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MUS654 Session 4: Studies and connecting material

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Technical studies: learning the ropes.

In every discipline there are specific technical skills that need to be drilled, and these can cover anything from combinations of pitches that traverse different regions of the instrument, physical challenges of dexterity, pattern work, understanding aspects of articulation, speed drills, to lessons in control and evenness of sound production.

The rise of the ‘Study Book’

When did these spring up? It is different with every instrument, but whenever the instruments began to be adopted by the people, as a pleasurable pursuit – then the instructional volumes began to appear.

In the 1600’s came the first tutor/study/etude books, as described here in a history of lute music. It is interesting that the writers stress that the secrets of playing were not communicated in these sorts of publications, but only from the masters to their (paying) students. These books had basic instructions, and various musical exercises that span basic fundamentals:Screen shot 2014-09-28 at 17.52.13

and even in the same violin treatise, that can be accessed here by Francesco Gemanini (1751), the extremely elaborate: Screen shot 2014-09-28 at 17.53.18


Task: What is out there for your instrument? 

Make a list… Most people have learned a handful of etudes, or study pieces, and have heard of a few composers who are well known for writing this sort of material, but unless you go digging, chances are you really won’t know what’s out there. There is a GREAT resource with the IMSLP Petrucci Music Library, which is a collection of hundreds of thousands of copies of sheet music that are in the Public Domain. There are still going to be many works that are staples for your instrument that are not available over the internet, and it is important to know about these as well. Come up with a list, and arrange it by composer, by difficulty, by publication date – however you like, just create this resource and make sure you make a note about each entry – ‘beginning level short studies focusing on finger technique’. Something that will help you to remember what they are, as you will most likely not have played them all. 

There are a host of different publications and there is a funny distinction between studies and pieces, or repertoire. The most basic being that repertoire is conventionally meant to be performed, and studies are for learning something specific… but what about the famous studies that are regularly performed? Liszt Transcendental Studies? Paganini Caprices? Chopin Etudes? What is the difference between a ‘study’ for study, and one that you would perform?

Task: blog it.

Discuss…. and make your case for the difference, the reason why some can be performed and others – no way. 

So what about learning?

8372010144_7b2fc2b090_zIf I want to be a chef, I don’t want to just learn about the different ingredients for baking a cake, I want to cook it, and until that synthesis is complete and understood, I am just a keeper of ingredients. (Photo: CC licensed




but if we connect the dots, we can be chefs one day…


Learning involves connection:

We have three interviews with three violinists. Each has a very different perspective and each has valuable ideas for us to take away.

Is ‘the study’ about the notes?

Well, yes, you have to know how to put your fingers in certain places to play what is on the page, but surely that isn’t the entire point, or if it is, that is a very limiting outlook. Dr. Lisa Chu speaks about her own experience with shifting her perspective away from striving to replicate something that is put before her, to becoming alert and alive to her own creative processes.

Listen to the 20 minute interview with Lisa here.

This doesn’t mean that published material goes out the window, but it is up to you as the teacher, as the one who is leading the student, to be aware of the processes at work, and of the potential purpose of the exercise. Sometimes it takes a paradigm shift so playing the piece stops being about the piece and becomes about something else. It becomes a tool to facilitate learning, and allows the student to do what they might not have otherwise let themselves do.

The shift that Dr. Chu has been able to achieve has taken years and a great deal of ALLOWINGaccepting, and exploring, and perhaps that is not what everyone is after at this moment in their learning lives, but as with everything in this course, a core tenant is to question our existing knowledge, and to develop the tools that will enable you to develop a year of study that is relevant for your student (or even for yourself).

How do you connect with your musical study material? 

Improvising is a classic example of something that is not just about putting down the notes. It appears to many people far removed from reading off the printed page, and many people do not see how this can be accessed or made useful to those of us not raised in that culture. Duane Padilla explains how he uses improvisation with his classical and non-classical students. He makes surprising connections between classical études and popular styles of playing. Duane traces his learning and teaching through repertoire material and the input from various performers and teachers, while reinforcing the need for developing fundamental skills, and introducing ways of fostering and encouraging that growth in others.

Listen to the 23 minute interview with Duane Padilla here. 

It’s up to us.

In our third interview for this week, we hear from the classical violinist Oxana Dodon, who explains how her research led her to adapt and use traditional, published études and study material to link directly to learning specific performance repertoire. She stresses the importance of

  1. having a purpose when learning this material and
  2. considering it’s relationship to other learning goals – for example, repertoire

Listen to the interview with Oxana Dodon here.

Oxana illustrates these in a performance of the two works in question:


Task: What can we do about it?

Take an example of a study for your instrument and explain it. Why would you learn it? Is there a direct relationship to other core material that you might also be learning? If so, how? and how will you bring out these connections for the student? If not… then how can you adapt it to be more directly connected?


Top Tip:

Resources do not have to be the most challenging performing level to be meaningful. Consider folk music. Many tunes are within the public domain and because of the accessible nature of these songs they are fantastic for singing, for building onto and adapting.

Here is a resource of ‘tune-books’ that are available on the internet.


Task: Link it up.

Use a simple folk song and show how it could be adapted to become a technical exercise that is directly related to a piece of repertoire. Now adapt it in a different way to be relevant to a different piece of repertoire. It does not have to be at a high level. The skill is being able to identify the underlying technique, present it, and allow the student to see the connection. 


and one last controversial view to get those reflective thoughts flowing… Here is violinist James Ehnes explaining:

“I never practise scales and studies from books” 

in this short (two minute read) article that appeared in The Strad Magazine in October 2014. 

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3 thoughts on “MUS654 Session 4: Studies and connecting material”

  1. Pingback: Making connections -

  2. The difference from ‘performance’ studies and ‘practice’ studies is the player themselves. All studies could be turned into performance practice, it just depends on how you play it, You could take a really simple study and add your own musical interpretation of it. Add dynamics, phrasing, add rits, accels, pauses,you could even, if your ability allows, compose a simple piano arrangement to accompany it. This, is also a good way for pupil to start to learn how to start to put their own stamp on pieces rather than just play the notes in front of them. Obviously, it may not been to the same level or have the same performance affect as studies written for such purpose such as Paganini Caprices. If musicians can find music in everyday words and speech (poetry, rap) why not studies? Surely the best of musician can make anything into a performance?

  3. Pingback: Linking it up: #MUS654 Week 4 is here! -

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