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The Hanon Controversy (part ii)

In The Hanon Controversy: Part One, we situated The Virtuoso Pianist (Hanon, n.d.) historically, took an overview of the exercises and examined the rationale behind them. Now let's look at the debate. If you conduct an online search, you might stumble upon the self-published Fundamentals of Piano Practice (Chang, 2004). I think this book captures the views held by many who oppose the use of The Virtuoso Pianist; the author considers himself "firmly in the anti-Hanon school" (p. 95). In his book, Chang makes his case against the utility of the exercises, citing ten reasons. You could write a PhD dissertation unpacking his ten reasons, but I'll try to be concise.

My purpose here is to stimulate discussion and encourage critical thinking. It's not my intention to disparage Chang—as tempting as it is—but to look critically at the arguments he makes. And in doing so, I hope you'll see that this is not about Chang or, in some ways, even Hanon's exercises but about thinking critically about our craft. If we consider ourselves professional teachers, thinking critically about our choices of exercises, repertoire, pedagogy, and advice we act on is indispensable.

Where's the rationale and evidence?

Chang (2004) argues that there is no rationale for The Virtuoso Pianist. In his preface, Hanon (n.d. preface) explains: "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" 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 skillful with the right". Hanon very clearly lays out his rationale and, despite popular belief that the exercises have no musical intention, Hanon explains that the mechanical difficulties he seeks to resolve result in music that is "wholly wanting in expression". Whether you agree with Hanon or not, this is a very rational rationale.

Chang (2004) points out that no experimental evidence supports Hanon's claims and that the inception of the exercises is an example of an "intuitive approach" (p. 95). Chang is right; there is no experimental evidence, at least that I can find. But it was the nineteenth century, and instrumental pedagogy was not grounded in experimental research. And there is still no(?) experimental evidence. Piano pedagogy since the nineteenth has probably been based exclusively on a priori knowledge—in short, based on an individual's experience and observations, or we might say "intuition". (I'm not saying there is anything wrong with that; after all, much of my writing is based on a priori knowledge). Multiple long-term studies would need to be conducted in which students practice The Virtuoso Pianist, importantly, as per Hanon's instructions to produce experimental evidence. It would be impossible to control for the infinite number of variables, such as prior knowledge and skill, musical aptitude, teacher quality, teaching quality, and mindfulness when practising. The research participants would have to all play the same repertoire and practise the same way and for the same amount of time. There would also need to be a control group of students who do not practice the exercises. We would then need a mechanism through which we can somehow measure the effectiveness of the exercises through the performance of repertoire. It seems unreasonable to expect that there would be experimental evidence as to the efficacy of the exercises. So, while Chang is not wrong, he has unrealistic expectations. And if you read his entire book (even just a random page), you'll quickly learn that his work is equally unsupported by experimental evidence.

However, just about all exercises—not just Hanon's—are conceived intuitively or based on a priori knowledge without experimental evidence supporting their efficacy. Frederic Chopin composed an etude of thirds, and so did Hanon. Do we conclude, then, that Chopin's etude is somehow invalid because he, too, had no experimental evidence to validate it? Who would dare suggest that!? It could be argued that Hanon had more evidence than Chopin as to the efficacy of thirds exercises, given that the latter wrote his etude about 35 years before the publication of The Virtuoso Pianist and a plethora of other etudes and exercises by various composer-teachers. There is an extensive body of pedagogical works based on an intuitive approach (or a priori knowledge), including Chopin's etudes, which would've given Hanon good reason to believe in the efficacy of his exercises. I'm not advocating an attitude of "we've always done it this way, so it must be good"—not at all. I'd say that attitude is primarily to blame for today's widespread use of slow and pedagogy-poor method books. But, in the absence of evidence, all we have is a priori knowledge, and we need to look at it but look at it critically.

Technique is developed through repertoire.

Chang (2004) claims that "technique can only be acquired by learning many compositions from many composers" (p. 95). You can and do develop technique through playing repertoire, but you still have to do a certain amount of drilling of challenging passages. A pro-basketball player practises drills, free-throws, passes, lay-ups, and everything else because they need to be able to execute these things successfully in a game under pressure; they are trying to remove any potential obstacles. Surely, they'll develop these skills faster by practising them, than by playing games alone. The math is simple: a player could shoot free-throws for 10 minutes, that's probably something like 120 throws, but in a match, they may only throw two. And what are they doing every time they throw in practice? I'd like to think that they're very mindfully trying to finesse their technique. Of course, this doesn't mean the player will know how to play the game well. Still, a basketball player is developing and finessing fundamental mechanical skills that will enable them to perform more reliably in a game, and very importantly, they're developing good habits of the mind. If you were to play Hanon's exercises without being mindful, without purpose, without self-evaluating, and so on, it would indeed be a waste of time. I'm not arguing playing basketball and making music is the same thing; I'm saying that the student will likely benefit from practising mechanical skills, but will not by some miracle improve at making a good sound by merely playing the diminished seventh extensions in part three of The Virtuoso Pianist. The student needs to practice mindfully and purposefully; they need to experiment and implement a cycle of self-evaluation and adjustment to make the stretches as comfortable as possible and sound good.

