Anyone who has asked me how/what I practice each day knows that I play an etude every day. Usually I just go through my books of Popper or Piatti, but sometimes I mix it up. Every so often I go through a student level book just to remind myself of which one tackles which technical issue. In fact, I look ahead at the “etude du jour” and use that key for my scales/octaves/arpeggios warm up before-hand, so you could say that Etudes are a very big part of my life. That wasn’t always the case.
Growing up, my teacher would assign me an etude every week and I would, well, just kin of ignore it. You know, pretend it didn’t exist. Hoped it would just sort of go away. Etudes were boring, and they were difficult to figure out, which made me feel like a bad musician (because surely no one ELSE had any trouble sight-reading them, right?) so I would show up to my lesson and tell my teacher that I had “forgotten my etude book at home”. Some weeks she would just nod at me and say, well I’ll hear it next week then. And sometimes she would fully call me out on it and put her own copy of it on the stand (a technique my own students are learning and catching onto quickly) and I would struggle through it and exasperate my poor teacher.
It took going to conservatory and studying with a man who would dedicate ENTIRE STUDIO CLASSES to The Glorious Etude, and we each had to perform one FROM MEMORY for our entire class to get me to truly appreciate the benefits of working on them. The purpose of this blog is to save the rest of you the time that I wasted in my youth, so I’m going to just spell it out for you. WORK ON YOUR ETUDES. Here are 3 reasons why you’ll thank me if you do.
Each etude tackles one or two specific technical issues and just drills it into you. Playing up-bow staccato? Check. Playing chromatic scales up and down the cello and figuring out the best fingering for them? Check. Double Stops? Check. Trills? Check. Trouble with octave shifts? There’s one for that. Trouble with ricochet? We’ve got you covered. Working on the 2-3 measures of your concerto that has ricochet simply won’t fix the issue like working through a two-page etude where you have constant ricochet in every possible situation on the instrument will. Students? Trust that your teachers are addressing your specific issues with their choice in etudes. Adults? Try writing out a list of the top 5 issues in your playing that you want to improve, and then dug through your books of etudes and came up with a list for each of the 5. Spend a couple of months working on those etudes, and I guarantee you’ll see a huge improvement in those playing issues.
Etudes are full of patterns, and the more you come across them, the more your brain and fingers will recognize those patterns in your performance repertoire. Intervals will start to translate into certain fingering choices and you’ll find your able to play things through correctly the first time more often. Start with some easier ones and gradually build up to trickier keys/clefs/registers.
I have a student who would consistently come into her lesson and say that she couldn’t do one of her assignments (be it a new section of a piece, an etude, her new orchestra or chamber music piece) because “it was too hard and she couldn’t figure it out”. Through etudes, she is learning that “nothing is un-figure-outable”. She can take something one measure at a time, heck, one NOTE at a time and put it together. Piatti 6 used to scare the hell out of me. I refused to attempt it. I would play a few measures of it and then give up. Then one day I forced myself to figure out 1 line a day. That’s it. Just one line, and then put it together with the lines I had done before. Eventually, I was playing the entire thing. It wasn’t as horrible a monster as I had made it out to be, but figuring it out like that did stretch me in a lot of ways.
What are some of your favorite etudes, and why? What technical stumbling blocks do you have in your playing that you might be able to fix with some etudes? Leave a note in the comments!