[1.III.7.1] Introduction: Intrinsic, Limbering, and Conditioning Exercises

Most finger exercises are not useful because of an overwhelming number of disadvantages [see section III.7.8]. One objection is that they waste a lot of time. If the exercises are for developing the technique to play difficult pieces, the time will be better spent practicing the difficult pieces directly. Most exercises are repetitious, requiring no musical input which will turn off the musical brain. Mindless practice is harmful. Exercises are supposed to increase stamina; however, most of us have plenty of physical stamina to play but insufficient brain stamina; therefore mindless repetitive exercises can decrease our total musical stamina. If the students are not carefully guided, they will practice these repetitions mechanically and give piano practice the reputation as a punishment for anyone unfortunate enough to have to listen to them. It is one way to create closet pianists who can practice only when no one is listening because they never practiced making music. Some accomplished pianists routinely use exercises for warming up, but this habit arose as a result of (incorrect) early training and concert pianists do not need them for their practice sessions.

Historically, the Hanon type exercises became widely accepted because of several misconceptions: (i) that technique can be acquired by learning a limited number of exercises, (ii) that music and technique can be learned separately, (iii) that technique requires mostly muscular development without brain development, and (iv) technique requires finger strength. Such exercises became popular with many teachers because, if they worked, the students could be taught technique with little effort from the teachers! This is not the fault of the teachers because these misconceptions were passed down through the generations, involving such famous teachers as Czerny, Hanon, and many others. The reality is that piano pedagogy is a challenging, time-consuming, knowledge-based profession.

If we define technique as the ability to play, then it has at least three components. It has an intrinsic technique component, which is simply your skill level. Having the skill, however, doesn't mean you can play. For example, if you haven't played for several days and the fingers are frozen cold, you probably won't be able to play anything satisfactorily. So there is a second component, the degree to which the fingers are limbered up (warming up component). There is also a third component, which will be called conditioning. For example, for a person who had been chopping down huge trees for weeks, or someone who had done nothing but knit sweaters for days, the hands may not be in condition to play the piano. The hands have adapted to a different job. On the other hand, practicing at least three hours every day for months will enable the hands to perform incredible feats. Defining the components of technique is important because these definitions enable the identification of the exercises that are needed.

The intrinsic skill level and warming up of the hands are easy to understand, but conditioning is complex. Important factors controlling conditioning are the length and frequency of practice and the state of the brain/nerve/muscle system. In order to keep the hands in their best playing condition, most people will need to play every day. Skip a few days of practice, and the conditioning will deteriorate. Thus, although it was remarked elsewhere that practicing a minimum of three days a week can yield significant progress, this will clearly not result in the best conditioning. Conditioning is a much larger effect than some people realize. Advanced pianists are always acutely aware of conditioning because it affects their ability to play. It is probably associated with physiological changes such as dilation of blood vessels and the accumulation of certain chemicals at specific locations of the nerve/muscle system. As the skill level rises, this conditioning factor becomes more important for dealing with difficult technical material and the higher musical concepts such as color or the characteristics of different composers.

A more elusive factor that affects conditioning is the state of the brain/nerve system. Thus for no obvious reason, you can have "good" days and "bad" days. This is probably analogous to the "slumps" that afflict athletes. In fact "bad days" can last for extended periods of time. With the awareness of this phenomenon and experimentation, this factor can be controlled to some extent. Musicians, like golfers, etc., must learn how to diagnose their own problems. Just the awareness that such a factor exists can help to better cope psychologically with those "bad" days. Professional athletes, such as golfers and those who practice meditation, etc., have long known the importance of mental conditioning. Discovering the causes of such bad days would be even more helpful. One common cause is FPD, which was discussed near the end of section II.25. Another common cause is deviation from fundamentals: accuracy, timing, rhythm, correct execution of expressions, etc. Playing too fast, or with too much expression, can be detrimental to conditioning. This is why it is so difficult to perform twice in a row, and it is necessary to know how to "reset" the conditioning between performances. Possible cures are to listen to a good recording, enlist the help of a metronome or to revisit the music score. Playing a composition slowly once before quitting is one of the most effective preventive measures against inexplicable "bad playing" of that composition later on. Thus conditioning depends not only on how frequently you practice, but also on what and how you practice. Solid mental play can prevent slumps; at least, you can use it to know that you are in a slump before you play. Better yet, you can use mental play to get out of the slump, by adjusting the time when your performance peaks. We all use a certain amount of mental play whether we know it or not. If you do not consciously use mental play, then slumps can come and go, seemingly for no reason, depending on the condition of your mental play. That is why mental play is so important for performers.