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What Should I Practice?

Students who play Paganini should not lack the technique to play a Handel sonata or Mozart concerto. But increasingly they do. It's time to get back to etudes, which go to the heart of violin technique.

By Stephen Brivati
Posted via on August 28, 2004 at 9:37 PM (MST)
Statements below are the work of their authors and not necessarily the opinion of Violinist.com.

A list of the most commonly asked questions about practicing the violin invariably includes the question "What should I practice?" Of course, this is the most fundamental question of all, since if one does not know what to practice, then picking the violin out of the case is rather pointless. But, the fact that the question is being raised at all, never mind its incredible frequency, raises a great many further issues concerning the role and knowledge of the teacher and student. However, for reasons of space, I shall tentatively step around this question and identify what are, in my opinion, the fundamental basis of violin playing (aside from scales and discrete exercises) that no serious player or teacher should even consider skimping: etudes.

Given that the standard of today's violin playing and teaching is said to be greatly superior to the past, which indeed it is in many respects, then what purpose is served by rocking the boat and perhaps even suggesting that there is much in the past of violin playing that has been lost which needs recovering and revitalizing, in particular through more serious study of etudes?

First of all, one might note that, although standards are in some senses higher with young students routinely playing Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Paganini et al., in their teens, there are a few commentators (such as Gerle -- see his book on bowing) who are suggesting that flexible, creative, diverse, intrinsically musical bowing is being neglected. The less specialized critic might also be heard bemoaning the total sameness of so many of today’s players compared to those of the past

Second, it is often the case that the young tyros who slash their way through Bartok and Sibelius seem unable to produce an equally convincing Handel sonata or Mozart concerto. In order to avoid confronting this nagging doubt head on, such pieces are frequently labeled “beginner” pieces or "steps on the way to the major works." I cite as one example a player who telephoned me for a consultation because she felt that even in her second year at a prestigious institute in Japan she was just finding bowing "sooo difficult." I asked her what she wanted to play/had played and she mentioned the Saint-Saens and Tchaikovsky concertos, though she wanted me to hear the Dvorak. I proposed instead she take one week to prepare the Handel A major sonata. She hummed and hawed about "beginners pieces" and only consented to learn this piece after I mentioned that it had been a firm favorite of Milstein, Elman and a slew of other great players.

The most execrable part of her painful performance was the double-stopping in the second movement, where an unending list of faults included: uneven bow speed, inability to hit two strings absolutely simultaneously with different degrees of pressure to bring out the theme (she had not even considered this notion) and fairly changing from one string to another as there was no anticipation of the next string, and so on...

I asked her what etudes she had studied and was continuing to study, and she looked at me like I was nuts. After some thought, she replied that she had done some when she was a kid, and she was working on some Paganini caprices with her teacher right now.

This situation is all to common, I think, and although the cause is obviously complex, I find it hard not to consider a primary culprit to be the parents and teachers who push their children/students in order to win competitions or just be competitive in general. It is true that technical understanding and greatly facilitated exchange of ideas and information has made the hot house growing of young violinists an established fact. But there is, as the great professor Ito at Tokyo Gedai Conservatoire points out, "no substitute for learning the grammar of the instrument." One can drag out endless quotes from teachers and performers about the role of etudes if one so chooses: Auer in his book, "after learning the Rode and Kreutzer etudes thoroughly" or Heifetz "Kreutzer are the professional violinists manual" or Szigeti relentlessly eulogizing Kreutzer in his book "Szigeti on the Violin." Or pick up a copy of Galamian's great treatise on violin technique and ask why so many of the illustrations and references are to basic etudes, as is the case in Simon Fischer’s Basics.

Actions speak louder than words, and the fact is that the primary violinist of the 20th C, Jascha Heifetz, was playing Kreutzer into his old age (as well as Rose, Szigeti, Wienaiwski, Kubelik, Danks, Primrose, on and on ad nauseum).

My last example is the approach of a man often regarded as one of the greatest pedagogues of the late 20th C, Zakhar Bron, who has students learn the Kreutzer etudes twice, according to an interview in "The Way They Play" (Vol 14). His students characteristically have superb bow control, which effortlessly serves the music being played.

So finally, we are back to the question of what is to be studied, and it is not really so hard to formulate a fairly standard list from the available literature of violin history and put it in an approximate order:

Mazas (Plus Sevcik/Schradieck/Dancla)
Dont op. 37
Dont op.35
Dounis Artists Technique
Wieniawski Etudes
Paganini Caprices

Discussion of all of these and the variations in ordering (not to mention the pros and cons of Sevcik) are outside the purview of this and following articles. Instead let us focus on the upper beginner to advanced violinist and assume that there are two fundamental books that need to be studied in great depth. This is an entirely reductionist scenario, but one of the factors involved in the selection, assuming they are studied in depth, with consistency and for a lifetime, is that they prepare the student thoroughly for the works of Paganini, which despite modern trends in giving the caprices practically from the cradle, do represent a later stage in genuine violin development unless one is to be content with mechanical and immature renditions of these masterworks often leading to later injury. These two books are the Kreutzer Etudes and Dont Opus 35. Following articles will discuss the nature of these books, just what they actually teach and suggest ways of using them.


