[1.III.7.8] Problems with Hanon Exercises
Since about 1900, Charles Louis Hanon's (1820-1900) exercises have been used by numerous pianists in the hopes of improving technique. There are now two schools of thought: those who think that the Hanon exercises are helpful and those who think they are a waste of time. There is one "reason" some people give for using Hanon: that is to warm up the hands before starting practice. I suspect that this habit grew out of having learned Hanon early in the person's piano career, and that this same person would not be using Hanon if s/he were not so habituated.
I used Hanon exercises extensively in my youth but I am now firmly in the anti-Hanon school. Below, I list some reasons why. Czerny, Cramer-Bulow, and related lesson pieces share many of these disadvantages. Hanon is possibly the prime example of how intuitive methods can suck entire populations of pianists into using methods that are essentially useless, or even harmful.
Hanon makes some surprising claims in his introduction with no rationale, explanation or experimental evidence. This is exemplified in his title, "The Virtuoso Pianist, in 60 Exercises". His introduction shows that he simply felt that these are useful exercises and so wrote them down, a prime example of the "intuitive approach". Most advanced teachers reading this introduction would conclude that this approach to acquiring technique is amateurish and would not work. Hanon implies that the ability to play these exercises will ensure that you can play anything -- this is not only totally false, but also reveals a surprising lack of understanding of what technique is. Technique can only be acquired by learning many compositions from many composers. There is no question that there are many accomplished pianists who use Hanon exercises. However, all advanced pianists agree that Hanon is not for acquiring technique, but might be useful for warming up or keeping the hands in good playing condition. I think there are many better pieces for warming up than Hanon, such as etudes, numerous Bach compositions, and other easy pieces. The skills needed to play any significant piece of music are incredibly diverse - almost infinite in number. To think that technique can be reduced to 60 exercises reveals the naiveté of Hanon and any student who believes that is being misled.
All 60 are almost entirely two-hand exercises, in which the two hands play the same notes an octave apart, plus a few contrary motion exercises in which the hands move in opposite directions. This locked HT motion is one of the greatest limitations of these exercises because the better hand cannot practice skills more advanced than the weaker hand. At slow speed, neither hand gets much workout. At maximum speed, the slow hand is stressed while the better hand is playing relaxed. Because technique is acquired mostly when playing relaxed, the weaker hand develops bad habits and the stronger hand gets stronger. The best way to strengthen the weaker hand is to practice that hand only, not by playing HT. In fact, the best way to learn Hanon is to separate the hands as recommended in this book, but Hanon seems to have unaware of that. To think that by playing HT, the weaker hand will catch up to the stronger hand, reveals a surprising ignorance for someone with so much teaching experience. This is what I meant by "amateurish" above; more examples below. Locking the two hands does help to learn how to coordinate the hands, but does nothing to teach independent control of each hand. In practically all music, the two hands play different parts. Hanon doesn't give us any chance to practice that. Bach's Inventions are much better and (if you practice HS) will really strengthen the weaker hand. Hanon is very limited; it teaches only a fraction of the total technique.
There is no provision for resting a fatigued hand. This leads to stress and injury. A diligent student who fights the pain and fatigue in an effort to carry out Hanon's instructions will almost surely build up stress, acquire bad habits, and risk injury. The concept of relaxation is never even mentioned. Piano is an art for producing beauty; it is not a macho demonstration of how much punishment your hands, ears, and brain can take. Dedicated students often end up using Hanon as a way of performing intense exercises in the mistaken belief that piano is like weight lifting and that "no pain, no gain" applies to piano. Such exercises might be performed up to the limit of human endurance, even until some pain is felt. This reveals a lack of proper education about what is needed to acquire technique. The wasted resources due to such misconceptions can mean the difference between success and failure for a large number of students, even if they don't suffer injury. Of course, many students who routinely practice Hanon do succeed; in that case, they work so hard that they succeed in spite of Hanon.
