3 Steps to Master the All-State Etudes

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by Eddie Lewis

How to Learn All-State Etudes

I’m going to share with you three of the first four steps to learning your All-State etudes. I currently teach my students “seven stages” and what I’m going to show you here are three of those stages.

We won’t go into a lot of detail. I have been teaching these steps for decades now and there are special tweaks to the method that I teach my students. You don’t necessarily need those tweaks to use these three steps. That said, if you are interested, they are discussed in great detail in a book that I am working on. I don’t have a name for it yet, but it should have some reference to “stages” in the title.

Jay Herder All-State Etudes
An old photo of me working with Jay Herder.

Step One – Study the Music

Look before you leap!

The first step is to study the music.

The absolute worst thing you can do when the music is first released is “try to play it”! Do not forget that this is a competition, and the competition is not, “who learned the etude fastest”.

The idea behind studying the music before you play it is to decrease the number of mistakes you make when you are practicing.

Listening Without Reading

One of the first things you want to do is listen to the all-state etudes without looking at the part. Let the music soak into you ears. You want to hear it so well that you can hum or sing along and pretty much get the right pitch and rhythms.

Listening With Reading

Next you want to listen to the all-state etudes while you are following the part. During this process, resist the urge to finger along with the part. What you want to do is let the written notes connect mentally, so that what the music looks like triggers a concept of what it sounds like.

If you try to finger at this stage, and finger it wrong, you run the risk of not performing your best at the final auditions.

Other Forms of Study

For the rest of this stage, you want to dig deeply enough into the music that you know what you are doing before you begin practicing. One thing you want to look out for is skills you don’t posses yet. For example, if you are not 100% confident playing in four sharps, and the etude is in four sharps, then it is best to master that key first. If you jump into practicing the music before you master the key, you WILL have wrong notes.

We recommend the Tonalization Studies for mastering keys. These are not scale exercises. They are key exercises. When you do them correctly, the Tonalization Studies help you think in the key. When you can think in the key, you miss fewer notes when you are practicing.

There are a lot of things like that, things that you want to master before you begin practicing the music.

One more example is effects in the All-State Jazz Etudes. Master the effects first. Don’t try to learn them in the context of the etude.

Of course, it would have been better if you had learned all those skills before the music was released. But that’s okay. If you still have skills you need to work on, don’t worry. You can still make this work. Just be very careful.

Step Two – Work Backwards

Working backwards was something I was taught for learning how to memorize music. The basic concept is that, instead of starting at the beginning and learning material as you head to the end, you begin at the end and work you way to the beginning.

I use this approach not only for memorizing music, but also for when you first learn a piece of music. I believe there is no better way to learn a new piece. We won’t go into the reason why it is so good because that information is going to be in my stages book. Just trust me, it is the best way to begin practicing a new piece.

I won’t tell you all my tweaks in this article or in the video, but I have some good ones. For now, it’s good enough for you to understand the basic concept:

  1. Master the last measure.
  2. Master the second to last measure.
  3. Put them together and master the last two measures.
  4. Master the third to last measure.
  5. continue this pattern…

Working backwards is a lot like working forward. You just start at the end.

And for those who might be thinking it, no, you do not play the music backwards. You play the music forward, but you start practicing at the end.

Step Four – Repeat with No Stops

We skip step three in this article and video because it’s rare for someone to need step three in the context of working on All-State Etudes. If you’d like to know more about step three, then buy the book when it comes out.

Step four is to play the entire etude with no stops, as if you are in a mock performance. Do this many times (with rests between of course).

The purpose of this stage is to connect all of the music so that it feels like a complete piece. Play the music through many times without stopping. The goal is to strive to make it as beautiful and expressive as you want it to sound in the audition.


Now you have three of the seven stages I teach my students. These seven stages have been helping my students make All-State for decades. It’s really amazing to see these things work the way they do.

Think about it, by following just these three steps, you prevent 90% of the bad habits must students have when they practice their All-State Etudes. And the good news is that the more students who practice their all-state etudes this way, the better the band is going to sound!

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