The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: To play or not to play Hanon? Should piano students do five-finger exercises as well as scales and arpeggios? Sergei Rachmaninoff thought so and Stephen Hough thinks so. What do today’s piano students and teachers think? | May 28, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

Should piano students play exercises?

Should they play repetitive five-finger etudes by Hanon (below and in a YouTube video at the bottom), Czerny and other pedagogues?

Should they learn and play scales and arpeggios?

hanon 1

Should they learn them separately? Or within the context of a musical composition?

These remain controversial questions.

But the British classical pianist Stephen Hough (below top) recently blogged about how he and Sergei Rachmaninoff (below bottom) – often considered the greatest pianist of the 20th century as well as a major post-Romantic composer –- defend the practice.



Here is a link to the recent blog post by Stephen Hough for The Guardian newspaper in the UK:

The Ear wants to know what you think, especially if you are a pianist, a piano student or a piano teacher.


  1. I have always found looking at excercises written out to be boring and demoralizing. Much better, and more creative, is to have students devise their own exercises. Basing them on challenging passages makes them relevant.

    Comment by Janet Murphy — May 28, 2015 @ 10:50 pm

  2. I cannot answer the question posed (but strongly suspect the answer is “yes”) but do question the statement in the article that Rachmaninoff was the greatest pianist of the 20th century. He was certainly amongst the best but remember there have been lots of great pianists in those years (like V. Horowitz, A. Rubinstein, E. Gilels, etc.) and it is really not possible to compare and judge these people because they played in different periods, different places even, and often had a different repertoire. Rachmaninoff certainly is also notable, though, because not only was he an outstanding pianist but he wrote some of the greatest music ever for the piano. If he thought playing scales was a terrific way to prepare for being a pianist, that in itself should carry a lot of weight. But then again, he may have been a great player and composer but was he a great piano pedagogue (a different creature entirely)? That too is a different question. I don’t know the answer to that.

    Comment by fflambeau — May 28, 2015 @ 9:38 pm

  3. Thanks for sharing this!

    As someone who shunned scales and exercises during my teenage years, I now appreciate their benefit and assign them to most of my students. Although one can gain technical facility from studying a piece of music, by stripping away the worries of notes, rhythm, dynamics, articulation, and interpretation that one faces when studying an actual piece of music, one is able to focus entirely on what’s happening in one’s body or zero in on a very specific musical skill. In many ways, I consider it akin to practicing yoga.

    That being said, practicing is about creating one’s own musical exercises. If a specific passage in a piece is troubling, figure out why and find a way to “exercise” that skill. Published exercises provide young pianists a chance to practice technique, but unless prompted by the teacher, they can eliminate the need for students to think critically about why a particular passage is difficult. So, I can understand why many professional pianists and piano teachers choose not to use them. I think it is important for students to not only practice exercises, but to understand why they are practicing them, so that they can apply what they’ve learned to other music later on.

    Comment by Jennifer Hedstrom — May 28, 2015 @ 10:55 am


    Comment by Irmgard Bittar — May 28, 2015 @ 8:45 am

  5. I think of technical exercises as developing a ‘toolkit’ — creating neural pathways for fine motor movements. And strength, of course.

    Comment by Susan Fiore — May 28, 2015 @ 8:29 am

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