What type of piano exercises do you need as a beginner and how can they help you develop strength and flexibility at the piano?
As you start learning piano, simply the act of pressing down the keys-and synchronizing your fingers-in addition to learning music theory-and how to read notes-as well as trying to sit correctly-and keep you hand position right... phew!
...is usually more than enough...!
But after a while it is a good idea to start working with separate piano exercises to help you to build up strength, awareness and security in your playing technique.
One more plus (of many) with separate technical exercises, is that they will help you become more aware of the different movement patterns used when playing the piano.
To recognize a pattern of notes as a movement instead of a “bunch of notes”, helps you to both read and perform music better, as well as to play more beautiful without unnecessary tension.
I know there are pianists and teachers who consider special piano technique exercises pointless, but instead by studying lots of repertoire and making your own exercises from the “real” piano pieces, you will learn all the technique you need.
Even though I personally do not agree completely with this, it is a great way of learning a piece, to actually work on passages, aka “passage work”, in the music itself and to make up your own exercises from it.
However- this does not apply to beginner pianists, as you need to be a really good player to begin with, to be able to make such choices, knowing exactly what you need to work on!
Exercises, as opposed to Etudes, are technical exercises that introduce you to movement patterns for your hands, arms and whole body, as well as finger drills, introducing one difficulty at a time. (Not really very pretty to listen to!).
For example, Charles-Louis Hanon wrote the famous The Virtuoso Pianist which is a collection of real finger drill exercises. Get a free PDF and practice advice here.
Even though the word Etude actually means Exercise as well, we say "Etudes" about exercises that are more like real pieces. Etudes are pieces that contain several difficulties at the same time, for example learning how to make a melody be heard over a subtle accompaniment.
Some of these Etudes are used as repertoire since they are really beautiful, and some are more boring.
But the point with an Etude is to practice technique in a more musical context, involving phrasing and musical thought, not just drills.
Depending on your preference, here are some ways to build your piano technique with a daily piano exercise regimen. These are just a few suggestions to spark your imagination!
Depending on your needs and personality, make your own adjustments as you see fit; but try to work- if not every day- at least a few times a week with some form of technical exercises.
Each day you set aside certain minutes of practicing piano exercises, in addition to learning new pieces, maintaining old repertoire, learning by heart, sight reading and improvising.
If you practice 60 min. sessions in a day it could for example look like this:
During the week you might like to focus more on one different aspect each time:
After some time, when you have learned a few exercises you really like and feel does good for you, put together a short piano exercise “repertoire” of about 10-15 minutes.
Use this as a warm up every day (memorized to save time), and then spend the rest of your time focusing on your repertoire, or improvising etc.
If you need a book with piano exercises to build up your piano technical skills , I can recommend Piano Aerobics from Alfred's Basic Adult Piano Course. It is for adult beginners and is filled with hand and finger exercises for a great workout!