. It’s not easy.

And at the age of 16 he can now play the first five Hanon exercises at 192 as you can see from this video:

Then I have them play two Hanon exercises that train the passage of the thumb under the fingers. The one where they turn under the 3rd finger, and the one where they turn under the 4th.

After that there is the scale exercise in C major( all these are in the compete 2 volume edition) which are followed by all scales and arpeggios.

The next step to developing the kind of technique that my student now has is something that is controversial among pianists: held note exercises. I completely agree with those of you who say that they are risky and can cause injury. Hence the reason I only give them to students who can play the first five Hanon at 152 with ease. At which point I give them Stamaty three finger exercises ( also given to me by Louis Lortie) which they learn with great caution and under my strict supervision. I also give the very serious students Dohnyani exercises which are excellent and some personally selected Phillips exercises which increase the independence of the fingers.

When they do the Stamaty and Doynyani, they are still in a simple five finger position but they are transposing into 9 or 12 keys depending on how eager they are and how much time they have. This compensates for Hanon being only in C major.

This is what I did with Moxi. His  piano finger technique is now astonishing. Now he only needs to learn the first five opus 25 études to have all 24, which he should be able to do by his 17th birthday.

I consider Hanon to be the pianistic equivalent of push ups and pull ups. I do both every day and they are considered an excellent indicator of physical fitness. Same with Hanon. It doesn’t take that much time to learn the first five, and all my students really like the increasing metronome technique and the pieces corresponding to the 126 -132 level, 152 and 168 -176 ( Chopin etudes opus 10 no1 4 and 8 are in this tempo).

And yes, for those students who want, I do give them 6 to 10, but it’s not really necessary. I do prefer to use scales argeggios and actual music to further their technique so in the end, I don’t believe that there needs to be a debate between Hanon vs actual pieces. It’s like most things in life, the best answer is somewhere in the middle.

And so I hope this post helps. As the late, great Bruce Lee said: ‘absorb what is useful, reject what is useless and add what is specifically your own’. Thank you for reading and good luck!

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