Are Etudes Always Necessary?

April 29, 2019, 5:52 PM · Hey, some more heresy for the week:

Do you guys know of anyone that succeeded long term (to a professional level) without the use of etudes, or at least mostly without them? Obviously they are remarkably helpful for many students, but I wonder if they're actually useful for *everyone*.

And, are they sometimes just used as "busy work" when a teacher doesn't know exactly what else to assign? I felt that growing up, I was mostly assigned etudes for this purpose. It was never mentioned specifically why I was doing a particular etude, and they always seemed random, as if the teacher was just saying "eh, do this I guess."

I remember having a student who specifically asked me to assign her etudes, and I was like "why?" I mentioned to her that given her limited practice time (under 45 minutes a day), her best bet was to carefully practice her piece of music, since we had already solved any technical holes using the music itself up to that point, and there was nothing actually *missing* from her playing except the practice time being put into the music itself.

And perhaps I should have fulfilled her request, if only to keep giving her a sense of variety? Maybe there is indeed a benefit to assigning etudes simply as a means of preventing boredom? My problem is that if I don't see a specific reason to assign something, then it seems inefficient to assign it since their limited time could be spent more appropriately on addressing specific issues within the music. Generally (at the level I teach), the piece of music itself is enough stimulus to overcome most technical challenges that are encountered.

Is it appropriate to *only* assign music up to the Suzuki book 5 level? I know many people say Wohlfahrt should be started around Suzuki book 3 level, but I wonder if this might be more applicable to a student practicing over 1 hour per day, or only in the case of a problem that could be obviously remedied through a specific etude?

Replies (40)

Edited: April 29, 2019, 6:21 PM · One reason why a lot of folks like etudes is because it's something that you work on, that can be a little too hard, and that you know is good for you, but that nobody ever expects you to perform.
April 29, 2019, 6:22 PM · I became to enjoy very much playing etudes, they seemed be like pieces of music to me, especially the 75 melodious studies of Mazas, and Fiorillo, Dancle, Rode and others.
Edited: April 29, 2019, 6:24 PM · My teacher assigns relatively few etudes as far as I can tell. Some of her studen (including me) have reached fairly advanced levels without a lot of etudes, but exercises, scales and repertoire make up for it. I'm referring to students who are Bruch level or above. I think it really depends, but as long as the student develops a solid technique' etudes aren't a requirement, though they are beneficial and good to learn. And yes' the melodious etudes are fun to play, not so much the dry ones, though.
April 29, 2019, 7:23 PM · That really not-so-great teacher I mentioned in another thread definitely did abuse etudes. Just assigned me one every week to kill time and didn't really care if I played them well or not.

I think you can definitely make studies out of repertoire, but sometimes all your mistakes across different pieces connect and point to one big fault that can be targeted with a specific etude (if you "catch my drift"). In that way, etudes are very useful tools when used correctly.

Edited: April 29, 2019, 7:53 PM · My opinion is that etudes can be really useful. I studied with a teacher in undergrad who did not believe in them - the result is that my largest technical challenges were in my pieces themselves, and this would often lead to me hating certain technical spots which I had to shed forever. My grad school teacher was a big fan and made me go through etudes one a week come hell or high water. What I realized after a year is that I often hated my etudes (considerably harder than the rep and usually focused on one technical element), but I loved my pieces and always had a good relationship with them. I credit that to having etudes in the mix. What I do now with my students is to tailor etudes to stretch them and preview skills that are coming their way later and give them balance. There are lots of small ones you can assign, or a few lines of Sevcik etc. I usually assign a new one every two weeks (I give helpful hints after one week) and also every so often I give them the gift of no etude, which feels like they get to "play hookey". Before recitals etudes usually disappear too :) I'm also a big fan of duo etudes which make them less boring.
April 29, 2019, 7:57 PM · I've definitely experienced less-than-thoughtful etude assignment - I had a teacher at one point who had me do 6-7 Wohlfahrt etudes at a time - in lock-step progression through the books - because she "believe[d] in finishing books."

That's extreme, but I've rarely had a teacher who explained to me exactly what I was supposed to be getting out of a particular etude.

