ÉTUDES – how and why to practice them! by Eirik Hoel Sandvik
“You favorite piece is the one currently on your stand. That is your job! Period.”
When writing an article about how to practice it is inevitably going to result in a rather subjective train of thought. So I want to start off by saying that what you are about to read is my personal philosophy based on my own experiences and advices given to me by teachers I have had whom I respect immensely as flautists, musicians and most of all remarkable human beings. My focus here is on études, but whatever written here can be transferred to any piece of classical music if you want. I do believe 100 % that what I am about to say is the truth. But what is the truth? Certainly, the truth is a multifaceted thing with more sides to it, and I welcome you to disagree with anything I say*. The worst thing that can happen is that both you and I have used our brains and given more than one or two constructive thoughts to what it means to practice. If you are a young person who is studying with a wonderful teacher who contradicts me, please follow your teacher’s instructions and not mine. Many roads lead to Rome…
Anyways, now that that has been said, let’s begin:
The opening quote is what one of the flute professors I’ve had the enormous privilege of learning from insisted on when students of his complained they didn’t particularly like or enjoy the music in front of them. It has since become somewhat of a mantra for me to LOVE the music I’m playing, regardless of what it is, when it was written and who wrote it. When I today hear claims like for example “I don’t like baroque music” I find it a bit peculiar and even a little immature. Especially from flute players, considering that our repertoire isn’t the biggest compared to what e.g. singers, violinists and pianists have to choose from, and that we thus should cherish whatever music we have available and look for the good things in it.
As a professional musician you’re not always at liberty to choose what’s on your repertoire list. Be that if you’re in an orchestra, freelancing or even doing solo work, you’re most likely going to have to play what you’re asked to. For most of us the classical music business is not super lucrative financially and personally I’ve yet to experience the freedom to be picky. If you’re a music major (as the English speakers call it), I’m sure you have some pieces that you really love on your music stand right now and that you’re planning on working on them for quite some time (What a privilege by the way!!). The weekly études your teacher or professor is making you do in addition to those pieces is great practice when it comes to conquering new things often. It’s so healthy to ALWAYS change up your diet!! So take them seriously, and try to get through as many of them as you can while you have the chance to do so under the guidance of a good teacher!
Hence my first advice when working on anything is having the right ATTITUDE: how can you succeed at making magic unless you’re willing to be interested and adventurous, and without having the “drive” to learn something new about yourself? In my humble opinion, if you’ve already made up your mind about everything in life and music, it is going to be a lot more challenging, if not impossible, to have consistent motivation to practice and improve your abilities. I bet you too can agree that if you’re able to really love your études they’ll seem like less of a chore to do too? Make it a win-win situation:
Improve your flute skills and stay happy and positive while doing so! Yay!
One thing is mindset and attitude, but another thing is to be clever about it! As a silly example: say you’re going to visit a country you’ve never been to before… Would you simply just get on a plane and take it from there as you arrive at the airport? Or would you maybe look into a few things first: E.g. what language(s) they speak there? What clothes you need to bring? How will you find your hotel? Are there any cultural things you need to know about etc.? I do think that it’s a good idea to treat the process of learning a new piece of music the same way: Please know right away that your subconsciousness is a wonderful, wonderful friend. And that you can take advantage of it if you know how to dispose of your time. So be clever, find out as much as possible in advance, MAKE A PLAN and stick to it!
Ask yourself the following:
How long am I going to spend on this étude?
Adjust your expectations to when you’ll have the finished result to the answer to this question. If you’re planning to spend 6 days on the étude, then don’t beat yourself up for not being able to play through it without mistakes after the first or second or even third day. Schedule when to have the result, use the entire period efficiently and target your hard work on what exactly needs just that: hard work.
Does this étude have a form?
Most études are not written in free form but they have a shape, like most musical pieces do, often an ABA-form. This means that there’s very likely an opening section, a middle part and finally a last part which is identical or almost identical to the opening section. If you’re clever you realize then how to portion out your time (You probably shouldn’t have to spend an equal amount of time working on two identical passages).
What can I learn from this étude?
An étude is a piece of music and should be treated as such. But an étude is also an exercise which targets one or more specific challenges for the instrument which it is written for, be it triplets, octaves, legato, staccato, sostenuto, breathing and… you name it! Be aware of what part of the gym you’re in, if you’re doing cardio or weightlifting or something else. Reconnaissance where the most difficult passages are and be sure to spend more time working on these than on what comes easy for you (Time is money! Don’t waste any).
What is the right tempo for me?
If the étude has metronome markings, look away from them right this moment. Learn the Italian musical terms and focus on that: did you for example know that Allegro means Happy, not Fast? (Do you know the actual meaning of the word Staccato? I can tell you right now that Short is the not the correct answer, so go use Google Translate and find out!) The right tempo for you is YOUR TEMPO and what exactly that is will manifest at the end of your process. I always find it much more impressive hearing someone play all the notes with a nice even sound at a moderate tempo, still having capacity to phrase and follow the written dynamics and articulations, than a clumsy “this is how fast I can ALMOST play it” version. A bodybuilder didn’t become good at benching 150 kg by starting at 150 kg: they needed to lift a lot of 40 kg, 50 kg, 60 kg etc. etc. first in order to get to the seriously heavy weights, right? Velocity is like a muscle that needs to be built the same way!
To quote a children’s book character us Scandinavians hold very dearly, the one and only Pippi Longstocking:
“I have never tried that before, so I think I should definitely be able to do that”.
If you’re able to adopt that way of thinking you’re already on a good way to conquer the task at hand! But practice slowly and patiently and allow your good friend, the subconsciousness, enough time to get some work in too; don’t bang your head at the wall with the technical things but rather trust in that it will be better tomorrow if you gave it a fair and honest go today (I PROMISE!!). Then move on to the next task.
Personally, I’m someone who easily get bored in the practice room. Maybe you recognize the feeling of working hard on something specific and at a certain point your mind just swifts to other places? First of all, you are not alone about this. Second, this is when you take a break. Taking BREAKS is one of the most crucial parts of practicing and something we should offer a lot of awareness. Taking a break can mean going to lunch. It can also mean putting your flute down, opening a window for 3 minutes and check if you already follow @eirikflute on Instagram, answer an e-mail, meditate or something else that will clear your mind. You do not only take breaks to avoid injuries, but also to avoid getting bored. Remember that! – it goes right back to the point of having the right mindset and attitude, doesn’t it?
Spend no more than 60 minutes à day on your étude, and unless your teacher says otherwise: don’t dwell on it and move on to the next challenge! If it is a particularly difficult étude, find it again in 12 months and give it another go. Chances are it’s suddenly a lot more manageable! Why? – Because you improved!!
*Unless you’re my student. Then you better listen to me! Or else I will kick your butt! ;-)
About the Author
Eirik Hoel Sandvik comes from Tromsø, Norway. Eirik is a student of Torkil Bye, Benoît Fromanger, Vidar Austvik, Aldo Baerten, Peter Verhoyen (piccolo) and Lars Asbjørnsen (Norway, Germany and Belgium). His CV includes performances with many professional orchestras and ensembles both inside and outside of Norway and he performs regularly as a soloist. As a teacher Eirik has worked many years as a flute instructor for children, taught flute and music theory on summer courses in Norway and given masterclasses at L’École Normale de Musique de Paris in France.