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But, I Hate Exercises!

Patricia George | February 2011

Editor’s note: Throughout this article the terms exercises, etudes, and studies will be used interchangeably.

    I recently posted a request on Facebook asking for topics for this column. One reader responded that she had a young student who said, “But, I hate exercises!” The teacher wondered if I had ever experienced this situation and could I offer any suggestions.
    About five years ago a university student came in for a lesson and hacked her way through one of Henri Altes’ 26 Selected Studies. She was a gifted, intelligent flutist, but her note and counting mistakes led me to ask  her why we study exercises?
    As I waited for her answer, I mentally scanned through the possibilities of what she might say: to learn to perform in various style periods, to play in all keys, to conquer time signatures and rhythmic patterns, to expand dynamic control, to master articulation patterns, to develop good finger coordination, to breathe according to a plan, or just to become a better flutist. Instead she gave a weak, unfocused reply that demonstrated that her practice sessions focused on playing music she could already play well, rather than working on new challenges. Recalling the adage “You haven’t taught until they have learned,” I decided to take a new strategy in teaching etudes.

Three Part Lessons
    Generally, each lesson, whether  30, 45, or 60 minutes long, is divided into three parts:

1. Fundamental work
2. Etudes
3. Flute literature

    Fundamental work includes a basic warm-up, tone development, scales, thirds, arpeggios, and seventh chords. A variety of articulation patterns and counted vibrato cycle exercises are integrated throughout this section of the lesson. Materials for the fundamentals section of a lesson are based on Taffanel & Gaubert’s 17 Big Daily Exercises (Leduc), The Flute Scale Book: A Path to Artistry by George & Louke (Presser), or Walfrid Kujala’s Vademecum (Progress Press).
    The second part of the lesson devoted to etudes is what led both the young flutist and university student to express their feelings. The young flutist stated his aloud, while the university student just did not practice the material. The third part of the lesson dedicated to flute literature includes solos, chamber music (playing duets), and orchestral excerpts.

Long-Term Retention and Transfer
    Many educators say the purpose of education is for students to accurately recall, at a later date, something they have learned previously and use that information in another context. In educational terms this is called transfer. According to Halpern & Hakel “The single most important variable in promoting long-term retention and transfer is practice at retrieval.” (“Applying the Science of Learning,” Change, July/August 2003, p. 38-41)
The Purpose of Etudes

    Exercise study continues the objectives set out in the first part of the lesson – fundamentals of flute playing and theoretical study. Exercises are written in all keys with a variety of rhythms and technical challenges. In the fundamental portion of the lesson, students played scales and explored various ways to play them. Nancy Toff writes: “Having covered scales and intervals and combined them into daily technical exercises, it is time to go a step further. Etudes or studies are longer, more musical versions of technical exercises. They combine a number of technical challenges while setting them in a musical context. Some etudes are designed primarily to attack one technical problem; others concentrate on several areas.” (The Flute Book, Scribner’s Sons, New York 1985) In other words, exercise study takes everything learned from the first part of the lesson and repackages it into etudes. Through etude study we are teaching practice at retrieval.
    Practicing retrieval through etudes does not work, however, if there is little to retrieve or if the etude is based on something that has never been presented. For example, our two flutists probably do not know the material from the first part of the lesson very well. This means that the teacher should slow down and teach enrichment activities rather than advancing so quickly. This can be a challenge to make interesting and not repetitive.

The Scale

    Most of us would never assign a child all 12 major scales in one week. What if we designed a program for learning a scale that encompassed several weeks rather than the old one-scale-a-week-and-in-24-weeks-you-will-know-them-all concept? The first objective would be to continue in the chosen key until saturation is achieved.

Saturation in F Major

    How many ways can you think of to play an F Major scale? Here are some suggestions to get you started. (For a downloadable copy of a routine appropriate for high school flutists, see Patricia George’s Extras on the Flute Talk website.)

•    Play each pitch 4 times, using T, K, TK, HAH, and HAH slurred

•    Play each pitch 3 times, using T, K, TK, HAH, and HAH slurred

•    Play each pitch 2 times, using T, K, TK, HAH, and HAH slurred

•    Play each note with T, K, TK, HAH

•    Play the first note with T and divide the second note into 2s, TK

•    Divide the first note into 2s, TK and the second note with T

•    Play each note with 2, 3, 4, and 5 vibrato cycles

•    Play with the following articulation patterns:

•    Slur by 2s

•    Slur 2, tongue 2

•    Tongue 2, slur 2

•    Slur 3, tongue 1

•    Tongue 1, slur 3

•    Play in dotted rhythms (long, short, and short long)

•    Play each note T, K, TK, HAH or slurred up and down the scale

•    Play in the rhythms found in etudes and solo literature

    Basically, organize as many ways as you can to play the scale. Jot them down in a notebook or make a handout that explains the process for your students. Encourage students to compile their own list of practice strategies. Because over 95% of music is comprised of scales and arpeggios, repeated arpeggio study is also necessary.

