Are Etudes Always Necessary?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
@Paul Deck that is so spot on about Viotti!
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?
The essence of what I've perceived so far in the responses:
@Erik Williams The earliest instance of an etude composer I can find is for Organ by Girolamo Diruta.
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.
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!).
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.
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.
From an album recorded by Steven Staryk called "Traditional Etudes Studies and Caprices"
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.
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.
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 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!
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!
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.
"... 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 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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).
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.
In my scheme of things, we have
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.
"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."
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.
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.
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 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.
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).
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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