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The Well-Tempered Hanon

(Revised, June 2, 2019). In this article, Dr. Hall discusses and summarizes his newest exciting project. The following article is a portion of the preface to “The Well-Tempered Hanon: Hanon the way Bach would have done it.” In addition to being available in both hardcopy and digital versions, the complete book can also be practiced on Piano Marvel with their impressive play-along app!:

Order “The Well-Tempered Hanon” (240 pages, spiral binding)

Download “The Well-Tempered Hanon” (PDF)

Join Piano Marvel with a Recurring Monthly Discount (promo code: BACH) and Practice the Complete “The Well-Tempered Hanon”

PREFACE TO “THE WELL-TEMPERED HANON: Hanon the way bach would have done it”

Hanon: The Virtuoso Pianist in Sixty Exercises by Charles-Louis Hanon (1819-1900), first published in 1873 in Boulogne, France, has since the late 1800s established itself as the most beloved, popular, and best-selling of all exercise books for pianists. It is quite shocking and certainly an anomaly that the most popular exercise book of all time was written by a man, a Third Order Franciscan monk by occupation, who was neither a concert pianist (and presumably, not a “virtuoso”) nor an accomplished composer with a substantial body of published works. (A simple internet search shows that Hanon composed virtually nothing aside from The Virtuoso Pianist.) In our day, we would call Hanon a “one-hit wonder.” Some schools and teachers have treated Hanon’s book with religious or cult-like reverence, as something like a “Holy Bible” of piano technique, advocating several hours a day practicing the exercises to achieve the utmost finger independence and velocity. In contrast, some schools and teachers do not regard Hanon’s exercises with such high esteem.

As a pianist with over 35 years’ teaching experience at this writing, my opinion has always been that somewhere in between these two polarities. I believe most, if not all, of the sixty exercises have value and merit which progress from least difficult (Nos. 1-20) to more advanced (Nos. 21-39) to still more advanced (Nos. 40-60); however, practicing Hanon’s exercises (especially the white-key-only exercises, Nos. 1-39) too much in the wrong fashion easily becomes counterproductive and musically unrewarding, not to mention, quite simply boring. As a piano pedagogue and composer/arranger with the best interest of students and teachers in mind, I have devised what I believe are dramatic musical and pedagogical improvements to Hanon’s exercises as we are used to hearing them.

One day in February 2019 I was hit with an epiphany:  Had Bach lived after Hanon, how would he have improved upon Hanon’s exercises?My epiphany resulted in The Well-Tempered Hanon: Hanon the way Bach would have done it, which offers musically enriching, technically exciting, and intellectually stimulating improvements to the first twenty of Hanon’s exercises, which comprise “Part 1, Preparatory Exercises.”  Here is a list of benefits and features that The Well-Tempered Hanon offers pianists and organists: 

Benefits and Features of The Well-Tempered Hanon

  • Two sources offer help and instruction practicing “The Well-Tempered Hanon”.  I offer specialized tutorials on my teaching website, The Well-Rounded Pianist. In addition, I am a contributor and consultant to Piano Marvel, which offers the complete book on their instructional play-along app. Students and teachers are invited and encouraged to join one or both sites:

  • Each exercise from the first twenty exercises in Part 1 are presented in each major and minor key in the same ascending order as Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier”.  Hanon’s exercises are highly limiting and one-dimensional due to the exclusive key of C major and the exclusive use of white keys. Playing white keys only all in unison neither prepares students to play black keys efficiently nor teaches musical theory and traditional harmony.The purpose of exercises should be to prepare students for the playing of real music that uses black as well as white keys. When virtually all aspects of theory and harmony are absent from exercises and only white keys are used, they lose their usefulness which significantly decreases their intellectual and pedagogical value; however, practicing the exercises in all 24 major and minor keys offers valuable lessons in music reading, fingering, and music theory that one otherwise does not get when played on white keys only.

  • Each exercise from the first twenty in Part 1 are presented in two harmonizations, as a sixth below and a tenth above.  Playing all exercises exclusively in unison eventually becomes monotonous and harmonically static. Had Bach improved upon Hanon’s exercises, he most likely would have provided musical interest by harmonizing the exercises according to the only two possible ways available to him at the time:  in thirds (or tenths), and sixths. Hence, The Well-Tempered Hanon presents each exercise first in its original form in the right hand with the left hand harmonizing at the sixth below (actually, an octave plus a sixth below), then in its original form in the left hand with the right hand harmonizing at the third above (actually, two octaves plus a third above). In other words, each exercise is presented in “invertible counterpoint” at the octave by simply switching the hands around for each of the two lines. This technique dramatically improves Hanon’s exercises both musically and intellectually.

  • Each exercise played in all 24 minor keys provides musical interest and harmonic richness otherwise absent when played exclusively in major keys.  It is has become common practice among skilled practitioners of Hanon to transpose the C-major-only exercises into some, if not all, of the 11 other major keys; however, I am not aware of any performers or publications that transpose Hanon into minor keys. Bach most likely would have done this, since minor modes result in the most expressive characters. Hanon’s exercises are significantly improved by playing them in minor keys in addition to the usual major keys. In The Well-Tempered Hanon, the default minor mode chosen is the melodic minor, since this is the minor form Bach used most frequently. That is, most exercises are presented with raised 6thand 7thtones when the exercise ascends (usually between bars 4-7) and with lowered or naturaled 6thand 7thtones when the exercise descends. Each exercise is slightly different, hence the formula with regards to the raised and lowered tones for each exercise varies slightly depending upon the musical character and technical properties of Hanon’s musical motifs (which are not unlike some of the motifs Bach used).

