Dirtied Tissue Paper – A Gross Analogy
On a fundamental level, I really do not believe in practicing etudes. There are very few etudes I will waste my time working on today and I have a very good reason for my policy. I consider practicing etudes a waste of time when I should be spending that time and effort preparing real musical literature that will be performed in public.
Why then do I make my students practice etudes?
I like to assign etudes to my students because they are disposable. The mistakes the students learn while they are preparing the etudes will not haunt them for the rest of their lives the way errors in preparation will haunt them on performance literature. To communicate the disposable nature of etudes, I often use the gross analogy of a dirtied tissue paper. You blow your nose in it then throw it away. To me, etudes are just like that. You make your mistakes on the etudes then you throw them away, never needing to continue working on them or to perform them.
Why would we ever need musical tissue paper?
Because in the beginning, the most important thing the students need to learn is how to practice. That is what I emphasize most for any student from an intermediate level and below. We use etudes to practice practicing so they will develop those skills well enough to master any and every work of literature that they learn in the future. The goal is to give them the skills to learn a piece of music flawlessly (which almost every student I have ever taught is capable of accomplishing), with zero mistakes and absolute confidence.
I believe this is the only way to practice if you truly want to play well. The old saying that “practice makes perfect” is not good enough. Those who know better always modify the old saying to read, “perfect practice makes perfect.”
But perfect practice is a skill set that does not come naturally to most people. It’s something that requires time and effort to learn, and we don’t always seem to get it right in the beginning. That’s why the etudes are so important. Yes, they are a waste of time. You will not typically perform an etude in public (there are exceptions – Charlier #2 comes to mind). But while we are learning the art of practicing, it is better to practice those skills on music that you will never be asked to play in public. As you master those skills, we will shift the emphasis in your lessons further away from etudes and deeper into the performance literature.
I can understand why some of my students may become confused sometimes. I have different rules for different situations depending on the objective of what we are doing. There are times when I tell the students, “it doesn’t have to be perfect.” Other times I will demand a level of perfection from them that takes them literally months to achieve. There are times when I will tell them to never stop for mistakes and other times when I tell them to always stop for mistakes. There are times when I will pass off an assignment because it was good enough when it actually sounds horrible. At other times I will be very stubborn and never pass it off until it sounds beautiful.
These contradictions are rooted in the objectives for the assignments. The fact that an etude is disposable means that, generally speaking, it doesn’t have to be perfect for me to pass it off (sometimes I don’t pass it off – but simply delete it from the assignment list because the students practiced so poorly that it becomes impossible to fix all the problems they practiced into the music). Most good etudes have an educational objective. “Etude” is a French word for “study.” If the etude is a study in articulation and you master that aspect of the etude, but maybe your phrasing was a little off or the rhythms were inaccurate, I will probably pass it off anyway. In contrast, I will never pass off a performance work if it isn’t performance ready.
A Musical Objective
Of course, the objective to everything we do in the lessons is to give you the skills to go where you want to go. Sometimes it is difficult for the students to see how all the rules translate into meeting that objective. I do try to explain it, many times over and in as many different ways as I can. However, sometimes it is still not enough and the students feel sidetracked, as if they are wasting time on music that they will never perform in public.
My answer to their impatience is always the same. The things that I assign have musical objectives and their end results are always greater musical skills – which equals increased musical satisfaction. Anyone can just “try to play the music.” What I am trying to give you is the joy of being able to achieve all of your musical dreams with the least investment of time and effort (also known as practice efficiency). When I assign etudes in your lessons, it is for the purpose of giving you the skills you need to reach for those dreams.