The Hanon exercises are devoid of music so that students can end up practicing like robots. It does not require a musical genius to compile a Hanon type exercises. The joy of piano comes from the one-on-one conversations with the greatest geniuses that ever lived, when you play their compositions. For too many years, Hanon has taught the wrong message that technique and music can be learned separately. Bach excels in this respect; his music exercises both the hands and the mind. Hanon probably excerpted most his material from Bach's famous Toccata and Fugue, modified so that each unit is self cycling. The remainder was probably also taken from Bach's works, especially the Inventions and Sinfonias.
Many pianists use Hanon as warm-up exercises. This conditions the hands so that it becomes impossible to play "cold", something any accomplished pianist should be able to do, within reasonable limits. Since the hands are cold for at most 10 to 20 minutes, "warming up" robs the student of this precious, tiny, window of opportunity to practice playing cold. Those who use Hanon for warm-ups can be misled into thinking that it is Hanon that is making their fingers fly, while in reality, after any good practice session, the fingers will be flying, with or without Hanon. It is unfortunate that the Hanon type of thinking has bred a large population of students who think that only Mozart can just sit down and play, and that the rest of us are not supposed to perform such "magical feats". In order to be able to "play on demand", start by quitting Hanon exercises.
Some technique can be acquired using Hanon. But Hanon gives no instructions on how to acquire technique. If students used their "Hanon time" to practice real music, they would acquire a lot more technique. Who wouldn't rather play Mozart, Bach, Chopin, etc., than Hanon with better results and build a repertoire they can perform? Hanon cannot help if you get stuck at a difficult passage in another composition; it does not provide any diagnostics for telling you why you can't play a given passage. The PS exercises provide both diagnostics and solutions for most situations.
What little advice he does dispense, have all been shown to be wrong! So let's look into them:
He recommends "lifting the fingers high", an obvious no-no for fast playing, since that will be the biggest source of stress. I have never seen a famous pianist in concert lift the fingers high to play a fast run; in fact, I have never seen anyone do that! Hanon's advice has misled students into thinking that piano should be played by lifting the finger and plonking it down. It is true that the extensor muscles are often neglected, but there are exercises for treating this problem directly.
He recommends continuous practicing of both hands, as if piano technique is some kind of weight lifting exercise. Students must never practice with fatigued hands. This is why the HS method of this book works so well.
He recommends playing his exercises every day, but once any skill is acquired, it doesn't need to be reacquired over and over. Once all 60 pieces are learned, every hour that Hanon is repeated is a wasted hour -- what will we gain?
He is apparently aware of only the thumb under method, whereas the thumb over method is more important.
In most of the exercises, he recommends fixed wrists which is only partially correct. His recommendation reveals a lack of understanding of what "quiet hands" means.
There is no way to practice a majority of the important hand motions, although there are a few wrist exercises for repetitions. His format of locked 2-hand practice limits the options for practicing different hand motions.
The Hanon exercises do not allow for practicing at the kinds of speeds possible with the PS exercises. Without the use of such speeds, certain fast speeds cannot be practiced and there is no possibility of practicing "over-technique" (more technique than necessary to play that passage - a necessary safety margin for performances).
Hanon wastes time. The student ends up with insufficient time to develop their repertoire or acquire real technique. A person who has 2 hrs to practice every day, playing Hanon for 1 hr as recommended, would waste half of his piano lifetime! A person who has 8 hours to practice, on the other hand, doesn't need Hanon. All the editions I have seen print out the entire runs, whereas all you need are at most 2 bars ascending and 2 bars descending and the final ending bar. Although the number of trees cut down to print Hanon is negligible in the broader picture, this reveals the mentality behind these exercises of simply repeating the intuitively "obvious" without really understanding what you are doing, or even pointing out the important elements in each exercise. "Repetition is more important than the underlying technical concepts" -- this is probably the worst mentality that has hindered students most in the history of piano; we now know that this mentality evolved because of a lack of knowledge concerning practice methods.
Teachers can be classified into two types according to whether they teach Hanon or not. Those who do not teach Hanon tend to be more knowledgeable because they know the real methods for acquiring technique and are busy teaching them -- there is no time left for Hanon. Thus if you are looking for a piano teacher, choose from among those that do not teach Hanon, and you will increase the chances of finding a superior one.