The Shipps Guide to violin etudes and their orchestral equivalents

December 18, 2016, 12:45 PM ·

Once you master the basic etudes, you can move on to the skinny tie.

My first meeting with Professor Stephen Shipps did not go well. In my defense, I was only sixteen at the time. But Professor Shipps is not a man to be trifled with, and I most certainly trifled.

Seconds before he announced my name and program to the jury at the 1994 American String Teachers Association national competition finals, Professor Shipps asked me what piece I would be playing in addition to the required Wieniawski Scherzo-Tarantella.

"Mozart D Major Concerto, sir!"

"And what cadenza will you play?"

"I... don't know."

This was true. But whether I had never known the name of Joseph Joachim (only one of the most celebrated virtuosi of the 19th century and close collaborator of Brahms) or had simply blanked in the moment, that answer was unfortunate.

"You don't know? Well... I guess we'll all find out in a few minutes." He shook his head and went on to announce, "From Lexington, Kentucky..." He might as well have concluded, "...a screw-up and all-around dunce!"

Minutes later, I suffered my first-ever memory slip. And do you know who was in the audience for my public humiliation? Noa Kageyama, fellow finalist and current Bulletproof Musician! I sometimes wonder if he witnessed my breakdown and decided then and there to dedicate his life to helping others avoid a similar fate.

More than just a scary face

Stephen ShippsA few months after the ASTA competition, my teacher Dan Mason put the first page of Don Juan on the music stand in front of me. I was sixteen, and though I didn't know it, I was already preparing for orchestra auditions.

At the end of the lesson, Mr. Mason handed me an article xeroxed from the official ASTA journal, 1992, written by Stephen Shipps. I saw the title: A Guide to Survival Repertoire, and then I noticed the author's name. When I looked up, I noticed that Mr. Mason wore a mischievous grin.

"Wait... is that the guy from-"

"Why, yes!" he replied, as his grin widened.

The Shipps Guide I tried to forget

I took the article home, went to my room, and closed the door. I knew that everything Mr. Mason handed me had a purpose, whether it was the strange piece by Strauss or this article by Professor Shipps.

The "Survival Repertoire" from the title seemed to refer to orchestral excerpts like the first page of Don Juan. I was doomed to learn the Strauss... if I was to survive, of course.

I tried to make sense of the article, but it was addressed to teachers like Mr. Mason rather than to me. It contained a scary-looking table and lots of music that I'd never heard of. And, let's not forget that it was written by the man who had (just maybe?) caused my mental collapse. So I put the article into a box and tried to forget about it.

But usually when you try to forget something, it bubbles up from subconscious to conscious. And it didn't help that Mr. Mason kept assigning orchestral excerpts at my weekly lessons.

Eventually I had to take Professor Shipps' article out of the box and give it another try.

Excerpts, not etudes

Re-reading the Guide now, I have to smile. It makes so much sense: the kind of article I'd like to write, if Professor Shipps hadn't written it twenty-four years ago! His premise: only a small percentage of violinists are lucky enough to have been given a thorough training in the standard violin etudes, during those years when they are impressionable enough to work without understanding why. The rest enter college or conservatory with an unenviable choice: give up on professional performing, or try to make up for lost time by going through all the etudes at lightning speed?

His conclusion: replace the etudes with orchestral excerpts, and build a solid technical foundation while preparing for orchestra auditions at the same time!

For example, if you haven't already learned Rodolphe Kreutzer's etude No. 8, a look at left-right hand coordination with string crossings, then learn Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 3 instead so that you have it in your back pocket when it appears on an audition list.

It was a brilliant idea in 1992, and it's just as relevant today. But it's more than an idea: the Shipps Guide to Survival Repertoire contains a complete table of standard etudes and their orchestra excerpt equivalents.

My thoughts on the Shipps Guide

Over the years, I've gotten to know Stephen Shipps in various professional settings. But it wasn't until a few months ago, here in Pasadena, that I reminded him of our first meeting. He had forgotten the particulars, so his face lit up when I recounted the Mozart cadenza story.

"Oh wow. I bet I really lit into you for that!"

"You did."

"And right before you went out to play. Wow! But I bet you never forgot who wrote your cadenzas after that!"

I conceded the point. Then I moved on to his ASTA article that Dan Mason had handed me. I hadn't read it in more than twenty years, and I couldn't find my copy. But I knew that it would be relevant to my teaching these days, especially since during the New York Philharmonic Audition Challenge, so many violinists told me how much they loved the etude work. In fact, I got question after question about what other etudes would help in audition preparation.

