When I was a young student, hearing my teacher say those words made my heart sink. An étude meant boring. dull and possibly difficult work that seemed unrelated to the music I wanted to play. As a piano student, I hated the Hanon book. And as a young harpist, I loathed the LaRiviere.
Piano technique is no longer something I concern myself with, and I have since come to respect and use the LaRiviere. In fact, some place along the line I learned the value of études. Études are part of my daily practice routine, and I now follow the good examples my teachers set, and I assign them to my students as well
Why are études so valuable? Surely we can practice technique in other ways, and études are almost always less musically rewarding than our regular repertoire. Here’s what I have learned about études:
1. They are all about helping you read faster, learn faster and play more fluently. Études contain patterns that are idiomatic for your instrument. As you practice the étude, your fingers learn how to play the pattern smoothly and well. Your mind begins make associations between the way the pattern looks on the printed page and how it must be physically executed. This forms a more or less “automatic response” so that when you come across that pattern in another musical context (like a “real” piece), your brain recognizes it, sends the appropriate signals to your fingers and you play it. Have doubts? Consider this: when was the last time you had to think about a scale fingering? (Or maybe you need to practice some scales…)
So an étude develops familiarity with the elements of music that are fundamental to your instrument. And here’s why études do that better than just working on technique and repertoire:
2. Études are an in-between step. They are a testing ground for your technique. Once you have developed a basic comfort level with a particular technique, you can try it out in an étude. An étude provides a controlled musical context for focusing on a single technique. That one technique will be used extensively in the étude, probably to the detriment of the musical quality of the étude. Yet, the étude has musical characteristics like dynamics and tempo that require you to step up the technique to more than just exercise proficiency. When you can perform the technique in an étude, it has been added to your “technique toolbox” and you will be able to use in your performance repertoire.
There are some other benefits to practicing études too. They don’t carry the pressures of preparing a piece for performance; they are merely to meet developmental goals. They are usually much shorter than repertoire pieces, so there is a quicker turn-around time to something new. And they help you develop your confidence in your reading skills and in your technique by keeping them in focus as you practice.
What is your favorite étude book? Tell me in the comments below…
NOTE: The Étude a Day Challenge is launching again Monday, March 31. Won’t you join us? Read about it here!