How to Practice Etudes without Losing Your Sanity

technique Oct 09, 2016

Does practicing your études drive you crazy?

Maybe you feel like it’s a waste of your valuable or limited practice time. Maybe you don’t see the point. Or maybe you’d just rather be playing something else.

I remember dreading the études I was assigned to practice on the piano and the harp. I didn’t really understand why I needed them. It seemed more like a punishment than music.

When I began teaching, I understood études in a completely different way, and I have to say that I value them not just for my students, but for myself too.

So why do I think études are so helpful?

Études test our technique in three ways: technical facility, usually one particular aspect of technique; speed; and stamina. They provide a streamlined musical way to develop all these areas without the distraction of learning the varied and changing note patterns in more complex music.

I think they are our musical “stepping stone,” a link between technique-focused exercises and the demands of the repertoire we want to play. Because études usually have a fairly one-dimensional musical aspect, they allow us to pay more attention to how our technique works. They are a testing ground for our technical development; we are utilizing our technique in a musical context, but we aren’t so involved in the music that we can’t concentrate on our technique.

But they are stepping stones, not the end of the journey, and so I believe we have some flexibility about how much time, energy and effort we spend on them. I don’t think that hammering away at one étude week after week to try to perfect it is the best way to better technique or musicianship. That’s more likely to drive you crazy.

I think you can get the benefits of practicing études in much less time than you think, and in a way that will let you develop not only your technique, but also a greater understanding of your instrument and the music you love to play.

First, a disclaimer. If your teacher has a study plan for you involving études, then please follow your teacher’s plan. You can still use my steps to help you get even more from your étude practice.

Here is the basic premise: études don’t have to be polished and perfected for performance. Unless you’re learning one of the great concert études (in which case, none of these steps apply), you are learning the étude for the benefits I described above, and the étude doesn’t have to be “finished” for you to get those benefits.

So you don't have to practice one étude for weeks, the way you would a regular piece of music. You simply need to figure out the main point of the étude, practice it and move on to the next. You can always come back to it. You’re feeling relieved already, aren’t you? Good. Let’s get started.

Every étude shines the spotlight on one technique. Identify the technique featured in the étude. Is it a scale or a chord pattern or a fingering pattern? Practice that technique alone, choosing a couple of measures from the étude. You can choose a couple of measures for each hand if you like. Then choose two longer passages from the étude and practice those in three ways: slowly to check your technique, at tempo to develop your speed, and at different dynamic levels to check your musicality and control.

Be sure to give yourself a time frame. How much time do you want to devote to this étude each day? How many days will you spend on it? Remember your goal is to learn the technique, not the étude. Sometimes halfway done is better than worked to death.

Also, you get more benefit in the long run from exploring a large repertoire of techniques. Working through an entire étude book and practicing only half of each étude will be a more complete technical education than focusing your efforts on only one or two études. What does it matter if your scales are wonderful if the next piece you learn calls for arpeggios?

One more quick tip – there are dozens of wonderful étude books around, no matter what instrument you play or what level player you are. Find a book that you enjoy musically. Études can be beautiful too!


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