Just how important are playing etudes for the sake of playing them?

April 22, 2015 at 03:22 AM · so, ever since I started posting on this board, I've noticed that many members are very informative and resourceful - especially when it comes to what etude to practice or what type of an exercise to do when practicing a particular piece.

Teachers I have had in the past seemed to be a lot less strict when it came to technique/etudes.

I never had a very regimented progression in my violin studies. The only times when my teacher assigned me etudes, or arpeggios were when I had trouble with particular passages in a piece(like if I had trouble playing double stops, or the sticcato in the third movement in mendelssohn for example).

Sometimes these "etudes" were even custom made by the teacher(almost on the spot), and not from some random book. And if I didn't run into too much trouble, he never bothered. Sometimes I made my own "etudes" from the piece I was working on.

Now that I started playing again, I've noticed that my technique is definitely not as solid as it used to be(not that it was ever that amazing in the first place - my technique has always been lacking), and that it's taking me much longer than I expect to finish pieces...my bow hand sometimes gets unnecessarily sloppy...etc. I wonder if neglecting etudes had something to do with that.

I guess what I'm trying to ask is, whether or not it's beneficial to just go through etude books entirely for the sake of playing etudes?

I've always thought about etudes as something to supplement any type of deficiencies in technique, but is it also beneficial to take a more proactive approach? Like learning several etudes a day after you play your scales, or while warming up? The reason I never really liked etudes is because I thought playing them felt like a very passive approach to solving problems. I realize now that it's always important to be mindful and pay attention to detail while practicing.

I realize that this is a very long post, and that some people might think this is a idiotic question or feel appalled at what I typed. I'm interested in what you guys think though.

Replies (29)

April 22, 2015 at 04:02 AM · The ideal would be to have a custom-made etude for every weakness that you identified in your playing; this sounds like what your teacher was after, in fact!

But no student (or teacher) is perfect. And the great etude collections, Kreutzer being the single greatest, survive because they manage to work so many key areas in the course of the book. So going through the 42 Kreutzers would be a wonderful thing to do, if you have the time!

It's best to work on these with a clear idea of what you're working on with each one. Not sure if you've ever done weight training, but it's not that effective unless you know which muscle or muscle group you're working with each exercise. You actually pay attention to that muscle as you do the exercise to make sure it's the one doing the work.

It's the same with great etudes, because some of them can be used in different ways. Kreutzer 2 might be the most famous example. There are some etudes that are quite difficult until you know the "key" to solving them; and there are others that are easy, until you realize what you're supposed to be working on.

I did pretty much what you're talking about years ago, and was astonished to find weak spots that were really "blind spots" in my technique. And from an etude book that I thought I had mastered as a teenager!

April 22, 2015 at 12:29 PM · When you are playing a study like Kayser or Mazas or Kreutzer, it's wall-to-wall action, so even if it's not obvious what particular weakness you're addressing, you're still getting the workout if you're trying to play with the best possible tone and intonation and with the cleanest articulations, string changes, etc. It's a bit like having a tennis lesson where your pro runs you around a lot.

If you go into an etude thinking "I really need to work on the string change (G to D) between D# and E in my repertoire piece, and I'm wasting 99% of my time because this blasted etude only has that sequence a couple of times" then I think that's not really what etudes are for, although some etudes do isolate particular skills better than others (trill studies, for example, or an octave study like K24).

April 22, 2015 at 02:35 PM · I often find short exercises (of the Sevcik or Simon Fischer variety) to be more valuable than etudes, so I can be intensely focus on one technique in isolation, without needing to learn a bunch of notes.

When I play etudes, I often concentrate on a handful of lines, so again I can focus on the technique rather than learning notes. Once the technique feels fairly under control, then I learn the rest of it.

April 22, 2015 at 03:16 PM · I'm just going through Kreutzer for the first time, but I think the practice on etudes bridges a big gap between pure technique like Schradieck and actual pieces. I always hate scraping through a piece that's above my head, because I feel like there is usually too much to focus on, and I'm not doing it justice.

