I have heard more than one musician say that performers don’t need to practice from books of exercises, but should rather construct exercises based on passages in real pieces. On the other hand, every piano teacher I have had asked me to purchase one or more books of exercises. It began with the Schmitt Preparatory Exercises and the Czerny School of Velocity; another teacher wanted me to work from Czerny’s Art of Finger Dexterity; this was followed by the Phillip Complete School of Technic for the Piano and a selection from the Clementi Gradus. Another teacher, another couple of exercise books: the Dohnányi Essential Finger Exercises, and the Pischna Technical Studies. (Curiously, nobody ever asked me to acquire the Hanon exercises, which are probably the best known.) If I had to pick one of these books it would be the Dohnányi, but the fact is that over the years I have pulled all of these items (and more) off my shelf and opened them up on my piano rack from time to time.
Lately I’ve been looking at some exercise books that make the collections above look puny. Dover has reprinted the first two volumes of the Master School of Virtuoso Piano Playing by Alberto Jonás. No, I had never heard of Jonás either before stumbling upon these books in the Penn library. These are extraordinary collections, first of all for their sheer size – for example, the first volume, called “Finger exercises”, runs over 200 pages – and what Dover has reprinted represents only the first two volumes of a seven volume set! The exercises are unusually ingenious and challenging, and they include items specifically created for this series by Godowsky, Busoni, Cortot, Friedman, and von Sauer, among others. As Sara Davis Buechner writes in her introduction, these volumes represent the “single most comprehensive pedagogic piano treatise of the 20th Century”. An especially interesting aspect of the books is the large array of repertoire excerpts. In Buechner’s words, “the selection of excerpts from the pianist’s repertoire are a fascinating window in the the world of keyboard repertoire ca. 1920. Besides the numerous citations of works by Beethoven, Chopin and Schumann, et al., are passages from rare works of pianist-composers such as Theodore Leschetizky, Ignaz Jan Paderewski, Carl Tausig, Anton Rubinstein (Jonás’ teacher) and even Jonás himself.”
Yes, I do make exercises out of tricky passages in pieces I am studying, but it is not such a bad thing to work on technical issues outside of the context of a piece, and to refer to a book that can offer worthwhile challenges that I would not have dreamed up.