The Etude Challenge: Re-Discovering my Technical and Creative Confidence

The life of a London orchestral player is fast-paced and stressful, stretching one’s sight reading and quick-processing skills to the limit in order to handle more concerts, on fewer rehearsals, than any other orchestral scene on Earth. While a career of sprints develops a unique skill set in musicians here, a hectic schedule of short-term and urgent preparation for individual performances can exhaust us. While a few seasons can cram a remarkable amount of specialized repertoire into our heads, it is all too easy to lose one’s own perception of sound production, technique, and creativity. Certainly our love of playing can also diminish as it becomes intrinsically linked with daily work and one-shot performances. Making time for practice, particularly for the sole sake of personal improvement, can be difficult if not impossible without sacrifice.

In the past few months I have felt this loss of focus very deeply. As my schedule becomes more demanding than ever before, which of course has its rewards, I am at risk of losing my technical precision, my adventurousness, and my love of solo playing due to my own time management. 

In order to counteract this, I’ve made a pact to learn an entire book of solo studies, or Etudes. Perhaps more than one book, but I will begin with Bartolomeo Campagnoli’s book of 41 Solo Caprices, transcribed from violin to viola by William Primrose.

I’ll take as long as I need to work through each one, in order to regain my technical confidence and with it my love for producing my own unique sounds and creative ideas. So far, I’ve done four, and already I am seeing a marked improvement in my upper position technique, sound production in high positions and on low strings, and control of tone color. I’m even noticing an increased variety of tone colors I can produce, which widens my repertoire of sounds from which to draw and helps me better express particular ideas in each phrase.

I’m holding myself to higher technical an musical standards than I ever have, and this is reviving my love of my instrument and the time I spend playing it.

In my future articles I will reflect on my experience with each of the etudes I am studying. I hope that my reflections will serve as useful tools for students and clarify my own vision of how to best teach etudes and studies, which can seem boring and tedious but are invaluable tools in synthesizing technique with creative intent.

Tune in next week for Caprice no. 1, which explores the viola’s most resonant key of C.

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