An etude is nice because it gives me a chance to explore a technique that is fitted to a (at least somewhat) developed musical idea. So I'm working at a pretty specific technique or limited set of them, but I have to make the piece as musical as possible, which means that I have to always be thinking about tone, intonation, rhythm and phrasing, and the more I practice etudes, the more I realize that etudes and pieces can be broken down and practiced in similar ways.

Now scales and "pure" technique should be practiced as musically as possible, but I think it's this middle ground where a lot of the technique we have been developing in isolation starts to make the connection to our repertoire. Anyhoo, I think that their limited scope is a big strength.

April 22, 2015 at 03:26 PM · "I guess what I'm trying to ask is, whether or not it's beneficial to just go through etude books entirely for the sake of playing etudes?"

Etudes study may play a different role for students than for the mature player. Is it beneficial? Maybe. It depends on the etude. For example, I still practice spicatto from the Sevcik bowing books occasionally. But there are lots of ways to practice spicatto, including Paganini and many orchestral excerpts.

For students, I do think that playing through etudes develops focus and concentration. I won't let them go to the next one unless they can get through without crashing and burning several times (once would be the limit).

The issue for the mature player (and professional) is that we seldom have the time to spend on etudes. Scales, yes, but there so many other demands on our time, that we can use whatever else we have to work on as an etude. For example, this past weekend I had to play the solo for Pulicinella, so I practiced the spicatto and double stops as I would have for an etude.

I'd rather use the time to keep repertoire in my fingers or bring professional obligations up to a high level than use the time for etudes. It would be nice to think I could maintain a regular schedule through Kreutzer, Fiorillo, Dont, etc, but life interferes.

April 23, 2015 at 04:30 AM · Seems like everyone here has brought up kreutzer. Surprisingly, I've yet to play anything from that book at any point in my violin studies. Maybe its time to buy it(or download it haha).

@Nathan you definitely know you're talking about when it comes to practicing, and how it's kind of like how you have to focus while working out. I actually started weight training lately, and I really love it. It makes me sick when I have to miss a day at the gym.

April 23, 2015 at 05:43 AM · Here's the imslp link, there isn't a copyright on this anymore.


I like creating my own exercises, that way I focus on my weak areas. I am not really into 1 and 2 page exercises, but I will rearrange/rewrite them into 8-32 bars exercises. For me it's all about focused exercises instead of excessive repeating long exercises.

April 23, 2015 at 01:43 PM · Think of our poor pianist friends, who have to PERFORM some of their etudes (You remember Chopin saying he could do with a lesson from Liszt on how to play his own etudes?)!

April 23, 2015 at 02:50 PM · Following on from Charles Cook's post, some of the Kreutzer etudes can be conveniently divided into optional repeatable sections. For instance,

Etude 2 in C (that's the one with 12 bowing variations): insert a repeat after 8 bars, then another repeat 10 bars later, and finish with a non-repeatable 7-bar coda. This gives an opportunity to vary the bowing on a repeat.

Etude 3 in C: a repeat after 10 bars, followed by a non-repeatable 8-bar coda.

Etude 5 in E-flat (another with bowing variations): repeat from bar 12 to 17.

If you're a glutton for punishment there are doubtless other repeatable sections to be found in Kreutzer.

April 23, 2015 at 03:14 PM · I don't think that there is any point in doing etudes just for the sake of doing them. The purpose of etudes is to build your technique. For me they have always been an essential part of the process of learning to play (which I am still in the midst of). I would rather confront a challenging passage with some knowledge of how to attack it (which has been gained from addressing it in etudes) rather than stopping dead in the middle to try to learn how to do it, thus delaying the already lengthy process of learning a challenging piece. The harmonic language of many of the etudes is the same as the mid to late 19th century violin works, so an added benefit is learning how to play, for example, highly chromatic passages in tune. People who already have highly developed techniques will be using etudes in other ways. Last year I was listening to the soloist for our orchestra concert playing something slow and chromatic while warming for the Tschaikovsky. The music sounded vaguely familiar and after a moment I realized it was the "Agitato" section of Paganini 5, played very slowly. Seemed like a great idea to me to use this as a warm-up. I have to say I am a big fan of etudes.

