5 Piano Exercises to Perform and Hone Your Skills

Are you from the school of Czerny or Hanon?  Piano teachers and students alike love to talk about their favorite exercise king.  By the sound of it, one would think that pianists would have muscles bulging out of their fingers.  Or that students would acquire some sort of super human strength. Some piano teachers swear by Hanon and say that you will never develop real technique unless you build a foundation with the 60 Hanon finger exercises.

Others like the fact that Czerny’s list of repertoire was quite large and there was a good amount of books and exercises to choose from. 

Czerny piano exercises also have a reputation for also being melodic.  This is something Hanon critics say lacks.  Hanon is known for being repetitious and exhausting.  The amount drill and kill is daunting. Some of it is just no fun and not very musical.  In contrast Czerny, is not just about articulation and building speed, but about trying to make difficult passages even more musical. 

Are all these exercises really good for your playing?  Do they help?  Yes, but you cannot let them rule your practice sessions, let alone your life.  Franz Listz, the 19th century Hungarian composer, was known for being the ultimate technician.  It is said that he was so bored with playing exercises, that he read a book while he played. 

Listz was also a little full of himself and was regarded somewhat as a superstar during his era.  By all means, you shouldn’t be bored when playing piano exercises. They are designed to make you think about your playing and build strength, dexterity, speed, and articulation.  Instead of citing examples from Czerny or Hanon we are going to list 5 of our favorite piano exercises to perform and hone your skills.

Get your fingers ready, here you go!

  1. Scales in Octaves
  2. Playing in 3rds
  3. Legato chords
  4. Practice Scales for Speed
  5. 5 Fingers Expanded
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Scales in Octaves

One of the best ways to practice scales is to play them as octaves.  An octave is the distance between eight notes.  Play middle C with your thumb and play treble C with your pinky.  That’s an octave.  If you can’t reach the octave, try to cheat a little and play on the edge of the keys.  This is not ideal, but it will give you a better sense of how they are played.

Think of an octave as going from one letter name to the same letter name.  This is the same for any sharps or flats.  Create an arch with your hand that extends from thumb to picky.

Robert explains that the curling the second finger in is a secret that helps you maintain the arch and create an evenness of stability between the thumb and pinky. Now play the scale CDEFGABC while hitting the low notes with your thumb and the octave with your pinky. Use a wrist action to achieve instead of keeping a stiff arm when playing.

Use this same technique in all of your scales. Play slowly.  Make sure you include your left hand.  Play slowly at first. Keep the notes smooth and connected.  Need more resources? Check out the school of octave playing by Kullak. My favorite is the Training of the Thumb.  Talk about a major thumb workout!!

Playing in 3rds

Playing in 3rds requires some coordination, dexterity, and strength.  Let’s begin in C position.  Make sure your right hand thumb is on middle C and your left hand pinky is on bass C.  The right hand will play first.  Play 13,24,35,24,13.  You are playing both fingers together at the same time.  The left hand will 53,42,31,42,53. 

Try to connect each 3rd and play as smoothly as possible.  As in the previous exercise, don’t release the first two notes until you begin striking the second group of notes and so and so on.  Try this.  Start with your right hand.  13,24,13,24,35 and back down 35,24,35,24,13.  The left hand will play as follows: 53,24,53,24,13 and then 31,42,31,42,53.  Once you have mastered playing 3rds together, try playing them separately.

You will use the same patterns as above.  The bottom note is staccato and the top note is legato.  This type of articulation will melt mind and fingers.  

Legato Chords

One of the best ways to incorporate an exercise into your playing is to take a piece of music and turn it into an exercise.  Let’s take a look at Chopin’s Prelude in e minor.  For our purposes, we are going to look specifically at the left hand and only certain measures.  The goal of this exercise is play chords as smoothly as possible.  You will be playing the first eight measure of the piece.  Each note in the chord must be heard.  Watch the key signature. 

All Fs are sharp in the key of e minor.  The first chord is e minor.  The top note changes in measure 2 to an Eb.  In measure 3, your pinky goes from F# to F natural.  The F is natural for the rest of measure 3.  Watch the B and G# in measure 3.  Continue to analyze the piece paying careful attention to the moving notes.  Keep your arm weight even throughout the piece.  Once you work out the chords and the fingerings; you be more comfortable in creating a smooth, connected sound. 

