Essential technique and technique books

Technique is important but is too often overlooked. In this article I explain the different elements and review the 3 main technique books used.

[Excerpts are taken from 'The Piano Teacher's Survival Guide, Hanon 60 exercises, Czerny Op.599, A Dozen A Day series.]

What is technique?

Technique is the development of strength, flexibility, coordination, independence of hands, finger & touch control. It should be the basis for creating sound, colour, tempo and performance. This is applicable for all players, not just advanced players. Even at the beginner level, technique is not overlooked. Since individual player's physicality is unique (finger length, palm span, height), specific details in technique will differ. Yet the overarching themes and goal remain the same.

Why is technique important?

Notational inaccuracies can always be corrected, but poor technique can become insurmountable. This can lead to uneven rhythm/ touch/ tempo, harsh/ brittle sounds, lack of musical shape, uncontrolled balance. If appropriate technique is not introduced from the beginner stage, it obstructs the learning and playing ability as pieces become more demanding.

What are some indicators of poor technique?

  • Raised shoulders

  • Chin awkwardly pushed forwards

  • Flyaway fingers

  • Fixed wrists

  • Visible veins or clenched muscles in forearm

  • Unnatural or lack of breathing

  • Clenched mouth or jaw

  • Chicken wing elbows

  • Focused on pushing with fingers only

  • Inconsistent finger patterns

What are some key techniques for piano?

Maintain a good balanced posture. This allows easy access to the full weight of the arm, and gives the player sufficient physical freedom to move fluidly. Sit on the front 3rd of the height-adjustable tool, both feet on ground at either side of pedals, spine fairly upright. Hand and fingers form a natural arch.

Play without unnecessary tension. This prevents stain in muscles and joints that translate to a 'stiffled' sound. Arms should hang naturally relaxed, use the lateral movement of the wrist to avoid the elbow moving to a position that requires additional shoulder support. When relaxed, the hand shouldn't be fixed against the forearm, but instead should naturally droop. Shoulders should sit naturally relaxed.

Use natural weight of your wrist and fingers. A good-tone quality comes from the release of weight with balanced support and pilancy in the wrist and hand. In legato/ cantabile, weight is transferred from finger to finger. In giocoso/ staccato, finger touch is used instead of arm-weight.

Minimal effort is the optimal avenue. The key to this is the wrist motion, specifically the vertical, rotational and lateral movements of the wrist. The wrist should never feel fixed, instead it should be fluid.

What are some intermediate to advanced techniques?

Beyond the basic 4 techniques, there are more specific elements that is introduced at the higher ability level. These include:

  • Intermediate: trill, appoggiatura, acciaccatura, ornamentals (mordents, turns, embellishments), fluid thumb under, octave leaps, damper pedalling, voicing

  • Advanced: octave chord series, trills in double thirds, glissandos, una corda and sostenuto pedalling

My review on Hanon

'Military style finger drills' using both hands together in ascending and descending fashion. To make this effective, play with precision and control. Intermediate players can experiments with accenting and rhythms. I used Hanon myself as a student, whilst they polish my finger co-ordination and agility (particularly for the 4th and 5th fingers), overall as I find these exercises to be dry and non-musical. Hanon is mort effective at addressing finger speed and agility. I tend to use specific Hanon exercises for students above Grade 4 whom: respond well to a direct and regimented structure, or need specific issues addressing e.g. trills using exercise 14, 27, 29.

My review on Czerny

'Short musical passages to warm your heart and fingers'. I only discovered these when I began teaching and I'm pleasantly surprised! They are very reminiscent of Kabalevsky and address a range of elements: articulation, voicing, phrasing, interval chords, evenness, rhythm. The exercises also serve a double function as short sight-reading passages, due to training the eyes to notice patterns. Czerny is my preferred route for adult students and those above Grade 5.

My review on A Dozen A Day

'The staple for children Grades 1-3'. This is the first introduction of technique training for many students, with the exercises having fun illustrations and names appealing to young students. Book 1 can be is introduced when students are at level to begin Grade 1 pieces.