There are etudes, and then there are etudes.
In harp pedagogy, we have the basic fundamental studies like the Pozzoli etudes in the Grossi Metodo per Arpa and the flashy concert etudes of Zabel and Posse.
For those more familiar with the piano repertoire, these translate roughly as Czerny studies and Chopin etudes.
In fact, Chopin is likely the name we associate most with etudes, no matter what instrument we play. Chopin wrote 27 studies for the piano in the 1830’s and these works are legendary for their technical demands and musical depth.
But not all etudes are like that.
Some are written specifically to help us develop our technical skills. These are usually less musically rewarding, much shorter and less interesting to practice.
Still, etudes have been considered an important component in musical training for centuries. For instance, the keyboard studies written by 16th century Italian organist Girolamo Diruta (c. 1554-1610) are still considered significant today.
Despite their long history of usage, etudes still are a subject of debate among many teachers and students. Are they worth the trouble?
What is an Etude?
In its simplest form, an etude is a short composition with a single technical focus. Its purpose is to develop and test one aspect of technique in a musical setting.
I usually tell my students that etudes are the link between exercises like scales and arpeggios and our repertoire. Scales and arpeggios and the like allow us to perfect the basic elements of our technique. Repertoire is the ultimate challenge to our technique and the reason we develop our technique in the first place.
But etudes give us a proving ground for our technique, a chance to test drive it. Think about a race car driver testing his new car on a test track. He doesn’t just put it in the race and hope he knows how to handle it well. He tests it out, simulating the race conditions but at the same time, limiting the scenario. He doesn’t have the distractions of the other drivers or of the checkered flag. He can concentrate on everything about the car.
In the best case, simple etudes (as opposed to the flashy concert type) work the same way. They allow us to test drive the technique we are developing without the distractions of more complex note and rhythm patterns and more compelling music.
In a word, this kind of etude, even at its best, is not supposed to be too interesting.
Which is why it is tempting to skip etudes altogether.
Why Etudes Are Worth the Trouble
In most cases, the issues that etudes aim to resolve will crop up in “real” music, in the repertoire you need to learn. It is certainly possible to isolate the passages that test your technique and turn them into technical studies. This has the benefit of hitting two targets at once: you develop the technique and learn the piece.
However, workingsystematically through a book of etudes will develop your technique more thoroughly, instead of in a case-by-case, more haphazard way. These books bring method and order to strengthening your technical foundation.
I find that many students balk at the idea of working through a book of etudes. I know I did as a young student. I didn’t see the point.
Etudes My Way
In my teaching now, I try to help my students understand the role that etude practice plays in their development, and I make them a promise: if they will practice the etude exactly the way we agree upon, then one week is all we will spend on that etude.
Our purpose is not to work one etude to perfection. Our real goal is to develop the student’s technique in as many ways a possible.
Technical fluency doesn’t come from being able to do one thing perfectly. It is built on a variety of experiences and study in multiple skills.
Plus, when we spend only one week on an etude, we can work on 40 to 50 etudes in the course of a year, which produces tremendous technical growth and develops musicianship skills like note and rhythm reading. So not only do students play better technically, but they are better musicians as well. To me, that is the most compelling reason to include etudes as part of anyone’s music study.
For the more advanced student or the professional, reading through an etude book, one etude per day, is a very effective way to keep your skills at peak efficiency.
And there’s one more advantage to etude practice, as noted in this article by Frederic S. Law in The Etude Magazine in April, 1909:
One phase of keeping up a small group of thoroughly prepared studies deserves consideration, and that is the relief to the ears of the player and to those of this hearers from the monotony of purely technical exercises… This is no small advantage to the ambitious student who happens to be surrounded by those not in sympathy with his technical strivings.
In other words, your neighbors will thank you!