Edited: April 29, 2019, 8:34 PM · My childhood teacher was a one-etude-a-week man too. He never explained what I was supposed to be learning from them. I always assumed it was some combination of bowing, intonation, shifting, etc. Oh, in addition to whatever small technical thing occurred more frequently than seemed musically appropriate (e.g., mordents or string crossings). I always loved practicing my etudes because it was something I could pretty much nail in a week's time, and when you're 8 years old, that's a plus. Since he also assigned me rep that was totally out of reach, my etudes allowed me to feel successful on a weekly time-scale, and I wanted to finish the book so I could do the next one, with the ultimate goal (as far as I knew) being Kreutzer. When I started to do the books called "Preparing for Kreutzer" that was exciting because I figured I was getting close.

Or you could just study Viotti Concertos. Viotti, so I am told (*), would come up with a musical theme for his concertos and then his students would fill in the details. From what I can see in the violin parts, his star student must have been Henri Schradieck.

(*) Nobody told me that - I made it up.

April 29, 2019, 8:53 PM · My current teacher doesn’t assign etudes at all. She makes studies out of the repertoire. I’ve only been with her about 9 months, so I’m not sure if this will be a successful approach for me. What we’ve done to the Bach d minor partita does seem sacrilegious, though.

My H.S. Teacher assigned etudes that were easier than my repertoire, and my repertoire wasn’t technically difficult. Like Cotton’s former teacher, almost any intonation was acceptable to get passed to the next one in the book.

April 29, 2019, 8:55 PM · @Paul Deck that is so spot on about Viotti!

My kids were not given etudes with their first teacher (who is still the current teacher for my younger one) through the 8 Suzuki books. It definitely gave my older one some gaps. Which is why he is simultaneously finishing up Kreutzer while learning Paganini. I'm just not sure you would get enough variety of skills in repertoire without etudes, even if you were going through a lot of repertoire. Also, some etudes like Schradieck really made a big difference in his repertoire that I don't think he would have achieved as quickly otherwise. I don't think etudes are critical before around Suzuki book 5/6, as long as you are doing some scales and exercises.

Edited: April 29, 2019, 10:54 PM · You could probably get away without etudes if you played enough exercises, but really, what is an exercise other than an etude stripped down to its essence and generally divorced from any musical context?

I would much rather play exercises than etudes, personally. It's easier for me to focus on the tiny technical nugget. When I learn etudes I tend to work on a tiny chunk of them at a time until I feel reasonably comfortable with the technique being taught, and then I learn the etude itself in larger chunks.

But when I was taught etudes, it was with a clear purpose. My copy of Kreutzer is marked up with a lot of step-by-step instructions from my teacher at the time.

April 29, 2019, 11:10 PM · The essence of what I've perceived so far in the responses:

"Etudes are like eating your veggies... you *should* do it but won't die if you don't, and at the end of the day you could just take specific vitamins (exercises) to fill in nutritional gaps.
However, that would never be the same as eating a balanced diet with whole foods. Also, one can never really go wrong by eating more veggies, even if they weren't nutritionally deficient in the first place".

Essentially, it seems like etudes are exercises with some musical context behind them, perhaps so that one can get an idea of how the specific concept would fit into a piece of music. Or maybe it's just so that they're not *quite* so dry and boring. Like putting butter on broccoli.

Does anyone know the first chronological instance of what we know as "etudes"?

Edited: April 30, 2019, 12:54 AM · @Erik Williams The earliest instance of an etude composer I can find is for Organ by Girolamo Diruta.

I would say for any serious professional musician, learning etudes is mandatory. I highly recommend listening to Kerson Leong's podcast, I believe his thoughts about etudes shine light on the matter of why they're useful. Some youth orchestras require them in their audition and as a teacher I believe it is important to understand how pieces function and this includes etudes.

As a pianist, I know that Chopin etudes are often used for college auditions. Teachers do not let students get away without studying them, they are part of the standard concert repertoire. I also believe violin is a much more difficult instrument than piano for ergonomic reasons. Etudes help facilitate technique and varies them better than say a repetitive exercise or scales, they should be taken seriously.