The secret is to not only create a connected sound, but to also have a clear harmonic structure that moves chromatically one note at a time.  There are many of other pieces you can choose to accomplish legato playing.  If you find this to be too difficult, choose another that has this same type of melody accompaniment.

Practice Scales for Speed

Here are a few techniques for increasing speed in scales.  Playing fast is often a mystery to younger players.  Many people don’t realize that the same players that can lightning fast, also play their scales at a painfully slow tempo.  They do this for arpeggios as well. 

Play your major scales with both hands.  If you are having trouble, play each hand separately.  Each note should be played as a quarter note.  Make sure you play with a metronome.  If you don’t have one, you can use one online.  There are also some great metronome apps out there for your tablet or phone. 

Try to play with the quarter note at either 50 or 60.  Now play the scale as eighth notes.  Now play the scale as triplets (three notes per beat). Now play the scale as 4 sixteenth notes.  Increase your metronome speed one or two beats every week.  If you can’t fit the rhythm within the space of the beat, then you need to slow down the metronome.  It’s ok if you don’t progress or get faster every week. 

That’s natural.  Take your time.  It’s all about the journey.  However, with a little bit of practice and dedicated time, your scales will be so fast that they’ll be scorching! 

Try playing your scales as a dotted eighth note and then a sixteenth note.  You should feel that the scale now has skipping feel.  To be more exact, your first note will be C and the second note will D.  Your third note will be E and then F. 

This will make the sixteenth note the quickest note and when you play it as steady eighth notes again you should feel that they are easier to play.  Take that dotted eighth, sixteenth note rhythm and flip it. Now you will have a sixteenth note first then the dotted eighth note.  The rhythm now sounds like two quick notes in succession. 

This time, play the notes as in groups of two C,D,D,E,E,F etc. The second note will last for the value of three eighth notes.  Play your scale again with steady eight notes.  The scale again should feel very easy to play.  The idea behind this is that you are only playing one quick note in the first pattern and only playing two quick notes in the second rhythmic pattern.  Repeat these rhythms for all the scales you play. 

If you can play all 12 major keys, start working on the minor, harmonic minor, and melodic minor scales.  Have them mastered? Try it with the blues scale or whole tone scale. 

Five Fingers Expanded

Most players know that you can warm up and exercise their fingers with the five finger pentascale pattern.  The pattern works in all 12 keys and the pianist will play 1,2,3,4,5,4,3,2,1.  This the basic exercise.  You can move around the circle of 5ths or play the pentascales chromatically.  It is also played 1,2,3,4,5,4,3,2,1,5,1. 

This can be expanded to include not only step-wise motion but skips.  It can also be used to play intervals such as 1,2,1,2,3,1,2,4 etc.  Skips can include: 1-3-5-3 and 1,5,3,1. 

There are too many patterns to include here.  Come up with your own and stick with them.  Make sure you transfer the pattern over to the other keys.  Mix and match the patterns.  Don’t stay too long on the step-wise patterns and make sure your including your skips and intervals.  The skips and intervals are a great primer to arpeggios. 

The pentascale can also be played as repeated patterns.  Try playing 1,1,1,1 2,2,2,2 3,3,3,3, etc. etc. Repeat this pattern with pinky at the top of the pentascale.

The Cool Down

Hopefully, you gained a little more insight into playing different piano exercises.  Remember, the best exercises are the ones that you know your end goal.  Why am I doing this?  What’s the purpose? How can I use this to improve my daily playing?  You don’t have to play all of the exercises every time you practice.

Some of these might take up all of your practice session.  That’s ok at first.  But, don’t let them.  Save some time for your songs and pieces that you are performing, even if it’s five minutes. Also, you want to avoid playing exercises that accomplish the same thing.  You don’t want to play pentascales in all 12 keys (including the intervals and repeated patterns) and also play all of your major and minor scales in the same day.  If you do too much, it could lead to injury. 

Here are a few things to keep in mind.  Try to play one or two exercise every day.  Be sure to vary your exercises.  They can be played at the beginning of your session or at the end. Play your scales on the first day and arpeggios the next.  Only experienced players will spend countless hours on piano exercises. Have fun and work those fingers! 

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