I cant argue that many folks have excelled, whom also used Hanon. Russians especially. But the real question is, how relevant in fact was it? And how worthwhile are any potential benefits, in light of the potential harm?
My "view" against hannon is not based on any personal experiences with it. I do not use it, nor have I ever, nor has my teacher ever suggested it. If that alone makes my opinion irrelevant to you, so be it.. I do however know the premis of Hanon, and I have looked at the exercises it suggests. And in fact for coordination issues, if you ignore everything about how Hanon suggests (physically) you execute these exercises, they may in fact be helpful. But my problems with it, based only on my understanding of what it is are as follows:
1. technique cannot be seperated from musicality. To seperate them as mutually exclusive is a waste of your time. If you're spending 2 hours a day working on "technique" and acquiring no repertoir (or anything that even remotely resembles music) in the process, you are wasting your time.
2. Hanon's entire premise is to gain equal strength in all fingers, which, as 130 years of progress in human physiology now shows us, is physically impossible. I for one am not interested in studying a method which claims to allow me to do what I know is impossible.
3. Technique can and should be gained from repertoir. Look at the Bach Inventions, much of Hannon is derivative of it, why not study them instead?
But, Bernhard on pianoforum.net has a well thought view-point which I agree with, and can't come close to explaining as well as he does (so what else is new???
A piece of his writing follows:
First my usual disclaimer: What follows is just my opinion (what else could it be?) and it is not my purpose to convince anyone of anything. Piano playing cannot be improved on the basis of verbal argument. Instead, think of it as experiment suggestions. Choose two pieces of similar difficulty. Learn one following your own ideas. Learn the other following my suggestions. Compare results. Use what is useful, discard what is not. People are different. What may work for me or my students may not work for you or anyone else. However, if I do make a suggestion (you will notice that although I post a lot, I will not get involved in any threads to which I feel I cannot contribute) it is usually because it yields spectacular results. Can you afford not to try? Beliefs are just unnecessary limitations. Do not worry about beliefs. Go after the facts.
Now for Hanon.
1. The Virtuoso Pianist was published in 1873. Could we have learned something about technique since then? But more to the point, did Hanon have at his disposal all the knowledge needed to write a collection of technical exercises that would still continue to be valid even 131 years later?
2. Have you ever read the preface Hanon wrote for his exercises, where he gives directions on how to practise them? It makes for a most intriguing reading. Here are a few excerpts (but I suggest that you read the full preface):
[..]To attain this end, it sufficed to find the solution to the following problem: If all five fingers of the hand were absolutely equally well trained, they would be ready to execute anything written for the instrument and the only question remaining would be that of fingering, which could be readily solved.
We have found the solution of this problem in our work “The Virtuoso Pianist in 60 Exercises”. In this volume will be found the exercises necessary for the acquirement of agility, independence, strength and perfect evenness in the fingers as well as 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. […]
Now, in 1873 it was not the practice of piano pedagogues to be fully acquainted with human anatomy. In fact I doubt that the full details of anatomy and muscle physiology were available then. In particular, Hanon seems completely ignorant of two anatomical facts – one obvious – the other not so obvious but nevertheless there. Fact number one: fingers have different sizes. Fact number two the fourth finger shares a tendon with the third finger, so it cannot move independently. Therefore the whole Hanon project and directions for practice are based on a completely false premise: that it is possible to acquire equal strength on all fingers, and moreover that you can acquire finger independence. From that false premise he jumps to a now hopelessly false conclusion: that the way to do so is to do his exercises.
If a salesman knocked at your door and proceeded to try to sell you a book of instructions that- if followed -would allow you to fly like superman would you buy it? You would not even need to read and try the instructions in the book, because no matter how reasonable and compelling they may appear, it promises something you know to be impossible.
Likewise I do not need to even enter the merit of Hanon exercises, because their final aim (equal finger strength and independence) is anatomically impossible no matter how much you repeat them.
3. But it gets worse. Hanon directs you to keep all the playing apparatus (shoulder girdle/arm/forearm/hands) motionless and move only the fingers. I kid you not! Here are his very own words:
Lift the fingers high and with precision, playing each note very distinctly. (Exercise 1)
We repeat that the fingers should be lifted high, and with precision, until this entire volume is mastered. (Exercise 5)
Lift the fingers high and with precision without raising hand or wrist (Exercise 44)
Lift the fingers high and with precision throughout this exercise without raising hand or wrist (Exercise 47)
Strike the octaves without lifting the wrists, and hold them down while deftly executing the intermediate notes with a good finger movement. (Exercise 58 )
Neither wrist nor hand should be moved in the least while playing this exercise (Exercise 59)
Do any of these exercises in the way prescribed and you end up with a serious injury.
Only in six of the more advanced exercises the wrists are allowed to move at all, and specific directions are given to that end. Here again in his own words:
Lift the wrists well after each stroke, holding the arms perfectly quiet; the wrist should be supple, and the fingers firm without stiffness. Practise the first four measures until an easy wrist-movement is obtained. (Exercise 48).
The wrists should be very supple, the fingers taking the octaves should be held firmly but without stiffness, and the unoccupied fingers should assume a slightly rounded position. At first repeat these three first lines slowly until a good wrist-movement is attained, and then accelerate the tempo continuing the exercise without interruption. If the wrists become fatigued, play more slowly until the feeling of fatigue has disappeared, and then gradually accelerate up to the first tempo. (Exercise 51).