I thought about it, then realized that someone else had already done my work for me. So I asked Professor Shipps for his permission to share it with you.

The Shipps Guide really needs to be read in its entirety, because it's about much more than just a table of etudes and their excerpt equivalents. Professor Shipps isn't suggesting that etudes have no value: in fact, he recommends a major course of etudes for those students who are able to handle them before college. Neither does he mean that excerpts alone constitute a complete violinistic or musical education. In the Guide, he places them in their proper context along with scales, concerti, solo Bach, sonatas, and short pieces.

For years, Josef Gingold's three "Orchestral Excerpts" volumes were the standard "text."

If I were writing the Guide myself, today, it would look a bit different. Shipps' choices of orchestral repertoire reflect not only the audition lists that were prevalent at the time of publication (1992), but the lists that his teacher, Josef Gingold, put together a generation earlier. Operatic overtures and miniatures from the classical and romantic periods figured heavily in these lists, and they do in the Guide as well.

Today, we don't see much Euryanthe or Fingal's Cave at violin auditions. Modern lists are shorter and skew more toward symphonies, a few tone poems, and twentieth-century music that was "too new" for auditions of yesteryear. More to the point, auditions one or two generations ago rewarded experience and depth of knowledge of the repertoire: lists may have been short or long, but sight-reading was a common and accepted part of the process. Woe to those candidates who were unfamiliar with any of the pieces that were staples of the Big Five orchestra programs!

Now it is no longer assumed that candidates for major jobs have studied or performed the major works. Blind, or screened, auditions, have something to do with this, since "experience" and "knowledge" in the unscreened days were often code words for "we know this guy, and we like him". Today, sight-reading is included in the fine print, but it's largely an empty threat. Deliberately or not, today's orchestras value players who can deliver under pressure over players who know the repertoire. The best orchestras can demand both if they draft a big audition list. But in general, today's shorter lists give everyone a shot as long as they are technically and musically prepared to play the pieces asked of them.

That said, I enjoy seeing all the pieces in the Shipps Guide. It's well worth a violinist's time to look at an etude in the "Long Bows" section, say Kreutzer No. 1, and then look at Elgar's Enigma Variations: Nimrod and see how success in one leads directly to success in the other, and to other pieces of the same type. So if it seems more appealing to work on Elgar than Kreutzer, go right ahead! Nimrod is a great tune, after all.

And I'm constantly advising violinists to work on technique outside the excerpts from their audition list. It's counterproductive, for example, to try and learn a spiccato stroke while working up the Schumann Scherzo for an audition. You'll only graft bad habits onto a work that you're supposed to be able to play in a few weeks' time. I would normally prescribe a spiccato etude in such cases. But with the help of the Guide, you could choose Verdi's overture to La Forza del Destino instead, as long as wasn't also on your upcoming audition!

How to use the Shipps Guide
There are two main ways to dive right into the Guide:

And for those who want to get the most out of the Guide, remember Professor Shipps' original audience: the readers of the ASTA Journal. These were teachers familiar with all the standard etudes and many of the standard orchestral excerpts. If you want to understand the Guide as they did, you must gather the source material. This means the etude books to which Shipps refers. Luckily, these are in the public domain and thus free to download:


The vast majority of the orchestral excerpts are public domain as well.

If you are already familiar with any of the etudes mentioned in the Guide, my advice is to look at and listen to the orchestral excerpts that are listed in the table next to them. Find the connection between the etude and the excerpt. Then, when it's time to work on the excerpt, you will already know the fundamental skills necessary to master it.

If instead you are familiar with the orchestral pieces but not the etudes, then you have a golden opportunity: look up the etudes listed in the table next to the excerpts, and mine them for all they're worth! You will then find that the excerpts yield to you much more readily in the practice room.

Download the Shipps Guide

The Shipps Guide is hosted at If you're already a member there, you'll find the Shipps Guide in your Member Library. If you're not already a member, click here and register to download the guide for free.


December 19, 2016 at 08:42 AM · hi Nate, it doesn't work. I just subscribed for the Shipps Guide, got an "activate" email with a link, then got a page with a Download button, but that asks you to log in but I don't have a login, I only subscribed for the Shipps Guide which only asked me for my name and email address.

December 19, 2016 at 12:32 PM · Primrose wrote of a student who wasn't quite making the grade at Curtis or wherever he was teaching, but refused to consider leaving the profession. So, to save his chances, Primrose spent a year making him work to death pretty much every nasty orchestral excerpt that committees liked to throw at applicants in those days. The kid finally got a job, and when Primrose spoke to the principal viola of that section later on, the verdict was-- not the very greatest player, but WOW can he sightread!