April 23, 2015 at 05:02 PM · You should never play etudes for the sake of playing them - you should play them for the sake of playing music ultimately. Yes, improve your technique but again, the end means of technique is to make music hopefully. Often the teacher will give the student a study and say, "Play all notes evenly" without the proviso that you don't actually play music that way without phrasing. To play that way for hours must have an impact on style.

In my opinion, a lot of study books have so much filler like the "composer" ran out of good ideas by about a third into the book. There is also a severe lack of modern studies and by that I mean studies that cover more modern tonality (Kreutzer was a contemporary of Beethoven). Also, rhythm is mostly ignored - I've yet to see a study book with more complex rhythm patterns. There are often suggestions to do bowing variations or play in all keys but all too often the student sticks to what is on the page in front of them.

With a bit of intelligence you can write or improvise your own studies targeting your own specific problem areas. A good teacher will prescribe something specific rather than follow a curriculum.

I'm not saying that studies are bad, just that we need to be intelligent about them and not lose sight of the fact that we are in this to play music. Don't just do them to feel good about yourself because you put in the hours - to do it unthinkingly can be lazy in its own way. I also think it's healthy to question these etude demi-gods who are mostly, at the end of the day, mediocre composers!

April 24, 2015 at 12:27 AM · Making kreutzer no. 2 longer with repeats??? Have you lost your marbles?

April 24, 2015 at 04:50 AM · There are 20th-century etude books, or, as I think Christopher means, atonal etude books (as opposed to just etude books written in the 20th century). Hindemith's Studies for Violinists comes to mind. I'm not sure John Cage's Freeman Etudes count, since as far as I know they are not intended to be pedagogical.

April 24, 2015 at 12:45 PM · Paul, I lost 'em long ago, although the odd one still turns up now and then ;)

The point I made in my post was that putting repeats into Kreutzer #2, and in others, gives the student an opportunity to do a repeat with a different bowing - there's a choice of 12 listed in the heading to this etude. This not only replicates a situation that sometimes occurs in real music but keeps the student alert and stops them from going into bowing "autopilot".

April 24, 2015 at 02:36 PM · Trevor, perhaps a raid on the British Museum could provide a replacement (Mind you, you'd then have to stand up to the Greek government)?

"But somebody must have written your last sentence some years ago and composers shied away from being classed as mediocre since then" - too late for poor old Chopin, then (Mind you, I suppose, ANY composer that hasn't written something for solo violin is, by definition, mediocre).

April 24, 2015 at 03:02 PM · To me the answer depends on how advanced you are plus your knowledge of the etude repertoire. If you are at the point where you can identify the problem you are having with a particular technique and then know which etudes focus on developing or improving that technique, then etudes are a fabulous tool for effective practice. I'm doing a lot of back-to-basics in my lessons & it's great the way my teacher can just pull out a book from her huge collection & turn to an etude that targets whatever we're working on.

April 24, 2015 at 08:04 PM · Interesting. I had never heard of the Hindermith violin studies- although they exist I never heard a mention from a teacher or a post online so I assume they are not being used much. Here is a link to them: http://imslp.org/wiki/Special:ReverseLookup/345007

Yes, atonal is definitely useful but I was thinking more in terms of something harmonically more up to date. Really, I think a lot can be learnt from jazz studies in this regard - something not so I IV V .

The Bartok duets were written as exercises with harmonic and rhythmic challenges but are certainly musical. Also, as they are duets, a teacher can play the other part and the student is making ensemble music. They stretch the ear and keep you on your toes which any good study should do, rather than be an excuse to go on autopilot for the practice session.

April 24, 2015 at 10:28 PM · Would bach sort of count as etudes? I think playing the slower pieces with the the chords made me much more attentive when it comes to playing chords, and making my string crosses clean in other works. Maybe I'm just trying to justify not going through the entire kreutzer book? Haha.

April 25, 2015 at 11:40 AM · When I took Associated Board Grade VII, the "Study" was the Partita No 3 Gigue (the "fast piece" being, irrelevantly, Mozart G major Concerto first movement - I can't remember what the "slow piece" was), so you may well have a point. I'll never ever get the D-minor Chaconne anywhere near performance standard, but I don't think it's a waste of time my trying to play it.

