When it comes to piano technique, many pianists often think of exercises involving scales, arpeggios, chords, and more. However, at its core, technique is actually about sound – that is, being able to achieve a desired expressive effect on the instrument.
In piano teaching, technique exercises can provide young pianists with opportunities to explore different sounds and ways of using their bodies in an effective, efficient, healthy and comfortable manner. Unfortunately, pianist injuries are quite common, but by prioritizing student wellness, we can help turn this trend around.
Today, I want to share about a book I have been finding useful with my piano students over the past couple of years and now consider a go-to resource in my teaching. It’s called Technique Builders: Fundamental Study Patterns to Improve Piano Proficiency, by Hazel Cobb. In this review, you’ll learn why I recommend Technique Builders and how you can use it effectively in your piano teaching. (Bonus: Download my handy-dandy errata sheet at the end of this article!)
Note: This post contains affiliate links, which means my blog earns a small percentage should you decide to make a purchase using those links. Thanks for supporting my work!
An Introduction to Hazel Cobb’s Technique Builders
Hazel Cobb’s Technique Builders: Fundamental Study Patterns to Improve Piano Proficiency is a book of short exercises for pianists that was first published in 1985 and is still available today through Alfred Publishing. In the forward, Cobb states her book is intended for any student who would benefit from special focus on technique, whether they are a beginner or more experienced performer. Further, she explains: “The ultimate objective is to train the student through repeated patterns and precise exercises, to acquire a conscious control in these techniques: the use of the whole arm for lateral freedom and arm weight, the forearm for rotation (Alberti bass and similar patterns), the wrist for flexibility in phrasing and the fingers for dexterity in passage work.”
I first heard about Cobb’s Technique Builders while attending a workshop in 2015 with Irina Gorin — master teacher and author of the Tales of a Musical Journey method. She recommended Technique Builders as a resource she finds worthwhile for her students, with the caveat that she likes to skip certain exercises.
I heard the book recommended again during a session I attended during the MTNA Virtual Conference in 2020. The session was given by Nancy O’Neill Breth, a respected veteran teacher and author of The Piano Student’s Guide to Effective Practicing guide and the accompanying Practicing the Piano book. She described having her students track their metronome tempos as they practice getting them up-to-speed (according to tempo goals she has noted for each exercise in her copy of the book.) She also mentioned teaching the exercises mostly by rote.
After being introduced to Technique Builders from these two master teachers, I knew I needed to check it out!
What Makes Technique Builders Unique
Technique Builders addresses a variety of skills throughout the book, as you can see from the Table of Contents page.
At the top of each page, there is a title (and sometimes also a subtitle) describing the exercises and/or the technical skill to be explored.
Most of the exercises in Technique Builders consist of sequenced patterns — meaning, they feature a one- or two-measure pattern that moves stepwise upwards or downwards across the keyboard. Typically, only the first few measures of each exercise are notated. The pianist is expected to continue the sequence in a similar manner until the next octave is reached.
Because the exercises are generally not written out in their entirety, the pianist must analyze, understand, and mentally engage with the pattern in order to successfully perform it. This process builds the pianist’s aural and memory skills at the same time as their technique and artistry skills. It’s an interesting challenge, and the exercises sound appealing, too.
Many figures commonly encountered in classical music — including scale passages, arpeggios, waltz bass, and Alberti bass — are featured throughout the book. In addition, the pianist will encounter a variety and articulations (slurs, staccato) which should be carefully observed. Building familiarity with these elements will no doubt bleed over into the student’s classical repertoire and beyond.
How to Use Technique Builders in Your Piano Teaching
To trial Technique Builders, I suggest initially ordering copies for only a couple of intermediate students and observe the results after a few months before ordering more books for other students. I started small and now, after a couple of years of incorporating Technique Builders into my teaching, I’ve put about a dozen students through the book.
The exercises from Technique Builders can be used as a warm-up activity at the beginning of the lesson and can be demonstrated by the teacher before asking students to try them. It’s also important to discuss challenges and technique concepts with the exercises to bring them into the awareness of the student. Specifically, it is beneficial to explore ways to avoid excess tension — particularly in the hands and wrists — and to find comfortable movements that will facilitate execution of each exercises.
At the following lesson, you and your student can evaluate the assigned page to decide if the exercises can be considered mastered or if it needs another week or two of practice. Listen for the exercise to be accurate (in terms of pitches, rhythms, and markings such as slurs and staccatos), fluid (without stops and starts), artistic (aurally pleasing and expressive), physically comfortable, and at an acceptable tempo.
There are 49 pages in the book, which means there is material enough to last a year or two. Most students can handle an assignment of one page at a time, but some may happier focusing on only a half-page at a time.
Why I Recommend Technique Builders
Simply put, I recommend Technique Builders because my students and I love it. The exercises are interesting and fun to play. When students reach the end of the book, they want more!
As a teacher, I appreciate the focus on building familiarity with figurations and technique skills found in the repertoire they are learning. And I really like that the exercises are NOT fully notated, so that students must use comprehension skills, musical memory, and active thinking to successfully play the exercises (rather than mindlessly read them). Interestingly enough, however, for a couple of my students I’ve noticed that the rapid turnover of exercises has also helped improve their sight-reading.
Overall, Technique Builders is a valuable resource for piano teachers and students looking to improve piano proficiency. The sequence-based exercises and the variety of technical skills addressed make it unique and effective in building technique and artistry skills. I’m finding a plethora of benefits using Technique Builders, and I’m not aware of another resource quite like it!
An Important Caveat
The only caveat I have to recommending Technique Builders is the fact that there are quite a number of editing mistakes. There are so many, in fact, that I compiled them and created an errata sheet I can give to students along with the book. I am providing the printable to you as a freebie below, in case you’d also like to use it with your students.
The nature of the errors vary. Some are inaccurate pitches and fingerings. There are also two pages with titles that say “Second and Third Inversions” rather than “First and Second Inversions.” You can view the full list of errors I’ve discovered by downloading the PDF. Although it is inconvenient to have to correct these errors in the book, it is not enough to deter me from using this book with my students.
Download on the Errata Sheet on Printables > Other Resources page.
Errata Sheet for Hazel Cobb's Technique Builders - by Joy Morin (347.1 KiB, 302 hits)
Where to get Technique Builders
Hazel Cobb’s Technique Builders book can likely be purchased/ordered through your local music stop (if you are lucky enough to have one nearby to support!) and online from Amazon or SheetMusicPlus.com.
Your turn: What technique exercises or etudes do you use in your teaching? I’d love to hear!