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Studying the Etude

Michel Debost | September 2012

   Etudes are different from basic playing fundamentals like scales or tone work. Fundamentals hone playing skills, day in and day out at any level. Etudes are temporary fodder, changing every week or at every lesson.
   It is said that Kincaid always required students to learn the Berbiguier 18 Exercises, whereas Marcel Moyse had a predilection for Andersen Op.15. I was told that Tom Nyfenger, my predecessor at Oberlin, insisted fanatically on “perfection” in etude performance. Perfection is something that I confess having never been able to accomplish, whether in an etude or in anything for that matter. Perhaps if there were etudes for flute similar to the ones by geniuses such as Chopin or Debussy which pianists play on concerts, I might reconsider.
   At every stage of our development, whether an amateur, student, or professional flutist, we want, or we are required, to play studies and etudes. While each etude is different, they all have something in common. They are supposed to facilitate our playing and are not designed to be performed in public.
   I used to think that at the professional or higher college levels, long etudes were necessary (Andersen Opus 60, the de Lorenzo, or the Koehler Opus 107) to build up endurance. But long etudes of four, five, or six pages are not realistic. They are deliberately repetitive, and monotony is the mother of boredom. In my later years, I have come to the conclusion that a three- or four-minute time span is the optimal length (or even shorter for the aspiring flutist), such as Andersen’s 24 Progressive Studies or Etudes in all keys.
   The best road to good playing is to play relatively easy and familiar basics (moderately fast scales, with occasional bursts of speed (the Scale Game) in all imaginable articulation patterns and comfortably timed tonal arpeggios (M.A. Reichert #2 and #4 in his 7 Exercices Journaliers) freely and lovingly phrased with the fingers. Difficulty and error are forgivable under stress (and in long etudes), but there is no excuse for imperfection in simple patterns.
   Etudes are great sightreading projects. They are exercises in concentration, will power, and the art of approximation. It is amazing to see how many people start practicing even before looking over the hurdles at hand. For  sightreading, a methodical approach is in order, albeit in a very short time:
What is the title?
Who was the composer?   
What is the tempo and meter indication?
What is the key (and its changes)?
What is the basic rhythm unit (quarter, eighth)?   
What are the fastest runs or the slowest values?
How does it start? What is the character of the melody?
Are there fermatas? Rallentando/
Accelerando indications? Repeat, D.C. or D.S markings?
What are the dynamics?

   Answering these questions will provide a strategy to tackling a study. For an etude, this preliminary survey should be refined with pencil in hand. Have a secret sign for marking chromatic passages (you won’t even have to read them); a marking you use when one line of music is played in two voices (Andersen, Op. 15, No. 3), a marking to indicate when you should use a special fingering such as the Thumb B flat. Mark breaths even if you change your mind later and redo them. Be wise in this respect as there is no championship reward for record breath holding in an etude. You may wish to write in a few accidentals and do pay attention to the key of each passage to avoid many wrong notes.
   Play the etude at the start of the day’s practice. Make a commitment to play to the end of the exercise without stopping. Say to yourself, “I won’t stop, repeat, I won’t stop.” Read ahead. The old sailing ships had a saying, “One hand for the ship, one for the sailor.” For musicians, it would be, “One ear for the playing, one EYE for the reading.”
   At the end of the read through, circle in pencil the passages where you goofed, but do not practice them yet.
   When you work on an etude, start the practice from the end, line by line. It is common to know the first six lines of a study quite well, but run out of concentration and think of anything but the matter at hand as you approach the recapitulation and its changes. I speak from past experience.
   Concentration is the most difficult thing to acquire and to teach. Three or four minutes of intense mental focus are more important than the repetition in bringing an etude to “perfection.” Developing concentration is one of the rewards of sightreading (prima vista). The purpose of the etude is an improvement of the brain, not necessarily the technique.   

A Selection of Etudes
Berbiguier: 18 Exercises
Bohm: 24 Caprices, Op. 26
Andersen: 24 Exercises, Op. 15, 21, 33
Bach-studien: 24 Concert Studies based on J.S. Bach’s works (Universal)
J.S. Bach: Obbligatos from the Cantatas (F. Vester/ Universal)
Donjon: Eight Etudes de Salon
Fürstenau: Le Bouquet des Tons, Op.125 (Some of my favorites..)
Paganini: 24 Violin Caprices (J. Herman/Wummer)
Karg-Elert: 30 Caprices, Op. 107
Bitsch: 12 Etudes