If you’re an aspiring pianist, chances are you’ve heard of the Hanon Exercises before.
But, if you’re not familiar, Hanon Exercises are a collection of short musical drills from “The Virtuoso Pianist” by Charles-Louis Hanon, originally published in 1873. They are focused on improving finger agility, muscle memory, and flexibility when playing. And like most good works, they have stood the test of time and are still widely used by teachers and professionals today.
In this article, we’ll talk about why you should practice with these exercises, as well as some of the best resources to use when you do.
Why Should I Practice Hanon Exercises?
Some of you may be skeptical that a nearly 150 year old resource can still hold its own against newer publications and techniques today. In fact, it’s a point of debate in some circles - some teachers think they’re a poor use of students’ time, and others swear by them.
I’ll lay out some of the benefits and objective gains to practicing the Hanon Exercises, and let you make the call for yourself or your student.
For starters, they make for a great warm up exercise.
Even with all questions of efficacy and technique put to one side, the Hanon Exercises are technically challenging enough to limber up fingers and hands without being too taxing physically or mentally. Rather than flipping through old music books or finding an old piece to warm up with, Hanon Exercises provide a no nonsense way to ease into practice while refreshing muscle memory on valuable techniques.
To build from there, one of the Hanon drills’ primary functions is to help strengthen the muscles in your hands and wrists. And there’s certainly an argument to be made that playing the piano in any capacity will have the same effect, and of course it does - but the Hanon exercises are a bit different in that regard.
They are designed in a way that encourages the use of proper technique, and laid out in a sensible pattern to train your muscles and digit flexibility for difficult pieces and chord progressions.
It may sound a bit fanciful the first time you hear it, but there is a reason that a singular method has persisted in force for nearly 15 decades! It simply has tangible benefits.
And that brings us to one of the strongest arguments in favor of the Hanon exercises - they build technique.
“Technique” is a word that gets thrown around a lot, and you might get a different definition of what it means depending on who you ask. I am fond of the interpretation by the quite talented Hungarian pianist György Sándor:
Technique is the sum total of organised motions executed by the performer. These motions produce sounds that recreate the moods of the composer in the performer’s own interpretation.
I am fond of Sándor’s definition for a few reasons.
Firstly, it doesn’t treat technique as a unique, singular thing which, once grasped, allows for mastery of performance. Technique is a collection of actions taken, the accumulation of skill and practice.
Secondly, it acknowledges the freedom that a pianist has to express their own musical voice - it doesn’t carry the strict rigidity that a lot of students associate with the concept of technique, the problematic notion that music can only be played one way correctly.
But I digress! Now that we’ve zeroed in on what it means to develop good technique, we can talk about how the Hanon Exercises benefit a student in that particular aspect.
The Hanon exercises focus on the bodily health and longevity of the pianist, through the development of beneficial habits and practice. A lot of students agree that the Hanon exercises can be dull - but taking on the exercises with the right mindset is incredibly helpful - some of the more simplistic drills allow the mind to focus more on technique and posture.
They are as useful as you want to make them, and approaching them with the right goal in mind is one of the most important aspects.
Remember, nothing worth doing is easy!
So, Why Should I NOT I Practice Hanon Exercises?
In the section I’ll tackle some of the common concerns and arguments against the “infamous” Hanon exercises - I think it’s important to present both sides of a debate so that our readers can make the most informed decision, and ultimately choose what works best for them as individuals.
1. Hanon Exercises Are Not Music
This is a common point of contention among opponents of the Hanon exercises - the core of the statement being that repetition of short drills learned by rote is not beneficial to students because it is not what a pianist typically plays or will play.
The crux of the argument is that the Hanon exercises are mechanical, clinical, and utterly unmusical. I can certainly see the mindset behind this stance as a whole, but I disagree for a few simple reasons.
For one, I wholeheartedly agree and respect that pianists are, by and large, drawn to the art to recreate beautiful pieces and express their unique voice in musical rendition. However, I disagree entirely that Hanon exercises, for lack of a better term, ‘suck the soul’ from musical learning.
The reality of the situation is clear cut: the path to mastery of an instrument is not easy, nor is every step along the way brimming with the flames of musical passion.
That isn’t to say that music isn’t fun - but at the same time, it isn’t a picnic, either!
Developing serious talent takes serious work. In a way, I agree - of course the Hanon Exercises are not music; in the same way that doing cardio and jogging daily are not equivalent to running a marathon. That doesn’t make them any less beneficial.
2. Hanon Exercises Don’t Help Finger Strength Or Independence
Another argument that crops up when discussing the Hanon exercises is something I touched on slightly earlier in this article. The meat and potatoes of this point are that practicing a piece provides just as much finger strength and independence as running through Hanon Exercises as a practice routine.
That is to say, that Hanon exercises aren’t anything special - after all, everything that a student plays on the piano will build finger strength and flexibility as a result.
I am of the opinion that this position comes from a flawed understanding.
Firstly, when learning a new piece, there are a lot more moving parts for a student to track on a mental level - dynamics, time signature, tone, expression - that is the entire point of the Hanon exercises. By providing a simpler drill, they free up the student’s mental attention to focus on body position, hand and wrist posture, and correct finger placement.
I think that the biggest flaw in this argument is that it misses the mark on what exactly the Hanon exercises are for.
3. Hanon Exercises Can Cause Injury
This is a rather serious point, relative to the others - the main point made here is that repetition of the same movements repeatedly without breaks can cause damage, accelerating the onset of conditions like tendonitis or RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury).
That is a very valid concern, but I do not think it’s a fault inherent in the Hanon exercises themselves. Practicing anything repeatedly with poor posture and physical form will invariably cause damage to the wrists and hands.
It should go without saying that the purpose of the Hanon exercises is not to injure yourself. The bottom line is simple - if you are experiencing any pain or discomfort, you should stop and take a break. Check out our article on preventing any pain when playing the piano for some helpful tips on how to manage and prevent practice - related injury.
So, Where Can I Practice Hanon Exercises?
Hopefully I’ve been able to address most concerns and issues you might have had with the Hanon exercises, and you are on board with using a time tested method to jump start your fundamentals!
To that end, I’ll provide some resources that should help get you started. By far, the most accessible way to start with the Hanon exercises is hanon-online.com.
They are a free online resource that offers 240 sheets of exercises from The Virtuoso Pianist in several keys. However, the site is a bit dated in design, so navigating it on a tablet or phone might not be as easy as acquiring a print edition of the book.
To that end, there’s a very affordable option on Amazon that you’re welcome to check out here. It’s a great option for students that prefer the physical feel of a book, or those who are practicing somewhere with a spotty or nonexistent internet connection.
A third option is one I always like to throw out for readers, and that is to check out your local brick and mortar music store. A lot of them have a good deal of resources for both pianists and musicians in general, and it never hurts to get your foot in the door of a local music scene if you’re an aspiring musician or student.
With all that in mind, it’s important to remember that the Hanon exercises are not the only thing that will make you a successful pianist. They are merely a useful part of a practice routine - if you’re looking for more resources, I recommend checking out our article on practicing piano efficiently for tips on how to make the best use of your time spent at the keys.
What To Take Away From This ArticlePersonally, I think that the Hanon exercises are an effective and time tested method to help students practice good fundamentals and technique.
That being said, there are simply some things that work better for some students, and some things that simply don’t. Luckily, there are a lot of free resources available for the Hanon drills - so I’d advise giving them a try for a week or more, and seeing if they work as well for you as they have for generations of pianists.