December 19, 2016 at 06:46 PM · Hi Nate, singularly brilliant and useful as always. Since you linked to Schradieck, I have always wondered what is meant exactly by the instruction on the first page, "The pupil should be careful in all the exercises to keep the hand perfectly quiet". What does it mean to you?

December 19, 2016 at 08:50 PM · I guess a quiet hand is one that is not snapping its fingers whilst playing ABCDEDCBABCDEDCBA...

December 19, 2016 at 10:36 PM · Hi Jean, I believe I found the error. Thanks for catching that! Sorry for the difficulty. Let me know if you're still having trouble.

December 19, 2016 at 10:39 PM · To me, that instruction can be summed up by thinking of the back of the hand. If that is still (or quiet), then you can be sure that the fingers are doing all the work, lifting and dropping from the base joints (the ones furthest from the fingertip).

The most obvious place to look for an active hand rather than a quiet one is in the use of the 4th finger. Often players make all kinds of adjustments to put the 4 down or lift it up. The reason you don't want to have to make those adjustments is because you then have to make them the other way! It makes it difficult to play quickly and accurately.

December 19, 2016 at 11:17 PM · I am not a professional nor do I have such aspirations but the excerpt alternative to etudes seems reasonable for string crossing, shifting, spicatto and some bowing studies but I wonder if it wouldn't leave the student deficient in multiple stopping and all the transferable virtues that come with study of such etudes.

December 20, 2016 at 12:13 AM · You're right, and Shipps says as much in his original article. The best solution is to study the etudes and then tackle orchestral material. But his original premise was that many performance majors got to college without having gone through those etudes, and in that case, what to do? Replace some with excerpts, and work on other techniques such as those you name through scales, a few choice etudes, and major repertoire.

December 20, 2016 at 12:53 AM · Thanks so much for publishing the article. In addition to its original purpose, I found it extremely interesting in helping me understand my own teacher's approach in teaching me. I am a returned adult student. My teacher rarely assigns etudes. She gives me concerti, short pieces from Kreisler, Bach, etc. When I was young, etudes were most of the stuff I played, which was boring for me at the time. When I asked her why not much etudes, she said that many of the techniques can be taught via the above list rather than etudes. She also said that etudes are meant for us to master a skill. When the entire etude is about one type of technique, I should stop as soon as I master the technique instead of wasting time and going through the whole etude. When she pushed me to orchestra, I asked her why. One of the reasons was to get familiar with the standard orchestral repertoire.

December 20, 2016 at 05:24 AM · I agree with all of this Qing! I would only say that the best etudes also function as short pieces, and for those I advise learning them as you would a short piece: all the way through, and practicing as though you were going to perform them. It's a great way to hone your skills at practicing longer pieces. You have to refine every corner that way, even after you master the basic technique that the etude provides.

Some etudes are just super-repetitive though, and they don't exactly stand up to that kind of practice.

December 20, 2016 at 09:23 AM · thanks Nate the download button works now!

December 20, 2016 at 06:29 PM · Hi Nate. I'm still having the problem that others reported. I'm already signed up on your site, but I don't have a password to log in with. If I re-register, I get an email with a "Continue reading" link, but if I click it, I'm taken to the article and asked to log in. Trying to get to the Member Library gets me a login prompt, and if I try the lost-password link, it doesn't recognize my email address.

December 20, 2016 at 08:05 PM · Hello Nathan Cole, wonderful article. I too am having trouble downloading the Shipps guide. I read the article when it first appeared on your website a few days ago. I put my email in, but I did not get an email so I put my email again and I still did not get an email. I put my email in again today put I still never got the followup email to download. I checked junk and spam folders.

December 20, 2016 at 10:47 PM · Sorry guys! Just reply to any of the emails you got from me and I'll attach the guide. Lydia and Helen, if you'd be willing to help me troubleshoot, I'll send you further instructions.

December 20, 2016 at 11:04 PM · Hi Nathan, I am willing to help you troubleshoot.

December 21, 2016 at 03:42 PM · Nate, the Schradieck instruction elaboration is a good help. It is sometimes frustrating to have not gotten information earlier, Like in your case maybe who wrote your cadenza :) Are you still restless? If you go back, do a blog entry on why.

December 21, 2016 at 09:24 PM · Nate, You have a good point in practicing an etude that is less repetitive to perfection.

December 22, 2016 at 01:16 AM · If I do go back to a shoulder rest, you can be sure I'll write about why!

December 24, 2016 at 01:05 AM · Good stuff, great ideas-- thanks!!

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