Let’s talk about Hanon today, shall we? The man that lived way before internets and yet managed to give his book such a clickbait title that it is still among the most revered sources of piano exercises. Virtuoso Pianist. Who wants to become one? I do, I do, I do! All I need to do is just study these seemingly easy passages, be diligent, and that’s it, right? Sick! (That was me getting all 3 volumes after my first piano class and totally brushing over the author’s modest side-note about first results being noticeable after 10 years of focused practice.)
Well, Hanon is indeed awesome and absolutely timeless. I enjoy playing these exercises on piano and on bass as well (low-end folk — in case it was an “aha” moment — you’re welcome). There are two different approaches to Hanon books: first is purely mechanical and linear: “I’m going to play these exercises every day until I vomit, and after that, I’m going to persevere”. This is fairly counterproductive and quite miserable. By the time you’re virtuoso, chances are you’re deeply screwed in terms of mental health. Then there’s a second approach (my choice): viewing Hanon exercises as a framework or a huge box of Lego blocks that you can fiddle around with any way you want and use them to build your practice in the most musical way possible — possibly also slipping into composition. To put it bluntly, it’s about making the monotony ane mechanisticity your bitches as opposed to being their bitch on your 10-year path to the virtuoso status.
Here’s how it works for me.
This is my favourite exercise from the Book 1, it is numbered 31 and has a little note that says “1-2-3-4-5, and extensions”. My favourite part about it is its sound. The two descending patterns played at a third, simultaneously moving up the scale, just sound freaking marvellous.
But that’s just the basic preset. What are we going to do with it? Personally, I enjoy transposing Hanon. It feels super awkward and might be very frustrating at first, but, if you think of it, it is an extremely effective way to learn the scale. Much more effective then a dull scale run or even a not-so-dull scale run. Hanon exercises are very much like DNA molecules — you only need to figure out the fingering for the first two bars, the rest is just logic. Here’s the same figure in F major, for example:
(FYI — it’s played an octave higher than written. Because I care about you ledger line haters! 😄)
By the way, if you’re too lazy to transpose things on your own, there’s a 1000-something-page book called “Hanon Deluxe”, in which it has all been done for you (it’s not a paid link). But honestly, it’s just a little bit of extra effort.
Then, of course, there are modes! Here’s the same Nº31, now played in C Dorian. I don’t care that the pattern is 150 years old, I love its sound, dammit!
Now, sooner or later playing the same stuff with both hands does get repetitive and exercise-y (although it takes much, much longer compared to the scales and arpeggios). What’s up next? Well, considering that all Hanon exercises are, in fact, nothing else than scales taking weird routes from the lowest tone to the highest, you can harmonise them! How do we harmonise things so they sound nice? We use fancy-ass left hand patterns! (You can’t imagine how hard it was for me to not to hyperlink the word “fancy-ass” to one of the earlier left hand posts.)
Here’s the infamous Nº31 played over the C major scale harmonised with 10th chords (in this case, I went from C to F, hoping that you’ll get the idea). ☝🏻 Play it 8va, people!
As soon as you enter the realm of harmonisation, there are no limits anymore. Quoting Trillian from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — you’re on a spaceship, Arthur — in space! Therefore, Hanon gets completely wild.
Here I’m playing the classic i — VI — III — VII progression beloved by a lot of cinema composers, using the 10th-based diatonic structures in the left hand and harmonised Hanon figures Nº31 and Nº20 that are played third above the root of each chord. Sounds fancy right?
Let’s break it down. You’ve already seen Nº31, here’s the Nº20.
It’s very similar and is supposed to be used for “extension of 2-4, 4-5”. But we’re not stretching fingers here. We’re stretching the concepts of piano studies. (How bold was that statement?) I played it at an octave and in C major, but I could have played it at any interval and in any key of any mode, right? Just got me another Lego block.
Here’s the bass pattern for my i — VI — III — VII progression that Hans would have sued me for if he were reading my blog, but he’s long past virtuoso stage, so we’re cool.
And here’s the whole thing again:
As you can see, both Hanon figures are transposed to match their underlying chord and they run a diatonic 3rd above the left hand line. As you will notice, it is also a killer workout for finger independence!
So, that was it on hacking Hanon, making monotony your bitch and becoming a virtuoso pianist in— an extended period of time. I hope it was not too long, too blatant or too geeky. Feel free to let me how your practice is going and whether you’ve managed to fit some of the recent stuff in your routine. And until next time — harmonise ’till it hurts! (Metaphorically, folks.) 🤓