We cannot too strongly insist on the absolute necessity of a proper wrist-movement; it is the only means of executing octaves without stiffness and with suppleness, vivacity and energy (Exercise 53).
This highly important exercise (broken octaves) prepares the wrists for the study of the tremolo (Exercise 56).
To begin with practice the first arpeggio in C which must be played cleanly and distinctly, with a good wrist-movement, before passing to the next in minor (Exercise 57).
Finally, by oscillations of the wrists, the rapidity is still further augmented up to the tempo of the drum roll (Exercise 60).
Nowhere in the whole book do we find reference to forearms, arms, shoulders, back or even posture. One gets the impression that Hanon’s ideal is for the pianist to remain motionless while his fingers - and in a few instances - his wrists do all the work. There is simply no piece in the entire piano repertory where such a way of playing would be appropriate. There may be a few pieces that you may be able to play like that, but even the Hanon exercises can benefit from using the whole of the playing apparatus. So what can possibly the point of endless practising something that will never be appropriate? Whatever technique you may acquire from Hanon will be pretty much useless.
I play the recorder. Even when playing the recorder the whole body must move (although a careless observer may get the impression that all you are doing is moving your fingers up and down). So Hanon’s technique is inadequate even for the recorder – an instrument which is far more limited in terms of arm movement than the piano.
Now of course, this is what Hanon tells us in his writing. Maybe in his personal teaching he would say more. So apart from developping finger strength and independence (two impossibilities as we have seen), what else are they good for?
4. What about equalizing the hands? Hanon promises that in no uncertain terms:
these exercises are calculated to render the left hand equally skilful with the right.
Not if you play them as directed, that is with hands together. Assuming that your left hand is weaker, as you play through the exercises hands together, the left hand will always be playing beyond its capacity (and therefore getting tense, making mistakes and developping bad habits) while the right hand is never playing at its full potential (since it has to wait for the left).
Cold you play the exercises in a way that it would equalise the hands? Yes, practise them hands separate.
This of course would defeat the main goal of the book, as Hanon tells us:
This entire volume can be played through in an hour
Well, not if you are going to do it hands separate as well, more like three hours…
5. What about Finger coordination?-
This is – in my opinion – the only saving grace of these exercises, the only level where some benefit can be derived. By finger coordination I mean the movement of each finger in turn according to a preestablished pattern. So in exercise number 1 each finger follows the other in the order 12345 (rh) and 54321(lh) when ascending and 54321 (rh) and 12345 when descending. In Exercise 15, fingers follow one another in the order 12132435 (rh) and 53423121 (lh) when ascending and 53423121 (rh) and 12132435 (lh) when descending. Such coordinations are by no means trivial, and may elude the practitioner for many weeks. The way to master them is through repetition and slow playing. Yet you have to play fast enough do that you do not have to “think”, for this will slow you down.
Is Hanon good for this purpose them? Undoubtedly. But so is every piece of music ever written! So why, for crying out loud, practise these musical monstrosities in order to acquire something that can be acquired playing pieces from the repertory?
6. What about speed and agility?
Hanon suggests (for the majority of the exercises) that one starts on MM ´ = 60 and progresses to MM ´ = 108.
Is 108 beats per minute the fastest one can play the exercises? No. However if one is to follow Hanon’s injunction of not moving the wrists and lifting each finger high and with precision, 108 beats per minute is about the limit speed. If you try playing faster one of two things will happen. Either you will tense and the fingers will loose their precision and cramp, or you will start moving wrists and forearms around in order to help with the finger movement. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the later as will be discussed later on. However there is something very wrong with tension. In the best scenario you simply will not be able to produce the best tone the piano has to offer. In the worst case scenario, insist on playing as fast as you can with tense wrists/arms/back/etc. for hours on end, repeating the same pattern over and over in the hope of eventually improving (no pain, no gain), and you may end up with a very nasty injury (eg. repetitive strain syndrom, carpal tunnel syndrom, focal dystonia). And this will mean not playing for 2 - 3 years (and in some cases never again).
Hanon must have been aware of the potential dangers, since he set the limit at 108 beats per minute.
The point here is that you cannot develop speed and agility with fingers alone. Velocity is a function of the upper arm. So once again, Hanon is pretty much useless for true virtuoso technique, since such technique demands the co-ordinated use of the whole body. How are you going to learn and practise such co-ordination from a set of exercises that allow you only to move from the wrist down?
7. All of the above leads us to an interesting question: can we salvage these exercises? Can’t we ignore Hanon’s suggestions and practise the exercises in a more appropriate way (hands separate for equalizing the hands, moving the whole playing apparatus and not only the fingers, etc.)? Of course we could.Hmoll, who disagrees with me on my rejection of Hanon has said that Hanon is good but should be used under the guidance of a teacher. I suspect that he is very aware of all the shortcomings above, but still thinks that with the necessary modifications Hanon can still be useful.
Although I agree that it is possible to modify Hanon so that it becomes sort of useful, there are two problems with trying to salvage it. The first is the serious one. If your teacher is aware of all these problems – and therefore knowledgeable enough to modify the execution of the exercises so that they add up to something - most likely he will not assign you Hanon. Which means that a teacher who assigns Hanon most likely has not even reflected on all the above, s/he is just following tradition. Therefore you are facing a huge waste of time in the best case scenario and some nasty injury in the worst case scenario. The second argument about salvaging Hanon is much simpler: Why bother? Instead play Scarlatti sonatas, or Bach 2 voice inventions. They will give you all the technique Hanon promises (without delivering) and much, much more.