Change In Curriculum
    To teach the concept of practicing retrieval, the final two-thirds of a lesson should be designed to stay in the  same key and meter (simple or compound) chosen in the Fundamentals section of the lesson. This is a very different concept from the pedagogical methods of the past. Most of us have chosen an etude book and taught the etudes in succession page after page. Some books are better for this type of instruction than others. The problem is that many etude books move from key to key around the circle of fifths (Andersen for example). They move students to the next exercise before they are totally familiar with the key at hand. I believe it is better to stay in the same key for several weeks before moving on. Key and rhythm saturation should be the goal to develop a strong foundation in young players. Then they have something to retrieve.
    In order to gather enough exercises in F major, students may be playing from several etudes books at any given time. The piano curriculum has done this for years. Every piano series has several books at each level. Because many of the best flute etude books are now in public domain, you may prefer to make an exercise packet containing exercises at the appropriate level and in the same key. Packets may also be assembled to focus on certain concepts, such as removing the left index finger on middle octave D and E flat.

Big Plan – Making A Lesson Packet

    For this concept to work, start by choosing a solo piece that is appropriate for the student’s level and note the key that it is in. Allow at least four lessons to perfect the solo. If it is in a major key, write down the tonic and dominant keys. If it is in a minor key, write down the tonic and dominant keys plus the relative major key. These are the keys to drill for four weeks in the fundamentals part of the lesson. Remember to drill scales, scales in thirds, arpeggios, and seventh chords.
    Next, select four or more etudes in these keys. If the solo has any unusual rhythmic concepts, find etudes that drill these rhythmic challenges. The student should feel that everything he works on in the first two parts of his lesson is leading to performing his solo well.

My Favorite Exercises
40 Studies, Op. 101 & 75 by Luigi Hugues
26 Selected Studies by Henri Altes
18 Exercises by Berbiguier
24 Exercises, Op. 33, 30, 63, 15 by Joachim Andersen
30 Caprices by Sigfrid Karg-Elert
26 Exercises, Op. 107
by Anton Bernhard Furstenau
12 Etudes by Casterede
12 Etudes by Bitsch
Etudes Modernes by Paul Jeanjean
24 Caprices by Nicolai Paganini
Complete Method by Soussman
Complete Method by Gariboldi
24 Exercises, Op. 15, 26, 37 by Theobald Boehm
Op, 33, 66, 75 by Ernesto Kohler
24 Studies based on the Works of J. S. Bach
Rotation of such works as Seven Daily Exercises by Marquarre and similar works by Wummer, Reichert, Wood, Barrere

How To Practice

    During the fundamental and solo parts of the lesson, I teach practice strategies. The etude part of the lesson is when I want students to apply what they have learned about practicing effectively. I ask them to keep a list of all the ways they have practiced the etude. When they return to perform the etude at their next lesson, I can see how well they understand the practice techniques and how well they are progressing in learning which technique to use where.
    I encourage students to prepare etudes as well as they can – as if they were going to play them in Carnegie Hall. Sometimes I offer students the chance to turn an etude performance into a recording project. Each week they bring their etudes on a CD or send them to me via email. This recording project forces them to listen critically. I had one student report she recorded a Karg-Elert caprice 37 times before she was satisfied. Her playing improved that week!

Poor Reading and Counting
    Occasionally a student is not successful in his etude preparation. If this is the case, analyze what the problem is. Perhaps the student is a slow or poor reader. If so, develop enrichment exercises to improve reading skills.
    I use the chunking technique with beginners. Chunking is a practice technique in which students play a small unit and then insert a rest before playing the next unit or chunk. During the rest they say the name of the next note. No chunk is ever too small or performed too slowly. Chunking by beat is a good place to start.
    Another exercise is to name the notes aloud with a metronome. Start with the metronome set very slowly and increase the speed on repetitions. At first omit rhythmic values of the notes; for example, treat all notes as quarter notes. Eventually say the note names in the printed rhythm.
    On subsequent repetitions have the student finger the notes as he names the notes to the metronome’s tick. If the student has rhythmic problems, ask him to clap the rhythms on his lap using both hands alternating. Another possibility is for the teacher to count one beat, and the student counts the next. Whatever games you can create will make the tedious process of learning to read and count more enjoyable.

Final Objective

    The final objective is to develop flutists who play well and are musical. This will occur when they are able to achieve accurate transfer. Remember,  transfer is the ability to accurately recall, at a later date, something that has been learned previously and be able to use this information in another context. To achieve this goal, we need to develop curriculum that is logical, concise, and useful so that retrieval will occur in every lesson.