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The Hanon Controversy (part i)

Whether through learning or teaching some of the exercises yourself or encountering someone online railing against them, most of us are familiar with The Virtuoso Pianist (Hanon, n.d.). Love it or hate it, it's clearly here to stay. In full disclosure, I use it in my teaching (for another post). Consequently, some might consider me an inferior teacher; as Chang (2020) puts it in his self-published book Foundations of Piano Practice: “when you are looking for a piano teacher, choose from among those that don't teach Hanon, and you will increase the chances of finding a superior one” (p. 109). I digress…

When we form opinions and make pedagogical decisions, we need to be informed and think critically; I believe that as educators, this is an ethical responsibility. So, before we enter the debate, I want to understand the musical milieu in which The Virtuoso Pianist emerged, what the work is exactly and what it aims to achieve.

In what context did Hanon compose The Virtuoso Pianist?

Hanon was born in 1819 and died at the turn of the century. He had a small compositional output of primarily instructional, Hausmusik, or religious music (Oxford University Press, 2001a). During Hanon’s lifetime, the manufacturing of the fortepiano increased exponentially. From the time The Virtuoso Pianist was published to Hanon’s death, production increased as much as 15 times in parts of the industrialising world, and the engineering of the instrument approached a level of standardisation that began to resemble its modern form (Oxford University Press, 2001a). By some estimates, the cost to the consumer halved from 1850 to 1900 (Oxford University Press, 2001b). The piano became immensely popular as it was accessible to the burgeoning middle class and for whom ownership “proclaimed an educated and prosperous household” (Ponce, 2019, p. 13). Concerts and other social musical gatherings were increasingly attended by the growing middle class and by what some might call a “less discerning audience” (Ponce, 2019). An appetite for showmanship and sensationalism reared its ugly head. Virtuosentum came to characterise much of the music the public demanded; that is, music saturated in virtuosic display for its own sake at the expense of content (Leistra-Jones, 2012). Before the piano’s popularity, composers earned an income primarily through commissions and concerts. However, the newfound fervour drove an amateur music-making market and demand for teachers, instructional music and Hausmusik exploded. As Ponce (2019) writes:

Rivalries, competition, and jealousies among pianists and piano teachers soared, each eager to show off their superiority over others. This mentality led piano teachers to oppressive demands of more hours of practice, with an ever-increasing number of meaningless exercises and ever more difficult repertoire. Disciplinarian teachers sought studies, etudes, mechanical devices, and anything else that would quickly boost students’ quest for “strong fingers”, agility and brilliance (pp. 18-19).

Many composers, including Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Ignaz Moscheles and Carl Czerny, capitalised on consumer demand and churned out largely studies, etudes, and instructional methods that claim to solve technical issues and improve finger strength and dexterity. These composers were “(direct or indirect) disciples” of Muzio Clementi (Ponce, 2019, p. 25). Clementi is considered the “father of modern piano technique” (Ponce, 2019, p. 16). He is probably most well-known for his collection of short studies, Gradus ad Parnassum, the success of which gave birth to a plethora of imitators. Clementi is credited with—for better or worse—introducing the idea that the practice of studies will develop transferrable skills enabling the student to overcome any challenge in any work: “just do this and you’ll be able to do anything”. It sounds like clever marketing, and it was! Many composers of studies and instructional books were also shrewd businessmen, including Charles-Louis Hanon (Oxford University Press, 2001). By the time The Virtuoso Pianist was published, Clementi was dead for over 40 years, but his legacy lived on and with great ferocity (and even lives on today), and that is where Hanon comes into the picture; he was born into a thriving market. He held the same beliefs about the transfer of learning; as Hanon (n.d.) states in The Virtuoso Pianist, “if all five fingers of the hand were equally well trained, they would be ready to execute anything written for the instrument” (preface). He claims that his exercises are the solution to this problem.

What is The Virtuoso Pianist?

In essence, The Virtuoso Pianist was a response to market conditions and the (un)musical environment in which Hanon was situated; it was a product that met demand. Although the work has enjoyed enduring popularity, it is but a drop in the ocean of exercise books. Most of us are familiar with it, but for the benefit of those who aren't, I'll briefly explain. The Virtuoso Pianist, a.k.a. “Hanon”, is a book of 60 exercises divided into three parts. The first part consists of 20 repeating two-beat patterns of semiquavers in the key of C major; however, transposition is encouraged and was (is?) a common requirement of some conservatories, such as the Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory. The patterns ascend and descend diatonically over two octaves by shifting the starting pitch of each repetition by step without requiring the turning of the thumb under the hand.

The second part consists of 11 similar exercises, the patterns of which vary in length. The next seven exercises that follow involve passing the thumb under the hand. The remaining six exercises in part two are scales and arpeggios. The third and final part consists of 16 exercises commonly referred to as “advanced techniques”, such as repeated notes, scales in thirds, sixths and octaves (in one hand), leaping in octaves, and tremolo. The kinds of exercises found in The Virtuoso Pianist are not particularly unique. Some the most (in)famous exercises in the first part can be found in other books such as Exercices de Vélocité (Phillip, 1920) and Exercices des Cinq Doigts (Rie, n.d.).

What is the rationale behind The Virtuoso Pianist?

Hanon presents the problem: he points out that the left hand is considerably weaker than the right, “the fourth and fingers are almost useless for lack of special exercises for these fingers […] and when passages in octaves in tremolo and trills occur, they are usually executed only by dint of exertion and fatigue” (n.d., preface) which he argues stifles expression in performance. Hanon offers the solution: The Virtuoso Pianist. He claims that this work is the “the key to all mechanical difficulties” and “necessary for the acquirement of agility, independence, strength and perfect evenness in the fingers, as well as the suppleness of the wrists—all indispensable qualities for fine execution; furthermore, these exercises are calculated to render the left hand equally skilful with the right” (n.d., preface). So, it is a sales pitch! The solution-selling strategy is still widely used today, probably in just about every industry. Hanon was a businessman who saw an opportunity and made the most of it—and it worked. The Virtuoso Pianist has stuck, maybe partly due to marketing and party due to its adoption by some conservatories during the late-nineteenth century.

Now that we have a better understanding of the context in which Hanon published The Virtuoso Pianist, what it is and what it aims to achieve, we will look at some of the arguments about its efficacy in part ii.

Steven Armstrong is a multi-award-winning former lecturer of musicology with postgraduate qualifications in educational leadership. He is a piano examiner at the Australian Music Examination Board and the founder and director of Advantage Music Academya music school of over 300 students in Western Australia widely recognised for its professional approach to pedagogy.

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