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The Well-Tempered Hanon

In this article, Dr. Hall discusses and summarizes his newest exciting project, which will soon be released in a spiral-bound book of approximately 240 pages! (about 20 more pages than his best-selling “Sight-Reading & Harmony”). The following article is the preface to “The Well-Tempered Hanon: Hanon the way Bach would have done it.”


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. Some schools and teachers have treated Hanon’s book with utmost 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 place high value on Hanon and believe practice time is better spent on different kinds of exercises and/or actual music by the great composers. 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 too much in the wrong fashion easily becomes counterproductive and musically unrewarding, not to mention, quite simply boring. If this is the case, one is better off abandoning Hanon altogether and practicing real music. 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. I discuss and summarize these improvements later in this preface; however, first I would like to express the following concerns with Hanon and his exercises:

Concerns with Hanon and his Exercises

  •  All exercises up to No. 39 are exclusively on white keys.  One would be hard-pressed to find any work by any major composer that uses exclusively white keys, which makes Hanon’s exercises highly impractical and disengaged from the playing of real music. Spending significant time playing only white keys repeatedly is the main reason why piano students have difficulties reaching black keys easily and efficiently when they must do so in real music. Moreover, it is this primitive white-key-only approach that creates the one-dimensional and musically uninteresting character that are detested by Hanon’s detractors. In other words, all white keys = boring.

  • With very few exceptions, all sixty exercises are in unison with both hands playing the same notes.  Except for occasional passages in keyboard works, such as the Toccata from Bach’s Toccata & Fugue in D Minor, or rare instances of complete movements, such as the fourth movement from Chopin’s “Funeral March” Sonata, virtually no compositions by the great composers are written in unison, that is, with both hands playing the exact same notes separated only by one or two octaves. Since all the great composers employed harmonizations mainly at the intervals of thirds, sixths, and tenths, it makes sense that the most useful exercises to prepare for the playing of real music should, ideally, consist of similar harmonizations. Hanon’s exercises are entirely void of harmonizations, which makes them merely one-dimensional, primitive, and thus, unrelated to the playing of real music.

  • Playing white keys only all in unison does not prepare students for the learning of musical theory and traditional harmony. The purpose of exercises should be to prepare students for the playing of real music. When virtually all aspects of theory and harmony are absent from exercises, they lose their usefulness. Playing Hanon exercises all in the key of C major exclusively on white keys teaches virtually no music theory, and thus, significantly decreases their intellectual and pedagogical value. Simply practicing scales and arpeggios in all the major and minor keys is better preparation for the playing of real music than Hanon’s white-key-only exercises.

  • Charles-Louis Hanon was neither a virtuoso pianist nor an accomplished composer.  Most people would not take financial advice on “how to become a millionaire” from someone who is not a millionaire, or take diet and fitness advice from someone who is overweight and in poor health, or trust a book about “how to run marathons” from someone who has never run a marathon, or trust a book on “making your marriage last” from an author who is on their fourth divorce and fifth marriage. Yet, for some strange reason, pianists and teachers the world over since 1873 have dedicated large portions of their lives in the hopes of becoming a “virtuoso” following a book of exercises devised by a man, whose occupation was that of a Catholic priest, who dabbled on the piano and organ and who was not an accomplished composer. Charles-Louis Hanon was no Johann Sebastian Bach and no Franz Liszt. Personally, I would be much more willing to put my trust in exercises composed by an accomplished composer who is or was also an accomplished performer (i.e., “virtuoso”). Hanon was neither of these, was not a performing concert pianist, and was not a virtuoso like Bach or Liszt. Believing you will become a “virtuoso” by practicing Hanon for several hours a day is no different than believing you will become a millionaire from reading a book by an author who has never become a millionaire.        

 With all the concerns and shortcomings of Hanon’s exercises as outlined above, Nos. 1-39 do, however, contain some well-devised patterns and sequences not unlike those that Bach may have used. In this respect, Hanon was not such a poor composer after all, and he should be given credit where credit is due. Thank you, Mr. Hanon! Most of Hanon’s exercises are, indeed, comprised of musically interesting motifs; however, it is the way Hanon treated and repeated the motifs that is their major weakness.  As a pianist and teacher as who is also well-versed in musical theory and composition, I was hit with an epiphany one day in February 2019:  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, features, and improvements that The Well-Tempered Hanon offers pianists and organists:  

Benefits, Features, and Improvements of The Well-Tempered Hanon

  •  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”.  As a pianist and teacher, I have always felt Hanon’s exercises to be highly limiting and one-dimensional due to the exclusive key of C major and the exclusive use of white keys. Practicing the exercises in all 12 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. Bach would have never done this. Instead, Bach would have provided musical interest by harmonizing the exercises in 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. That is, the right hand harmonized at the sixth below is identical to the left hand harmonized at the third above, while conversely, the left hand harmonized at the sixth below is identical to the right hand harmonized at the third above. This is how Bach would have done it, since there are really no other possibilities.

  • Each exercise played in all 12 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 white-key exercises into some, if not all, of the 12 major keys, and there already exist books that present Hanon transposed into all 12 keys; however, I am not aware of any performers or publications that transpose Hanon into minor keys. Bach most definitely 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 6th and 7th tones when the exercise ascends (usually between bars 4-7) and with lowered or naturaled 6th and 7th tones when the exercise descends. Each exercise is a little 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 the musical motifs. This was the trickiest part to transposing the exercises into the 12 minor keys, and so the raised and lowered tones could possibly be modified by performers should they desire slightly different musical characters.

  • Each exercise ascends and descends only one octave.  Hanon’s exercises all ascend and descend two octaves, which becomes time consuming and superfluous. Bach 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 and obsessed 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. Instead, Bach would have simply ascended and descended one octave. This less distance covered is compensated for by the rich harmonizations by means of invertible counterpoint as well as the use of all 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 and obsessed with speed and virtuosity. Bach, on the other hand, lived in an era when performers and composers exercised good taste, cantabilesensibilities, 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 cantabile touch, and a smooth legato approach made possible by logical fingerings. Of course, one may 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 often primitive and impractical, since his choices were governed by the sole purposes of “strengthening the weak fingers.” Very 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. All this should be done, ideally, without writing in the fingerings. The choices for fingering in The Well-Tempered Hanon are virtually endless and will not necessarily be the same for each key encountered. 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 traditional fingering supplied by Hanon for his all-white-key exercises.

  • 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 12 major and minor keys.  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. There is no point in trying to make all fingers equal because they were never intended by our almighty creator to be equal. This would be like trying to find a way to make short people taller so that everyone on the planet would be the same height. If one’s sole purpose of practicing piano becomes that of desperately striving to “strengthen the weak fingers,” then one should quit piano. Instead, one should aim to make beautiful music with the easiest and most convenient fingerings one has available. Life is too short and there exists far too much great music to choose difficult fingerings for the sake of “strengthening fingers.” In The-Well-Tempered Hanon, practitioners are encouraged to experiment with and seek out convenient and innovative fingering choices that make the playing of the exercises as easy as possible. Of course, one may also from time to time deliberately choose difficult fingerings for the sake of a good challenge; however, this should not be the sole purpose of The Well-Tempered Hanon.

  • Playing Hanon’s exercises in all 12 major and minor keys revolutionizes the practice of sight-reading.  This needs no explaining. 240 pages of virtually endless exercises harmonized in thirds and sixths in all the 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. 17. (Each Exercise consists of twelve pages, one for each major and its parallel minor key.) This example shows Exercise No. 17 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.

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