Moreover, at first, a beginner learns to read a minimal range of pitch and rhythm that puts very little demand on the mechanical aspect. Beginners can learn at the very least the first exercise from The Virtuoso Pianist well before they can read it. Hanon (n.d.) actually suggests that the exercises be introduced to a student after they have "studied for about a year" (preface). However, a beginner can begin the simplest exercises immediately. This presents us with an opportunity to advance students' mechanical facility well ahead of their reading ability. Why wait?

Chang (2004) argues that "Hanon probably excerpted most [sic] his material from Bach's famous Toccata and Fugue [presumably in D minor, BWV 565], modified so that each unit is almost self cycling. The remainder was probably also taken from Bach's works, especially the Inventions and Sinfonias." (p. 108). Therefore—the author deduces—these works "are some of the best practice pieces for acquiring technique" (p. 100). Indeed, the scalic and chordal figurations of Hanon's first 20 exercises are abundant in J.S. Bach's inventions and sinfonias. Notably, however, the relationship is evident only in the first 20 exercises. In Bach's inventions and sinfonias, you won't find passages with broken chords in double octaves and scales in double thirds. Moreover, the kinds of figuration in the first 20 exercises are also found in the music of George Frideric Handel, Domenico Scarlatti, Antonio Vivaldi, and many more Baroque composers. The figurations appear in all music (albeit usually less repetitively in Classical and later styles), so it's a bit of a dubious claim that The Virtuoso Pianist owes its origins specifically to Bach's Toccata and Fugue and the inventions and sinfonias and that technique can be acquired by practising these works.

Further, Bach's keyboard(s) is an entirely different instrument from the piano of Hanon's time, and his music isn't always idiomatic of the instrument. Bach often seems to have had little concern as to the playability of many of his works because the musical thinking is often in the context of other instrumental genres; for example, choral, chamber, and organ music. As a result, the mechanical demands of Bach's works frequently involve finger gymnastics more than anything else. For example:

  • Holding one note while playing others and accumulating more held notes which often involve large stretches between fingers (Example 1);

  • Swapping fingers on a held note;

  • Crossing fingers under and over each other; and

  • The impossible note value or tie.

Example 1.

Example 2.

So the mechanical demands of the piano and the musical demands of the late nineteenth century, particularly regarding virtuosity, render Bach's inventions and sinfonias perhaps less useful in acquiring technique than Chang asserts.

Where's the music?

Chang (2004) argues that "it makes no sense to practice something devoid of music; remember, technique and music can never be separated. I do recommend one-hand scales, arpeggios and chromatic runs, followed by some two-hand play" (p. 96). Yet, 10 per cent of The Virtuoso Pianist is scales and arpeggios(!). The scales include cadential progressions, which may actually help students consolidate their understanding of the relationships between scale, harmony, and key. Moreover, the first 20 exercises may have more utility than scales because the figurations are more varied than a simple scale. There's an argument to be made that The Virtuoso Pianist is less devoid of music than scales and arpeggios.

Chang (2004) asks why any student would waste their time on The Virtuoso Pianist when they can develop technique through repertoire. I've already argued that the exercises may allow a beginner to develop some mechanical facility they would not otherwise develop playing their appropriately simple repertoire. The same can be said of developing some musical understanding. The repertoire—if you can even call it that—a beginner learns has very little musical substance. Some exercises from The Virtuoso Pianist can address this shortcoming. The imaginative and musical teacher can make music out of Hanon. Number 17, for example, is comprised of an arpeggiation that peaks with an appoggiatura followed by another appoggiatura and a turn. Treated as an adagio cantabile, it can be made quite beautiful (see Example 3). Number 20 lends itself to some musical transformation as well (see Example 4).

Example 3.

Example 4.


I am not going to pretend that what I've suggested is what Hanon intended. If a student practises The Virtuoso Pianist as written and for one hour daily once mastered as Hanon suggests, there's certainly little direct musical benefit. So for me, the question we should be asking is: how do we use the exercises effectively and when are they best introduced to a student?

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 is 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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