  • Each exercise ascends and descends only one octave.  Hanon’s exercises all ascend and descend two octaves, which becomes time consuming and superfluous. Bach, however, most likely would have simply ascended and descended for just one octave. The reason Hanon ascended and descended two octaves was that the time his book was published, in 1873, composers and performers were heavily preoccupied with attaining “virtuosity” by routinely practicing scales and arpeggios in four octaves and practicing all exercises as fast as possible. In contrast, Bach belonged to a bygone era when virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake was virtually non-existent, meaning that Bach would have not been so superfluous as to repeat the exercise in multiple octaves. This less distance covered is compensated by the rich harmonizations by means of invertible counterpoint in all 24 major and minor keys.

  • Attaining “velocity” and developing “virtuosity” is not the purpose of “The Well-Tempered Hanon”.  As pointed out above, Hanon lived in an era when performers and composers were preoccupied with speed and virtuosity. Bach, on the other hand, lived in an era when performers and composers exercised good taste, cantabile sensibilities, and restraint. Playing Hanon’s exercises in the major and minor keys harmonized in thirds and sixths automatically cuts the speed virtually in half from what one is used to hearing and playing for Hanon’s originals. The focus of The Well-Tempered Hanon should be beauty of tone, a cantabiletouch, and a smooth legatoapproach made possible by logical fingerings. Of course, one may sometimes practice the exercises fast and work on attaining velocity; however, this should not be the sole purpose of The Well-Tempered Hanon.

  • The Well-Tempered Hanon” trains pianists to experiment with and adapt to various fingerings. Hanon’s fingering indications are simplistic, since his choices were governed by the sole purposes of “strengthening the weak fingers” and the only keys he used were white. Often, performers and teachers will find the usual Hanon-style fingerings of 1-2-3-4-5 or 5-4-3-2-1 impractical and not applicable when having to play a certain number of black keys mixed in with the white keys. For example, when playing D - C# with the right hand one may be better off choosing 1-2 instead of 2-1 (to avoid the thumb on the black key), which will all depend upon a variety of other factors. Fingering dilemmas like this are a good thing because they teach pianists to adapt to different fingering possibilities depending on the particular white-black key topography. The choices for fingering in The Well-Tempered Hanon are virtually endless and will not necessarily be the same for each key encountered or necessarily the same for all pianists due to an endless variety of hand and finger sizes and structures. The quick thinking involved with the vast multitude of fingering choices in The Well-Tempered Hanon develops pianists’ fingering skills much better than conforming to the conventional fingering supplied by Hanon for his all-white-key exercises. Some useful fingering advice is given later in this preface.

  • The main purpose of “The Well-Tempered Hanon” is not to equally train all five fingers of the hand or to turn pianists into virtuosi (which were Hanon’s two main goals), but rather, to train pianists to read and play repeating sequences and motifs in all 24 major and minor keys with invertible counterpoint.  The preface to Hanon’s book clearly indicates that he was preoccupied mainly with training the “weaker” fingers to become equal to the “stronger” fingers. Pianists have been trying in vain for centuries to make all five fingers equal in responsiveness and agility, but this will never happen. For example, in devising a contraption that was supposed to strengthen the fourth finger, Robert Schumann severely injured himself and was permanently disabled from his early ambition of becoming a virtuoso concert pianist. The lesson learned here is that trying to make all fingers equal is futile because they were never intended by our Almighty Creator to be equal. Instead of becoming obsessed with “strengthening fingers” – even in technical exercises – one should aim to make beautiful music with the easiest and most convenient fingerings one has available. Fingering is discussed more below.

  • Playing Hanon’s exercises in all 24 major and minor keys revolutionizes the practice of sight-reading.  This needs no explaining. 240 pages of virtually endless exercises (480 in all) harmonized in thirds and sixths in all 24 major and minor keys provides a goldmine of sight-reading material for all students of all ages and abilities for an entire lifetime!    

Below is a sample page of The Well-Tempered Hanon: Hanon the way Bach would have done it, which presents the first of twelve pages for Exercise No. 2. (Each Exercise consists of twelve pages, one for each major and its parallel minor key.) This example shows Exercise No. 2 in C major and C minor. Notice how the exercise as we all know it from Hanon’s book (the first 15 bars of the treble clef line) is harmonized at the octave plus sixth below, then the hands switch around at bar 16 (i.e., invertible counterpoint) where the left hand plays the exercise as we all know it harmonized at the octave plus third above. Then, this is all done in the parallel minor key, which is presented on the same page. In this exercise, Hanon’s traditional fingering of 1-2-5-4-3-4-3-2 for the RH and 5-3-1-2-3-2-3-4 for the LH seems to work best in both C major and C minor for all the measures. Beginning students (Grade 1) should practice this hands alone, lower intermediate students (Grades 2-3) should practice hands together at a slow tempo, and generally, the more advanced one is the faster one should play, however with limits. Bach’s standard, default Allegro was 84 bpm, therefore there really is no reason to play The Well-Tempered Hanon much faster than this since it easily loses its grace and beauty at breakneck speeds.

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Sincerely, Cory Hall (D.M.A.), Editor-in-Chief of BachScholar Publishing (May 2019)