From jennifer steinfeldt warren
Posted via on August 29, 2004 at 12:28 PM (MST)
Thank you, Buri. I have often pondered the question, or the fact that I am 24 and have never performed a paganini capprice. Learned them long enough for my ears to scream STOP STOP THIS IS TORTURE but never on stage. This has been an issue of embarassment for me. I have also not yet played the Tchaik or Brahms. I, as my teacher, are leary and careful of what I get on stage to play, as my musical intuition has always outweighed my technical ability and have not wanted, so to speak, destroy the masterworks. I have, however, spent hours and endless hours working in etude books. Slowly, but surely, my technique is improving. Maybe not at the pace of the naturally gifted children or teenagers who come out of the womb with the inate ability to get techniques of violin the first try....I am one of those people who latch on to all the bad habits first. I understand what you are saying from a bit of an experienced view. I didn't have a teacher until college, so as a teenager, I'd go to the library and photocopy all the major concertos and take them home and "learn" them. They were way beyond my capabilities, but I didn't notice. I got the notes, right? It severely hindered and hurt my development as a violinist. Anyhow. Enough of the personal saga. Are you working on a book? Or writing for a magazine or journal? You should.

From Chris Hong
Posted via on August 29, 2004 at 12:55 PM (MST)
So...when playing an etude like Kreutzer (which is what I am doing right now), you should just strive to play it technically as perfect as you can? There are always some things you must always perfect in all etudes like intonation, right? Then, each etude is specific to one skill or another? How do you determine which technique the etude is emphasizing, and what is the best way to go about perfecting this technique?

From Stephen Brivati
Posted via on August 29, 2004 at 5:14 PM (MST)
Jennifer, I take my hat off to anyone who got as far as college with no teacher. I think that is a mark of real talent.
Chris, you are right that intonation is always the first priority. Szigeti harps on this point at great length in his book `Szigeti on the violin.` After that the question you pose `What is the purpose of this study?` is crucial and I hope to adress this issue in some depth ibn the column. There is nothing worse than a teacher prescribing a study because it is what their teache r prescribed while neither they noir their student are clear about why they are doing it.

From Sue Donim
Posted via on August 31, 2004 at 6:19 AM (MST)
I enjoyed this article, however I must add that it feels very weird to read you without any typos, Buri; I take it you have an Editor-at-Large hidden back there?

From Stephen Brivati
Posted via on August 31, 2004 at 4:37 PM (MST)
Sue they will be back. Some appear in the enxt column near the end.

From Owen Sutter
Posted via on September 6, 2004 at 6:44 PM (MST)
thats more like it,
i always wonder when is it a good idea to push someting technically, and when isnt it?
it could be enlightening to discuss this in regards to etudes. for instance, some students are given dont before they have really mastered (loose sense of the word) the kreutzer. I see no problem trying to hack your way through some dont stuff, as long as you dont beat it to death, and you return to something easier. You can grow through struggles like that, but to never perfect an etude is of course a fatal mistake. thoughts on this woiuld be interesting.

From Owen Sutter
Posted via on September 6, 2004 at 6:47 PM (MST)
another thing, lets bring tempos into this. do you strive for teh written tempos on etudes such as kreutzer and dont, or not?
i rarely practice any etude fast, i dont see the point, sometimes i'll shoot through a dont etude, but in general my most productive etude practice is very slow.

From Scott Homer
Posted via on December 3, 2004 at 11:49 AM (MST)
I agree wholeheartedly. I however am not one who believes that the violin playing of today is superior to that of Heifetz Elman Oistrak, Milstein. I am of the opposite opinion. Quality verses quantity. because violinist have focused so much on quantity of technique, rather then the quality of technique, sound, intonation and individuality has been completely lost. The beauty of music. This is why classical music has become more elitist. It lacks that universal appeal artist such as Heifetz Elman brought to it, the human quality emotional range. excuding Perlman there remain no violin personalities. Pavarotti is a good example of live art form. The violin is a vocal instrument this is why, for instance Handel sonatas performed by Heifetz Milstein Oistrak and many other "Artist' are not performed today.Handel was one of the great Opera composers, his music has such emotional depth and is quite difficult due to the facility needed to play Handel correctly, every note Must be in tune and beautiful. The bow has to be used in a manner that requires extreme eveness equavalent to a singer. The musical ability, maturity, and emotional depth needed for these Sonatas are sadley lacking in todays violin players. Correlli is another example of what violin artistry is all about.
My belief in good technique is having a beautiful sound playing intune and executing passages with great ease.

From Sara Bull
Posted via on December 3, 2004 at 6:15 PM (MST)
What are the pros and cons of Sevcik?

From Benjamin Eby
Posted via on March 8, 2005 at 3:33 AM (MST)
I'll try to make this brief: the pro is that Sevcik is very good at isolating technical difficulties and systematically drilling them until they are no longer weaknesses. The con is that he is so systematic that prolonged practice could injure (sp?) you physically, mentally, and spiritually. If you do Sevcik, do it with your brain turned on, and then for 15 to 30 min. tops.


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