Etudes. Technical exercises. Few enjoy them, but everyone benefits from practicing them. Understanding why we work on technique can make it a more engaging and productive experience.
Approach technical work as something that makes you a stronger musician, rather than as something to slog through so you can say you did it! Etudes tend to zero in on one or two aspects of musicianship, such as large intervals or staccato, and this allows you to get in a large amount of work in a short amount of time. Instead of encountering one large-interval leap in your music, you have a whole page of them to work on. Rather than one long slurred phrase that is challenging to get through in one breath, you have a whole etude full of them.
It's extra-concentrated practice.
When we have a good command of the skills of musicianship, we can use those tools to make our playing more expressive. Strive to be the player who can effortlessly transition from incredibly soft to very loud, who can create the cleanest attacks and most flowing legatos, all with a beautiful tone. This doesn't have to be a massive undertaking; it takes only a small amount of daily work if you practice technique in a mindful way.
One approach I like to use when working on etudes is to make a list of all the skills that the etude will help me improve. The one rule with this method is that musicality must always on that list. Let's see an example using the first etude from Andersen Op. 33 (click image for PDF download):
If I had to make a list of musical skills this etude would strengthen, I would start by sight-reading it and noting where it was difficult. (I have added some annotations in the image as examples.) If all the sections that are challenging have something in common, that's most likely one of the things that should be on your list.
After that, take a minute to see if there are any things that are repeated many times. That's usually another aspect to put on the list. (Work in pencil! You'll study the same etudes more than once in your career, but the things you strive to improve through working on them will change as you mature.)
My list for this particular etude would look like this:
Once you have your list, use it in your practice! Spend one day working on making your tone color just as beautiful in the middle register as it is in the high register, and spend another day focusing on getting dramatic dynamic contrast. Don't feel as though you have to work on everything all at once, or even in the same day. Spread out your work over the course of the week.
Above all, make etudes your tools! Don't be afraid to dig in and take ownership. Write in words, use colored pencils to define phrases, make it your own in every way you can think of.
A pristine, unused etude book is nearly useless.
I make photocopies of the etudes I'm working on so that I can write on them as much as I want. The image to the left is a marked-up version of the same etude we just analyzed above. (Click the image for a PDF download.)
I call this a study copy, and while I don't actually use it in performance, it's a useful starting point for figuring out what's going on in each etude. Once I get some insight from my study copy, I'll pencil an abridged version of those findings into my performance copy. For example, instead of the long pink lines representing phrases, I would write in breath marks at the ends of those phrases. (Breaths are usually indicated by either an apostrophe or small check mark.)
You can download the entire Andersen Op. 33 collection of etudes on imslp.org for free, since they are in the public domain. This particular set of etudes works well with this method of learning and is essential knowledge for anyone looking to study music in a college or conservatory setting. No matter what technical studies you decide to devote your efforts toward, take the time to examine them for all that they can offer you and strive to make them your own.
If you have any questions, comments, or requests for future posts, let me know!