Is it better to drill finger exercises before playing pieces or is it OK to go straight to what you would like to play and practice?
Some people start their practice with an hour of technique exercises that include scales, arpeggios and etudes (studies) whereas others do none of these and play their pieces with no warm ups or preparation at all.
You will find a large variety of opinions regarding technique with some real hardliners on both poles and everything in between. Some exam boards for instance have a heavy load of scale requirements while others have no scale requirements at all.
The "Strengthening the fingers through drill" approach
This approach is all about strengthening the hands and fingers while training them to move quickly, using repetitive patterns. Hanon finger exercises are a good example for this approach. They are like the treadmill in the gym. However, drilling finger exercises vigorously may lead to physical damage such as cramps and tendinitis. If you decide to go down this path, you must be very aware of what your body is doing so as not to cause yourself injuries.
My favorite technique book series for beginners and early intermediate students is "A Dozen a Day" by Edna Mae Burnam. Each of these short exercises highlights a certain basic musical pattern and can easily be transposed into different keys. Every exercise has a stick-man (some kids think the figures are wearing dresses so are therefore stick-ladies!) doing a sporty exercise, reflected in the title. Because they are short and each exercise focuses on a different pattern, they don't become repetitive and the danger of developing mechanical playing practically doesn't exist.
The "Train the mind and the fingers will follow" approach
The opposite approach to the repetitive finger drills claims that every single note you play should be played as music. There should be no such thing as a finger exercise that is not music. According to this approach, if you have difficulties playing a certain section in a piece you should either find an existing exercise or make one up to solve this specific issue.
Imagine yourself going for a walk, breathing the fresh air and enjoying the sunshine (music). If you come across an obstacle that is blocking your path, you will find a way to tackle the problem so you can continue your journey.
As on a hike, you need to have a clear musical goal. You have to know what you would like the phrase and piece to sound like. Once you know where you are going and what sound you are aiming for, the fingers will know what to do if you don't get in the way by being stiff and tense. Acquiring a good technique according to this approach translates into learning the secret of letting go of any unnecessary tension while concentrating on the desired sound.
I think different players in different situations require different solutions. There is not one right or wrong answer to this question. Most players will have drilled the scales and arpeggios at some point and will be able to go back to practicing them when necessary.
Each person should find the balance between these two approaches in the way that suits them. There are times when it feels right to do more finger work, and others when the pieces will be central. In any case, whether playing a piece or an exercise, it is important to be fully concentrated and focused on what you are doing and keep your body as relaxed and free from unnecessary tension as possible.
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