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Pianists and teachers tend to have a variety of views about the value of “studies”, some strongly advocating daily practice of finger exercises, others suggesting they have little value away from the context of specific repertoire, in which case bespoke studies developed around tricky passages are preferable.
Personally I’ve always taken a middle path here. As I wrote in my recent article The Three Treasures of Musical Learning,
“All aspects of playing need consideration, not merely finger independence, tone control, and fluency – important though these obviously are for pianists. Scales, arpeggios, exercises and studies can all be helpful, but must be executed with an understanding of why they matter, and what is being developed.”
I’ve never found it difficult to understand or explain the benefits of the enjoyable little exercises in the Dozen A Day books, and my students almost always find the Burgmüller Op.100 both musically engaging and inspiring to play (my recording of them is free to listen to here).
But I’ve never been a huge fan of Hanon, Czerny, et al, and have tended to agree with my teacher’s teacher, Ernö Dohnányi, who wrote (with irony, in the introduction to his own book of finger exercises!) –
“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 practice spent on these not being in proportion to the results obtained. Musicality is hereby badly neglected and consequently shows many weak points.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise then, that when Gayle Kowalchyk and E.L. Lancaster’s two books of Piano Studies for Technical Development landed on my desk for review, my initial gut reaction was to excuse them from the short-list for consideration. Until … I took a closer look.
Let’s find out why I changed my mind …
According to the Kowalchyk and Lancaster,
“In addition to studying appropriate repertoire for their levels, students should continue to develop technical skills to enhance their playing ability. Traditionally, these skills are developed through études, exercises, scales, arpeggios, and cadences.”
Following this through, they include three sections in each book:
- Firstly, études for the development of specific skills, selected from the many collections that 19th-century pedagogues poured out;
- Secondly, Hanon exercises, given their own specific section;
- Thirdly, scales, arpeggios and cadences are included.
Again, the authors suggest:
“Assignments from the three sections should be integrated into study based on each individual student’s strengths and weaknesses”.
This three-section approach works especially well in the first book in my view, offering a variety of useful content, delivered in an attractive format, and providing good value.
The first book is stated to be for “pianists who are moving into early intermediate to intermediate levels of study”, translating to around UK Grades 2-5. It is a generous 96 pages long, beautifully and spaciously presented, and for wont of a better word, “meaty”.
Section 1 (that’s the études) fills the majority of the book (pages 4-62) and features a varied selection of studies composed by Le Couppey, Beyer, Gurlitt, Czerny, Concone, Lemoine, Duvernoy, Oesten, Schytte, Burgmüller, Berens, Bertini and Streabbog.
Given my lifetime commitment to shirking such material, it was no surprise to find that most of this repertoire was new to me. What did surprise, however, is that I found quite a few of the items both enjoyable and technically useful.
To help further, the book helpfully identifies the main benefit of each study as it is introduced, and is divided into various skills that the pianist at this level might develop, such as five-finger patterns, triads and inversions, waltz-bass accompaniment, Alberti bass, repeated notes, coordination between hands, and so on.
Section 2 is the shortest in the book, containing just four exercises from Charles-Louis Hanon’s Virtuoso Pianist Book 1 (numbers 1, 2, 5 and 6).
These are preceded by a particularly helpful page of suggestions for “Practicing Hanon”. This counsels the use of different tempi, articulation, dynamics, rhythms, and transposing these ubiquitous finger exercises into the keys of the repertoire currently being studied. All excellent!
Section 3 is perhaps the best of all, including two-octave scales for all 12 Major and Harmonic Minor keys, with their arpeggios and some chord progressions for common cadences.
These are also presented using separate shaded boxes usefully highlighting the fingering patterns, with a dot to indicate black keys. For some players, this could make scales a whole lot easier, and having the keys all together in one book, ordered by the circle of fifths, is a genuine advantage in favour of using the book.
Could this be a complete scales manual for players pre-grade 5? Possibly…
Those who favour the Melodic Minor variety will be disappointed, and personally I would have liked to see the Natural Minors too. It’s easy to live without notated versions of the Contrary Motion scales of course, but they would have been welcome had space permitted. The more problematic omission however is the absence of the Chromatic Scale (although it appears within some études earlier in the book).
Volume 2 – once again, 96 pages long – follows much the same path as the first book. It is aimed at players who are “moving into late intermediate to early advanced levels of study”, which means around UK Grades 6-7.
It is striking that in Section 1, the études (which now include examples by Köhler, Loeschhorn, Cramer, Heller and Moszkowski) cover the same specified set of technical challenges as those in Volume 1, albeit with more difficult examples.
While I felt unexpected enthusiasm for the études in Volume 1, here they seem to me more vulnerable to Dohnányi’s complaint – many are finger-busters with limited musical content. But for enthusiasts, the particular selection here may be one of the more varied and well-organised on the market, and the authors must be commended for covering such a range of technical skills.
The Hanon studies featured in Section 2 are numbers 9, 10, 19 and 20. These seem much easier than the highly charged gymnastics of the preceding études, and I wonder whether some choices from later in Hanon’s magnum opus might have more value for players at this level.
The scales Section 3, meanwhile, presents the 12 Major and Harmonic Minor keys once more, this time printing four octaves, and without the shaded fingering boxes that graced Volume 1. The cadences are more extended, but once again – disappointing at this level – the Melodic Minor and Chromatic scales are still missing, rendering Section 3 less useful in my view.
The book concludes with the C major scale in the so-called “Russian pattern”, useful and fun for more advanced players. Which leads to the question …
Who are these books for?
As always, we must consider who the product is aimed at, and here perhaps the market will be diverse. According to the authors, they are aimed at a rather specific range:
“The book is especially useful for college and university piano students who are not piano performance majors. These students are often called secondary pianists.”
The authors’ meaning here is possibly one which is lost in translation, but in any case I would suggest that the books might have a far wider appeal, filling a particular gap in the market for a varied selection of well-organised technical work suitable for any teenage or adult player keen to develop their pianism.
Though not suitable for children, any older player tackling the middle to higher grades is likely to find the layout, easy identification of technical benefits, and bonus scales sections a highly user-friendly resource.
Few of the products I have yet received for review have so pleasantly surprised me as Kowalchyk and Lancaster’s Piano Studies for Technical Development.
These books easily overcame my initial prejudices and reservations to establish themselves as firm recommendations. Volume 1 in particular will now feature among the resources I regularly advise my own students to obtain and use, and I warmly commend it to readers.
What impresses me most here is the care that the authors have clearly taken to devise a coherent rationale for each group of included études, making sure to provide sufficient, but not exhaustive material to cover a wide range of technical skills, while equally featuring material from a broad gallery of pedagogic composers. I’m also pleased to see that the authors have thrown in just about enough Hanon to suit most tastes!
The scales material is a significant bonus, and for less exam-oriented students will provide what they need here up to around Grade 5 level, perhaps with minimal adaptation.
Volume 2 may not find so much use in my own studio, but nevertheless offers a useful and well-designed follow-on for those looking for more advanced material. It’s a book I will undoubtedly refer to, and certainly offers a useful library resource for any player or teacher who doesn’t already own a selection of more advanced studies.
Congratulations then to the authors and to publisher Alfred Music for bringing us such a useful publication.
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