April 30, 2019, 5:43 AM · IMO there are exercises (repetitive motions on one principle) and there is repertoire (notes/rests arranged to make a musical statement, for want of a definition) and there is a continuum between. Some etudes - notably the Chopin ones mentioned above - are heard as repertoire by most listeners and much repertoire is heard as an exercise. Thus much of this is semantic - etudes that can be performed are really not etudes except by name.

That said, a really successful etude trains a technical point from many angles so that it is incorportated for use in most repertoire or at least provides the basis to deal with technical challenges. Thus works well for some technique but not really so for others - making some etudes sensational (Kreutzer II) and others frustrating and irritating tortures (other Kreutzer) with limited benefit. Again IMO a great teacher teaches through repertoire and, when a technical issue must be mastered knows the perfect etude to do so. The etude then becomes a tool for music not a brain-dead time-waster giving an illusion of progress.

Edited: April 30, 2019, 9:22 AM · I've worked with three teachers since returning, and two private ones as a kid. My experience is as follows: first private teacher as a kid - no etudes, Suzuki book only. Second private teacher as a kid - etudes like Paganini Moto Perpetuo and Kretuzer (I actually found my old copy of Paganini Moto not that long ago, and funnily enough my current teacher recommended I do this "etude" at last lesson!).

First teacher upon returning: Wolfhart, one per week each from the first and third position sections.

Second teacher upon returning - Wolfhart, then when it became apparent that I was insanely bored and above Wolfie's level, they would give me three Kreutzer etudes at once (in numerical order. They kept me on the same etudes for several lessons at a time).

Current main teacher: lots and lots of rep and technique specific exercises ranging from Sevcik to Schradieck to Yost to Trott (all of which I love!), and now the Paganini Moto Perpetuo when I have time. No Kretzer (or other) etudes in the several months we've been working together. I'm fine with this, as I have limited practice time and would rather work on sections of repertoire as my "etude du jour" for the time being. If I could, I would spend three hours working on Schradieck alone, so to have Kretuzer on top of that would be insane for someone like me.

If I had more time to practice, I'd happily do one etude per lesson or two IF there was a purpose to the etude because I do think they are important.

April 30, 2019, 10:04 AM · I also did the Etude route, 1 per week, Wohlfahrt-Mazas-Kreutzer-Rode-then some of the Fiorillo and Dont Op. 35, supplemented by Sevcik. Etudes are our equivalent to weight-training for athletes. Do one technical item over and over for 1-2 pages for a week and the technique becomes permanent. There is another, old, approach that is out of fashion; The theme and variations pieces. The "Air-Varies" by several composers, Tartinis' bowing book is theme and vars., like the Sevcik 40 vars. Paganini #24 is theme & vars.
Edited: April 30, 2019, 11:38 AM · The not seeing the specific reason to assign an etude is on the teacher. Surely there are more and less useful etudes, but the point or points of the etude are evident in what aspects present the difficulty. Where a good sound is hard to make, or where intonation suffers, or some particular bowing technique that doesn't come off.

Etudes are where mindless technique connect to all the repertoire and to actual music-making. You can turn repertoire into etudes, but why spend all your time drilling repertoire into oblivion until you hate it, when you can do better, more concentrated work on the etudes, and spend less time and get more variety out of it?

I tried the Sevcik approach to the Wieniawski concerto, and while there were some great clarifying ideas on how to practice, it really turns the thing into a meaningless slog.

The making etudes out of repertoire thing also strikes me as a whole lot of reinventing the wheel. It makes more sense to me in the context of a high level student picking apart orchestral material in preparation for auditions than a teacher for some reason ignoring a treasure trove of existing etude material to go their own way.

