A few months ago, while excavating long-unseen boxes in the garage of doom, I found a book of piano exercises I forgot I even had. I suspect I bought it at the suggestion of my piano teacher at Duquesne University in 1971, shortly before I transferred to a different school. I have vague memories of trying the first few exercises and being totally incapable of playing them.
The book is entitled Essential Finger Exercises for Obtaining a Sure Piano Technique by Ernő Dohnányi (1877-1960). The author, a Hungarian composer and conductor, was also a noted pianist, and became a United States citizen in 1955.
I’ve written about preparatory exercises before. I spent my childhood working through the books of Schmitt and Hanon. So I was very distressed to read the preface to Dohnányi’s book of exercises. He says,
In music-schools piano tuition suffers mostly from far too much exercise material given for the purely technical development of the pupils, the many hours of daily practice spent on these not being in proportion to the results obtained… far too many studies and exercises are given from which only little value can be gained… before all else the amount of studies (“Etudes”) must be reduced and this can be done without harm if they are replaced by such exercises which, in lesser time, bring forth the same benefits. Finger exercises are preferable to studies (“Etudes”), if only for the reason that they can be practiced from memory, and consequently the whole attention can be concentrated on the proper execution, which is most important… a judicious choice of studies by Cramer and Bertini suffices; later, a selection from Clementi’s “Gradus” with the subservient exercises, is sufficient for obtaining a reliable technique. Everything else—even Czerny, is superfluous; it does not contain anything of essential importance which might not be acquired through finger-exercises, or by conscientious practicing of appropriate passages of pieces. The Etudes by Chopin and Liszt belong of course to the category of concert-pieces, and play a role as important, for higher and highest stages, as Bach’s Two and Three Voiced Inventions in connection with Bertini and Cramer, and the Well-Tempered Clavier with Clementi.
Thus, by diminishing the amount of studies (Études), time is won for repertory music, and this time can be utilised still better, if only some of the pieces (“concert pieces”) are practiced up to finishing stage…
So, according to Dohnányi, all that time I spent on Schmitt and Hanon was wasted. Funny, I found those exercises easy to memorize, due to their repetitive nature. Some of Dohnányi’s exercises, however, require me to do some analyzing in order to figure out what the pattern actually represents.
The exercises also force you to do things with your fingers that you normally don’t. For example, No. 1, one of the “easy” exercises, requires you to hold keys down with three of your fingers (on each hand) while trilling with the other two. (Schmitt also has exercises like this one.) It’s incredibly awkward at first (and for a while, until certain muscles strengthen), but it develops independence of the fingers (the ability to strike with one finger without moving another, and with any finger instead of relying on the naturally strong ones).
One point Dohnányi makes really hits home. He says, “When playing, even the simplest of finger exercises, the full attention must be fixed on the finger-work, each note must be played consciously, in short: not to practice merely with the fingers, but through the fingers with the brain.” When we practice Dohnányi’s impossible exercises, we are building new neural pathways.
I used to teach elementary general music, and as a way to introduce music of other cultures and explore it more physically, I also taught my students folk dances. The fifth and sixth grade boys were less enthusiastic until one bragged he could do the grapevine step (used extensively in Greek dances) very fast, and proceeded to demonstrate. (If you don’t know what the grapevine step is, watch the video below.)
When I asked him how he learned to do that, he explained it’s a drill he learned at football practice (and all the other boys’ ears perked up). It makes sense, doesn’t it? If you can move like that, you have greater flexibility to evade those who want to tackle you.
When I returned to folk dancing about eight years ago (after a 30-year hiatus since college), I felt as though I had two left feet. I just didn’t have the coordination to do the steps. Each dance session overwhelmed me; there was so much to learn, and it was all so hard to remember. Every time I returned, I felt like I was starting all over again. But after several years of regular practice, I began to feel competent.
Until a few weeks ago.
A young woman who’d recently joined our dance group tried to teach us a portion of an Indonesian welcome dance that used mostly arm movements and claps, like this one (the video has a long intro; you may want to jump to the 2:00 mark; the segment she taught us runs from 2:25 to 2:33):
Even though she patiently showed us the motions just a little at a time, and at a greatly reduced tempo, over and over again, we very experienced dancers had great difficulty executing the motions. Why? Because it’s so different from what we’ve ever done, and it requires using portions of the brain that we don’t often utilize.
Playing an instrument is also a physical task that involves harnessing brain impulses. When we struggle to learn a challenging piano exercise, we are literally exercising the portions of the brain that transmit instructions to the specific muscles whose actions are required. We are training the brain as we train our fingers, increasing our fine motor skills, enabling the necessary coordination between the mind and the fingers that translate the notes on the page into the desired sound. The payoff for perseverance is that when we encounter a similar passage in a repertoire piece, we have a facility for mastering it.
So is it worth it to practice exercises like Dohnányi’s, which are beastly? Yes. But I will also practice my other exercises and etudes, because I believe they are also valuable, even if Dohnányi doesn’t.
I was happy to discover that other pianists find this book challenging. Check out this forum on Piano World.
What about you? Have you used Dohnányi’s Essential Finger Exercises? What do you think about them? Share in the comments below.