To play Studies or not to play Studies

There has been much debate recently over the internet, as to whether technical exercises are important or not when learning to play the piano. These include comments here on my blog (and on many other blogs too) as well as via my inbox, regarding the merits of playing and practising studies irrespective of the standard or level of the pianist. Many believe them to be totally irrelevant; learning should be an organic process, assimilating difficulties within each work studied. Others, who enjoy exercises and feel there is much to be gained from the practice of such technical work, want to know which ones are ‘better’ or ‘more’ effective. Is there, in fact, a ‘holy grail’ manual which could possibly improve playing once and for all? Wouldn’t that be fantastic? Working at studies and exercises is of course, personal taste, depending largely on, the teacher, a student’s capabilities and whether the student will work in the necessary diligent way, week after week.

For any technical work to be really useful, a student has to believe in it and trust it (this is true of a teacher too). If pupils feel exercises to be a waste of time, dull, or perhaps ‘not real music’ then undoubtedly they will become bored quickly and will cease playing them. However, if the benefits are obvious as they hone and work at their increasing pianistic skills, then practising them will become a good and perfunctory habit, rather like taking a bath!

There are two crucial factors in successful study practice; firstly, the way exercises are tackled and assiduously worked at and secondly, how they are taught. There is little point in playing the same technical exercise over and over again achieving little and not really improving technique at all. In many cases, exercises seem quite straight forward; many Czerny, Hanon or Cramer studies are indeed easy to sight-read and play, but this isn’t the point when studying them. The idea behind technical improvement is to play in a ‘different’ manner, working at personal deficiencies (we all have them!) and it’s much easier to do this with relatively simple music. To make a steady and real improvement in piano playing, it takes self-discipline and self-knowledge in order to know exactly what is required to improve.

Here are a few tips and useful points when thinking about adding studies and exercises to your daily practice regime:

  1. All studies, whatever the composer, can be useful depending on what is to be achieved. It may be a good idea to mix it up and play several by different composers, as this will provide variety when tackling the same technical issue.
  2. When practising studies, try to observe physical sensations (do you feel really comfortable when playing, for example), after all, these works aren’t necessarily intended to be ‘great’ music, which is one of the reasons why it is possible to potentially learn on any study accomplishing similar results.
  3. The intension is not only to improve finger power but also physical strength and flexibility in the upper body, so pupils feel a sense of complete ‘freedom’ in movement, particularly in the arms and wrists, which contributes to successful playing. This can’t be achieved if pianists don’t know how they feel when they play.
  4. One of the main factors when playing great music is that mental focus will usually be on the music and on interpretation as opposed to perfecting technical issues. Studies break this cycle and allow pianists to use their minds in a different direction, concentrating purely on improving movement and efficiency when negotiating the whole keyboard. Once this has been assimilated, it’s then possible to focus entirely on interpreting the music.
  5. Studies are not just about fast finger work (although they are great for this, and are especially useful for hand co-ordination too), but are also about using arm weight properly, producing a good sound, installing accurate rhythmic playing, perfecting articulation, encouraging proper use of the body and creating a more ‘professional’ approach to the instrument regarding all aspects of technique.
  6. Concentration is paramount and this ties in with really listening to what is being attained. Perhaps use a recorder to ‘hear’ what is being played. It’s best to avoid employing any pedal when playing studies as this merely clouds finger work. Memorization can also be useful, as it will encourage complete mental focus on efficiency of body movement.
  7. Students are often shocked when physical ‘tightness’ is highlighted in lessons, particularly with regard to wrist movement and upper body freedom (apparently concert pianist Claudio Arrau practised while watching his movements in mirrors, so he could observe his body’s actions whilst playing). Pupils are nearly always unaware of ‘how’ they are playing. This is why it is vital to work with a good teacher in person. They are then able to correct every issue immediately and work with pupils until the proverbial penny drops (which can often take a long time depending on how ingrained habits have become).

Which particular exercises students choose to play is of little relevance, but some of the following may be useful: Czerny, Hanon, Cramer, Clementi, Moscheles, Moszkowski, Dohnányi, Tausig, Beringer, Joseffy, and some Brahms. Etudes by Liszt, Chopin, Rachmaninov and the like, are all ‘Concert Studies’, showcasing technique once it has been acquired. Studies can really be a good addition to a practice regime and if addressed properly, will definitely improve piano playing.

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.