Edited: April 30, 2019, 2:54 PM · From an album recorded by Steven Staryk called "Traditional Etudes Studies and Caprices"
"In my experience,both in Europe and North America,I have found these classics of the violin schools too often neglected,or simply misrepresented.They have either been utilized purely as a "system of note learning" or as a more pleasing substitute for the basic methods of Sevcik, Shradieck,Flesch,Dounis etc.,unfortunately lacking the same approach as that bestowed uoon the Caprices of Paganini.This has created a great gap,both musically and technically, in the development of too many of the present generation of fiddlers.These studies present a two- fold challenge besides acquainting the student with the development of the art and science of the violin; firstly that of imagination and fantasy in dealing with pieces of limited musical substance; and secondly, a clean and correct approach to the physical execution ,devoid of any mannerisms such as the outdated "salon" or more recent " commercial" styles , which create a false outward impression of temperment that is usually correspondingly superficial.
In all probability, the entire performimg repertoire including an ever increasing number of works of questionable value has been recorded.The present collection of Etudes-Caprices ,yet unreplaced in bridging the gap between the acquisition of a basic technique and the study for ultimate performance of music has been sorely neglected in every aspect; teaching, performing and recording."

I definetly studied Kreutzer, Rode Gavinies and Dont etc;with Staryk along with orchestral repertoire.It was tough but worth it.

Edited: April 30, 2019, 3:33 PM · This is probably nitpicking, but I think Etudes are not for learning some technique, but for further developing and ingraining that technique. What I mean is: take double-stopped octaves for example. You are not going to LEARN play double-stopped octaves, in tune, with a supple left hand, etc, just by diving immediately in Kreutzer #24, say. You first need to learn this separately, slowly, as exercises, and scales, jumping up in thirds, etc. After this is succeeding better and better, you can then indeed try the etude and get a hang for the technique and learn to apply it in a musical context. When you then later encounter them in a "real" piece, you have already gone through the experience. When learning a piece, it should be "only" learning the notes. The techniques should already be learned in exercises first, then trained in one or two etudes. Skipping the etudes and going straight from the exercises to the pieces, you end up hating various pieces and probably never performing them with satisfaction, effectively downgrading them to etudes, which is really a shame.
Edited: April 30, 2019, 8:45 PM · Some really great replies here. I believe many etude books are good because they segment various exercises that further the progress of a player. Whether it be working on 4th finger stretches, or double stops or 6th position shifting, each etude has a purpose behind it which is to make you better at doing something on violin that you weren't as good at before.

To answer your question though, TECHNICALLY I don't think etudes are 100% necessary. Here is why.

Technically you can find material in the violin repertoire that exercises various aspects of your playing. If there were no etude books in the world a motivated violinist COULD still progress at the same pace if they found appropriate pieces and scales.

But it would take more work finding a broad range of challenging materials where the purpose of etudes is to put various aspects of challenging materials together to make it easiest for the progressing violinist.

I use etudes with all my students, I heavily encourage them and work on them in my own studies. Technically they aren't needed but I believe they are a great tool to improve various parts of your violin abilities.

I recommend Wohlfahrt, Mazas, Sitt, Keizer, Kreutzer and more. These can all be found in the public domain.

April 30, 2019, 10:49 PM · Great responses. I should probably add that I *do* use etudes in lessons frequently, and the one example I gave where I asked the student "why?" in response to her requesting etudes was in reference for the fact that she just wanted any random etudes given to her, for no particular reason. Kind of a "I just heard etudes were good" sort of thing.

I don't want to give the impression that I never use etudes, but I have found that before book 4 or 5, I use them much less than after that point.

It seems that there is a correlation between concept isolation and playing advancement. As we get better, concepts need to be worked on in more and more of a separate way, and at a slower rate. But as beginners, the songs themselves are enough of a stimulus to cause effective growth.

May 1, 2019, 7:17 AM · I think studies are okay in moderation. Mostly though, time is better spent elsewhere. One of the downsides is when a teacher tells the student to play all notes evenly but does not add, that is not how you play music. Without this proviso we get technical and unmusical players. You can be lazy even though you are putting in the time - lazy in imagination and exploration. Studies can be one of those lazy yet time consuming things for both student and teacher. I advocate improvisation for many reasons (not just taking solos) and a very good use of improvisation is to noodle around a problem area. It's specific and creative and avoids the 'all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy (player)' syndrome. Having said all that, some studies are good. However, most study books seem to devolve into filler by about the 5th exercise and are usually compositionally weak. Learn tunes, learn lots of tunes, tackle the problems you come across in tunes then play the tunes to people!
May 1, 2019, 7:46 AM · RCM has mandatory studies as part of its examination requirements, which include traditional well-known ones as well as a number of more recent/modern inventions. And this requirement starts at the very beginning - before even grade 1!