April 25, 2015 at 12:05 PM · There is a musical reason to play studies too. The bleak monotony and random chord progressions of the Kayser and Wohlfardt etudes prepares the young student for much of the trite, soulless "student concerto" literature featuring the grand works of Rieding, Seitz, de Beriot, and Viotti. I mean, if you can play through that "Comodo" Kayser study without going insane, then your musicality is sufficiently numb to tackle the D Major Seitz.

"Comodo" always makes me laugh. Curiously appropriate.

April 26, 2015 at 11:31 AM · I'll put myself in the firing-line: I only play ├ętudes when I've nothing better to do, which is rare, and then only those with a sound harmonic and musical structure. Lots of invented exercises, though.

If after a month's pause in the summer my technique gets soggy, it's not because I don't use studies, but simply because I haven't practiced.

April 26, 2015 at 12:33 PM · The Hindemith Violin Studies - five of them - are non-diatonic, if not atonal, and of transcendental difficulty for most. They seem to have an interesting history (or more correctly, lack of).

Hindemith composed the Studies in 1926, put them away and forgot about them until 1957 when he came across them again and decided they were worth publishing. He admitted their musical value was not high (that admission must be a first for any composer!) but would be useful because of the problems in fingering and bowing they presented, especially in helping with the performance of modern music, solo, chamber and orchestral. Hindemith said they reflected his own way of playing when he was younger.

The Studies were published by Schott in 1958, but mysteriously do not seem to appear in catalogs of Hindemith's compositions (see Wikipedia for instance).

April 28, 2015 at 07:59 AM · "that admission must be a first for any composer!" - I'm not sure, Trevor. Saint-Seans refused to publish almost all of the Carnival of the Animals because of perceived lack of musical value - Ironically, the musical public hasn't agreed with him on much of it.

In the early to mid twentieth century some composers who wrote light music sold their compositions to well known light music composers outright to publish under their own name (I have heard claims that one who was primarily a conductor of classical music composed "How Much Is That Doggy In The Window", "Sailing By", and "The Dam Busters' March" and other pieces, and sold them to the light music composers under whose names they are now known). Desperation to get money for them and "This is the way things were done" are given as reasons for this, but I'm not convinced that a desire not to be publicly associated with such music may not have played a part. It's known that Frederick Loewe much preferred Brahms's music to his own (though one violinist colleague and friend of my father's considered "My Fair Lady" to be great music). The rise of people like Leonard Bernstein and Andre Previn would seem to have raised the standing of light music in the classical world (not to mention things like the association of Heifetz with Larry Adler and Yehudi Menuhin's forays into jazz).

April 28, 2015 at 11:39 AM · I could have danced all night.

Greatest song ever written.....


April 28, 2015 at 05:56 PM · Trevor- the Hindemith are available for download at IMSLP... you just need to know your German.... but they're not public domain in the US.

Thanks for mentioning them. They look brutal, by the way.

edit- whoops, just noticed that they are also not public domain in EU.

April 28, 2015 at 09:50 PM · Christina, yes, you're right about the US and EU. IMSLP has clear warnings about copyright in those territories; but IMSLP is in Canada which has copyright laws that are rather more liberal than in many other countries, so presumably it's OK to download in Canada - and perhaps in some other countries if and only if it is for private study and nothing else.

I agree that the Violin Studies look pretty horrendous, and show what an amazing virtuoso Hindemith must have been in his day.

April 28, 2015 at 10:26 PM · He gave the first performance of the Walton, didn't he? But I gather that Schwanendreher is even more difficult?

April 30, 2015 at 03:47 PM · yes, and lucky for me, I am in Canada.

Also just noticed that the link had already been posted on this thread, sorry I missed it.

April 30, 2015 at 04:14 PM · "I'm not sure John Cage's Freeman Etudes count, since as far as I know they are not intended to be pedagogical."

I'm not sure they were even meant to be played. People should have a look just for a laugh.

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