Tag Archives: Composers

How to Practice the Piano: Doh! Dohnányi

How to Practice the Piano: Doh! Dohnányi

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, dohnanyiis 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).

Piano 3One 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.

Piano 9So 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.

Creative Juice #14

Creative Juice #14

Fourteen articles to inspire you.

The Genius of Carl Orff

The Genius of Carl Orff

Carl Orff (born July 10, 1895; died March 29, 1982), the prolific German composer, is perhaps most famous for his secular oratorio Carmina Burana, based on medieval poetry. Listen to the opening chorus, O Fortuna:

If you’re an elementary general music teacher, you’re probably familiar with, and possibly using, his Schulwerk, the process he devised for teaching music.

The music he composed for Schulwerk uses layered repeated patterns that make it possible for even young children to play parts in ensembles.

From 1924-1943, Orff served as the music director for the Güntherschule, a training school for dancers and gymnastics teachers which he cofounded with Dorothee Gunther. His goal was to help dancers become more musical in their movement. After the school dissolved during World War II, he began synthesizing his technique as a way of teaching music to children.

Orff Schulwerk employs a combination of improvisation, ostinati (repeated rhythmic, melodic, or harmonic patterns), speech, rhythm, play, singing, movement, and use of instruments such as recorders, xylophones, metallophones, glockenspiels, drums, and other percussion. It is used in music training from preschool through junior high and beyond, and in music education programs in colleges and universities world-wide.

Four well-known quotes from Carl Orff help illustrate the ideals at the heart of Orff Schulwerk.

Tell me, I forget, show me, I remember, involve me, I understand.–Carl Orff

Since the beginning of time, children have not liked to study. They would much rather play, and if you have their interests at heart, you will let them learn while they play; they will find that what they have mastered is child’s play.–Carl Orff

Elemental Music is never just music. It’s bound up with movement, dance and speech, and so it is a form of music in which one must participate, in which one is involved not as a listener but as a co-performer.–Carl Orff

Experience first, then intellectualize.–Carl Orff

In  Schulwerk, students learn musical principles by first making music, then generalizing what they’ve experienced over time. It is guided discovery.

Listen how simple musical motifs are layered to create a complex piece. This approach lends itself beautifully to student composition. Dance is also a part of the full performance.

Variations on Hot Cross Buns:

Here are some older children performing at an Orff Schulwerk convention:

Though he passed away more than forty-four years ago, Carl Orff’s legacy lives on through his own compositions and through the millions of musicians who learned how to play, improvise, and compose as a result of the process he founded.


S is for Stravinsky

S is for Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky was born June 5, 1882, near St. Petersburg, Russia. A prolific composer, he is probably best remembered for two of his ballets, Firebird and Rite of Spring.

Though he took music lessons as a boy, he studied law and philosophy at St. Petersburg University, while experimenting with musical composition on his own. In 1902 he had an opportunity to show some of his pieces to the father of one of his classmates. Igor_Stravinsky_EssaysThe father (Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, a great Russian composer in his own right) was so impressed that he offered to mentor Stravinsky, and dissuaded him from enrolling in the music conservatory.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s contacts included Sergei Diaghilev, founder of Ballet Russe, who commissioned Stravinsky to write music for a ballet about the mythical Firebird, a recurring character in Slavic folklore. When Firebird premiered in Paris in 1910, its success gave Stravinsky the reputation of being one of the most promising new composers.

When I taught elementary general music, the Infernal Dance from Firebird was my favorite example of the use of sforzando (Italian shorthand for “suddenly, with force,” or a distinct accent).

Relocating to France, Stravinsky spent the next two years working on a musical image of a pagan ritual sacrifice. Paired with choreography by Nijinsky, the premiere of Rite of Spring on May 29, 1913, sparked a legendary riot. The provocative dance and the harsh rhythms and dissonance of the music offended the sensibilities of the audience, accustomed to a more genteel Russian ballet.

I’m not sure how the choreography in this clip compares to the original, but do you see how it could have enflamed the observers?

The dancers’ movements remind me of bird mating rituals, or meercats.

When Walt Disney set beloved works of the musical canon to animation in Fantasia in 1940, here is how he and his artists interpreted Rite of Spring:

Excerpt from Fantasia:

World War I and the Russian Revolution made return to Russia out of the question for Stravinsky. However, references to Russian folk texts continued to show up in his music.

In 1940, Stravinsky moved to Hollywood, California. He lived and and worked in the United States until his death on April 6, 1971, in New York City.

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B is for Bach

B is for Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach is one of the most beloved  composers of all time.

He’s also one of my favorites. And why not? He had great hair.

Born on March 31, 1685 to a family with a long musical heritage, he was prolific in more ways than one. Married twice, he sired twenty children, most of whom did not survive childhood; yet, four of them became respected composers and musicians in their own rights: Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach, and Johann Christian Bach. (And then there’s his long lost son, P.D.Q. Bach–but he’s a topic for a future post.)

Nearly every classical piano student has worked through the Notebooks for Anna Magdalena Bach (actually, two notebooks–the first containing only works by J.S. Bach, the second also including pieces by other composers), which Bach wrote out as lessons for his second wife.

This prelude (which I can only play at about half this speed) would make a good soundtrack for a movie about a pianist losing his sanity (kind of like the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 in the the movie Shine). Prelude and Fugue in C minor BWV 847 no 2 :

And  who doesn’t get goosebumps at the sound of the organ on the first few notes of the Toccata and Fugue in d minor?

The Brandenburg Concertos demonstrate Bach’s flair for chamber music. (Yay for harpsichords!)

A deeply devout Christian, J.S. Bach spent much of his career as a church organist and choir master, writing chorales and cantatas for services. His St. Matthew Passion, a setting of the story of Christ’s late ministry and death for the Lenten season, exemplifies his gift for creating music that engages the emotions and draws the listener into worship.

In this excerpt, Erbarme Dich (Have Mercy), the contralto responds to Matthew 27:26, “Then he [Pilate] released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.”

Bach died on July 28, 1750, a date which is synonymous with the end of the Baroque period and beginning of the Classical era in music.

For more information about J.S. Bach, watch this mini-bio.

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