What is the purpose of doing technical exercise? Why do we spend hours practicing scales, arpeggios and other boring patterns?
We practice technical exercises for the same reason many athletes go to the weight room. Lets take a tackle or guard in football for example. When practicing and playing on the field, he will get to fine-tune his skills by making a few sacks and tackles. However, there is often not very much opportunity for him to maximize the resistance on his muscles because blocking and tackling simply does not provide that resistance. Thus the muscles do not get any stronger and he cannot improve his game. For strength increase to occur, the resistance on a muscle must be extremely high in order for the muscle fibers to tear, and consequently heal bigger and stronger. His skill can only get to a certain level before lack of strength interferes with development. He will have to find a way to stimulate to muscles fibers to fatigue somewhere else.
What better place to do this than the gym! Here he can take care of strength and size so he can focus on developing better methods of tackling and blocking. When he needs strength to learn a new skill, it is always available to him.
This is no different in the field music. It can be a huge impediment on our time if we are trying to learn a song, and we arrive at a section we can't play simply because we do not have the strength. The mind can learn to play a lick several times faster than it takes for a muscle to develop the strength and coordination to be able to play that lick. Thus it is crucial that we plan ahead and by doing special exercises that involve the most difficult movements. Then when we get to a difficult spot in the music, the only thing that should be stopping us from being able to play is a few neurons as opposed to weeks worth of muscle building.
The Name Game
The word technique is kind of a misnomer when referring to this kind of exercise. Even though the specific movements of the exercise are important, the focus is to develop the muscle. Anytime you learn a new piece of music, hundreds of new specific movements and techniques will need to be learned along with it as well. The point of these exercises is to develop the muscles needed in order to execute these movements at their respective tempos.
Types of Exercises
Most conservatory curriculums suggest learning various combinations of the following drills in different keys from beginner to the highest grade levels.
This is a good start to developing a strong, full technique. These exercises cover many of the most difficult maneuvers on the piano and in turn will constitute well-rounded muscle development.
Scales arguably require the most endurance and strength. The reason is that the movements are so small that the muscles in the shoulders and torso are limited in what they can contribute because the fingers move much faster than they can. When practicing scales you may feel your forearms start to burn. You should continue with this feeling for no more than a few seconds or you will risk developing long-term damage to the tendons and the skeletal muscle attached to them. Stop for a few minutes and allow the muscles to recover.
Arpeggios are similar to scales but the notes are typically played consecutively in a series of thirds as opposed to seconds. This is not always true, for the term arpeggiate only means to play a shape or grouping of notes one at a time in a particular direction (up or down). But for the most part an arpeggio refers to groupings of notes spread in thirds and fourths. Playing arpeggios utilizes more of your arms and upper body than scales do. Pay attention to not only your fingers, but also the movements of your upper body and memorize these movements. These movements are just as important as your finger movements. If you are simply aware that your arms and upper body are moving, it will significantly decrease the time it takes to learn to play arpeggios.
Solid chords utilize the fingers the least and utilize the arms and muscles in the upper body the most. These exercises typically consist of playing consecutive inversions of a chord in one direction. Even though there is less stress on the fingers now, there is more think about coordination wise. The hands have to anticipate the shape of a chord before it touches the keyboard. There are no reference points in the fingertips now. It is all in the arms. For example, go to the piano and play a triad. Then lift your hand. Without touching the keys for reference, form the shape of the next inversion in your hand. Now lower you hand to where the next inversion would be. Is your hand in the right shape? Does it fit? This is what I mean by learning the shape. Now the second component is your arms, which are responsible for moving your hands up and down the keyboard. Close your eyes and play a C with your pointer finger. Now play the C an octave up. Did you get it? (You don't actually have to practice with your eyes closed, this was just a demonstration. That ability will develop on its own over time.) The point is to get the movement right. But notice how the fingers did not move, but the arms did. This movement is equally as important as the shape in the fingers. Pay attention to both components when learning technical exercises.
Broken chords are identical to block chords except each chord is arpeggiated before playing the next inversion. This exercise, like scale exercises can be hard on the muscles and tendons. Be sure stop if you feel any soreness.
Making Goals and Building a Routine
How can we construct technical practice to be cumulative and productive? The goal is to make the exercise sound clear even in tempo and volume (unless you deliberately choose otherwise). Pick an exercise and start at a slow tempo. This tempo should be slow enough so that there are very few mistakes. If you play it and there are no mistakes, boost the tempo until there is a mistake, it does not sound clean and even, or there is a feeling that you aren't quite in control of the exercise. Make it your goal to play the exercise clearly and smoothly at that tempo. Break it down into small pieces if you need to in order to get the movements right. Each part of the exercise has its own unique, specific movement. If you are having trouble, pay attention to exactly what point in the exercise the mistake is coming from and work on the one section. Boost the tempo again after you can comfortably play the exercise well.
You don't need to do the exercises in all keys right away. Learning an exercise well in one key will make it significantly easier to learn the next. Remember, it's about building strength. Perhaps focus on starting with two or three keys for each exercise. You should only ever have to focus on two or three keys at a time. Technical practice should not exceed an hour and if done properly and efficiently, should't have to last longer than 15-30 minutes.
The good thing about technical exercises in terms of fingering is that, for the most part, there is only one or two right ways to do them. If the primary goal is to get the exercises to sound clear and effortless, pretty much everyone will end up with the same fingerings in the end. Not all fingerings will feel the most comfortable right at the beginning, but you will quick get used to them. The most important part about choosing a fingering is sticking with it. You can always change it later. But never avoid learning a certain exercise because you can't think of the proper fingering. Do what seems most logical and be creative.
There should be at least a few technical exercise books available for reference at your local music store. Most conservatories have published a general guide with fingerings for all of the exercises described above in all keys.