However, my teacher, who also does RCM examinations, steered me away from an excessive focus on studies, preferring to teach me music - and not just the notes. And one of my son's RCM teachers, when assigning an etude, said that the first thing to do with the etude it to make it music. So good and necessary as they might be, they take second place in importance in the minds of our teachers to music.

ABRSM apparently doesn't have studies as part of the examination repertoire, although I'd expect their teachers to be using them at their own discretion in any case.

May 1, 2019, 7:50 AM · Are etudes absolutely essential to learning the violin? Probably not. But they are useful. Exercises are designed to isolate a problem and allow the student to solve it without having to handle simultaneously occurring challenges. In actual repertoire those extra challenges are always present and so the direct jump from exercise to some concerto is not easy to accomplish. This is where the etude steps in: A certain skill is deployed in a variety of musical environments, different keys, on all four strings, high up on the fingerboard, different types of melody etc. (depending on the nature of the main skill to be worked on). This way the etude is a bridge between exercise and repertoire.

If an etude is really well written it is also fun to play, basically repertoire in its own right. In this regard I find Mazas most convincing of the etude composers that I have had to work on over the years and have the book usually on my stand to use at the beginning and/or the end of a practice session.

May 1, 2019, 10:54 AM · "... she just wanted any random etudes given to her, for no particular reason. Kind of a 'I just heard etudes were good' sort of thing."

Probably the person had visited and concluded that etudes were good. She might also have seen the advice to ask one's teacher about such things.

Edited: May 1, 2019, 5:15 PM · I tend not to be interested in etudes unless they have enough musical merit to be used as an encore or as part of a solo recital - not that I'm likely to be in those situations, I hasten to add. For me, the etudes that come into this category include some of those by Rode. I'm not familiar with the Mazas etudes that Albrecht recommends; I'll try to remedy that deficiency.
Edited: May 27, 2019, 5:23 PM · After studying two concertos which I feel I am not playing at what i consider acceptable level, my teacher and I are working etudes almost exclusively. That together with orchestra rep ( which i take seriously) have taken pretty much all the time i have for practicing.
May 2, 2019, 7:27 AM · All books of etudes have some that are more musical and some that are more pedestrian and droll. There are a few Kayser and Mazas studies that are nice, several of the Kreutzers that one could perform (Heifetz did), but not very many from Dont or Sitt. I'm not up to Rode yet, but getting close.
May 2, 2019, 8:33 AM · Y'all got me to read through some Schradieck the other day, and I found that I couldn't play some parts of the first position etudes in tune without significant effort. My repertoire over the last 7-8 months has been Bach A minor, Kreisler P&A, Bach D minor, and Bruch G minor. But what good is it all if I can't manage simple first position? I'm going to bring this up with my teacher. Seems I've learned whatever finger patterns are in the pieces I've been playing, but can barely manage anything else. Any suggestion about what I might ask for?
May 2, 2019, 9:48 AM · hi Jocelyn if it can be of any comfort, the great violinist Leopold Auer admitted that he never succeeded in becoming fully comfortable in first position! about the effort you seem to require, this has most probably to do with your left hand position, not giving priority to the fourth finger, playing not enough on the fingertips, pushing the wrist too much away from you, and so on, so your teacher may certainly help you in experimenting a bit with left hand and finger position to become more efficient and comfortable. the book "The Violin Lesson" by Simon Fischer is great in this respect and many others.
May 2, 2019, 6:58 PM · Jocelyn when 90% of amateur violinists say they did Schradieck, they're talking about the first two pages. I agree with you that it gets harder, and that right soon. Schradieck intentionally puts hurdles in front of you in terms of awkward finger patterns, 4th-finger stretches, and other difficulties that are intended to increase the athleticism of your left hand (both hands but you feel it more immediately in your left).
May 3, 2019, 1:34 PM · Thanks for your soothing words, Jean and Paul. I don't think I have any of the left-hand problems you mention, Jean, but I have other problems, and it's been taking a long time for me, even with teachers, to really "get" how I might change them. Paul, yes it was the second Schradieck that got me panicked.
Edited: May 10, 2019, 3:33 AM · In my scheme of things, we have
- exercises: (drills, basics, urstüdien..) to concentrate on one thing at a time;
- sequential exercises: multiple transpositions, in key or modulating;
- scales & arpeggios (plain or "embroidered"): already combining several techniques. A scale is like a rainbow: beautiful but not "art"..
- études: all this skill applied to a real musical form, to educate our musical sense.

