No pianist’s alphabet would be complete without an entry on the Étude or “study” – the short piece, often considerably difficult, designed to provide practice material for perfecting a particular musical skill or technique.
The practice of writing études developed in the early 19th century alongside the growing popularity of the piano. Many of us will remember working on studies by the likes of Clementi and Czerny as young piano students. But it was Fryderyk Chopin who elevated the student study into a work of great artistry and beauty, turning humble exercises into glittering concert pieces, and his Opp. 10 and 25 Études remain amongst the most popular works written for piano. Other notable composers of Études were Liszt, Alkan, Rachmaninoff and Debussy, and the practice of writing piano études has continued into the modern era with composers such as Ligeti, Cage, Kapustin and Glass.
Many people swear by études and studies as part of their daily practise regimen and some sets of études enjoy near-legendary or infamous status such as those by Czerny, Hanon and Brahms. Easier études by Heller and Burgmüller, which suit the intermediate pianist, offer technical challenges within an interesting and enjoyable piece. Debussy pokes fun at Clementi’s Gradus ad Parnassum in his Dr Gradus ad Parnassum but he also wrote a series of études which present different technical challenges within each piece, thereby following in Chopin’s footsteps.
Exercises should never be practised mindlessly. Try to play even the most dry exercises musically and appreciate how such exercises relate to actual repertoire. Having submitted to exercises by Cramer and Czerny as a young pianist, I now eschew such studies and prefer to create exercises out of the music I’m working on, though I have found Brahms’ studies useful.
Chopin’s études are incredibly satisfying to play because of the composer’s deep appreciation of the mechanics of the pianist’s hand and the desire to play beautiful music.
To do them, or not to do them? As a piano teacher, I’m amazed how the word can cause a pupil to shiver, even before they know what it’s like to take a music exam! It seems that human instinct often hones in on the negative feelings before the positive ones, and in the case of music exams, this is clearly not helpful.
The bizarre thing about music exams is that they are treated as a permanent record, but they are only measuring one performance at one moment in time. One of the things I’ve learnt as a professional performer is that every performance will be different and that some will be ‘better’ than others, no matter how hard you try to make all of them your best yet.
Exams also invite direct comparison between people, which can be awkward. I’ve had pupils who work hard and play extremely musically and convincingly, yet their fear or lack of enjoyment in performing affects their willingness to perform in public, or their marks if they take an exam. You can tell them ‘til the cows come home that there is as much value in their playing as that of their friend who regularly gets distinctions in exams, but they will struggle to believe you.
On the other hand, some of the best work my pupils have done is when they’ve had the deadline and motivation of an exam. They seem to prefer taking an exam to giving an informal performance amongst friends and peers, precisely because they’ll get a certificate at the end of it! Teachers often tell stories in disbelief of parents who have provided the books for the next grade straight after an exam has been sat. But it was much more memorable when a reluctant performing pupil of mine sat her Grade 1 and straight away asked when she could start on work on her Grade 2.
In amongst studying other repertoire and taking up other opportunities to perform, exams are a great learning tool. As well as motivation, exams encourage disciplined preparation – a valuable skill for life, never mind learning an instrument. I’ve had some of the greatest laughs when a pupil and I have been working in great detail, or at a great pace, because we’re inspired to achieve our best together.
Controversially, I believe the marked results are not the thing. Of course, we all like to know what someone else thinks of our performance, and it’s extremely useful for teachers, pupils and parents to have an independent view on our musical performance. But for me, the best result is the personal and musical development of each pupil, and their awareness of that. I’ve been more proud of a pupil scraping a pass at Grade 5 than others achieving distinctions – because I understand the amount of effort and work that each pupil has put in. You can’t beat the beaming smile of a pupil who realises they’ve worked really hard and it was worth it. If an exam can bring wide grins, then let’s remember that and talk about it instead of shivering and creating anxiety.
Elspeth Wyllie, pianist, accompanist and coach, teacher