So I flatly refuse études which drift aimlessly with poor harmonic structure or form, or mindless figuration, polluting our brains. Life is too short!

Kayser, Mazas, but not Wolfhart.
Spohr, Kreutzer, Gaviniès but not Dont. (!)

In tackling repertoire directly, I will extract difficulties and turn them into mini-études "around" the problem, thus avoiding the risk of brain fatigue without adding superfluous material.

May 27, 2019, 2:34 AM · Logically, it must be physically possible to learn without studying etudes, but experience indicates that it's a lot easier if you do study them. I always made quicker progress during times when I put in the work to polish up my etudes, so I include them in my daily practice and cycle through the ones I consider to be the most important.
Edited: May 27, 2019, 6:57 AM · "And, are they sometimes just used as "busy work" when a teacher doesn't know exactly what else to assign? I felt that growing up, I was mostly assigned etudes for this purpose. It was never mentioned specifically why I was doing a particular etude, and they always seemed random, as if the teacher was just saying "eh, do this I guess."

I think that etudes should be assigned coupled with a piece we're working, having the etude a particular exercise that might prove to be difficult during the piece.
Doing etudes without clear purpose would be rather boring.

May 27, 2019, 10:23 AM · My teachers did not tell me either what the etudes assigned to me were supposed to be for. But I have to say that I found it quite easy to guess what the composer had in mind. And no, I don't think etudes need to be closely linked to repertoire pieces.

To me there is nothing wrong to study an etude on staccato and at the same time work on a Bach concerto where staccato does not occur.

On the other hand if an etude is musically boring (it happens) I prefer not to study it at all.

May 27, 2019, 10:47 AM · Etudes (a.k.a. studies) generally focus on overcoming specific technical challenges. Some etudes are simply a repetition of specific exercises, while others are masterful work of music in their own rights however aimed at exploring different technical issues. Perhaps we need to be more specific with regard to what is meant by etudes in the context of the OP's question. I take it as meaning exercises.
May 28, 2019, 11:02 AM · Studies/Etudes are surely valuable since (as mentioned above) they isolate one or two particular points of technique (one challenge of violin playing being that there are so many things to think about). A good teacher should be able to point you to the study that will help with a passage of repertoire. My teacher is noticeably more demanding with studies, and often says "again next week" when I thought it was sort of nearly good enough. Perhaps in the hope that I may eventually raise my own standards to match!

I once tried to engage a certain well known Canadian virtuoso in conversation in the stalls after his concerto performance, by asking what he thought of the Rode studies. He replied, as I recall, that he didn't know them. I was shocked!

Edited: May 28, 2019, 12:15 PM · I wouldn't be too shocked that a top soloist would be unfamiliar with any one particular book of studies. Our top soloists are mostly people who leapfrogged a lot of the etude-slogging by virtue of sheer talent, by which I mean they were somehow able to extract more learning from a smaller amount of assigned material and in a shorter time. Consider Hilary Hahn. One year she's a Suzuki kid performing Handel Sonatas, and a couple of years later she's at Curtis working on the standard concerto rep. Well that's a pretty big jump. Also, there are so many different study books that there isn't really time for one person to do them all.

I recently asked my teacher which Rode would be the best to start with. He flipped through the book rather casually, handed it back to me, and said, "No. 8."

May 28, 2019, 1:09 PM · Was that James Ehnes, Mungo? He's actually part of the reason this question originally popped into my mind, since he has talked publicly about how he doesn't do etudes (although I don't remember if he said he didn't do them as a child).
Edited: May 28, 2019, 5:34 PM · Mungo, you should never bother a virtuoso while they're concentrating or they might lose their place and need to start over.

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