Getting Lost in the Etude Maze

by Mary Galime

Imagine it’s October, and if you live near a rural area, there is a really good chance you have ventured into a corn maze before. You start the maze eager to see how fast it takes you to get through. You are excited and rush forward into the maze eagerly anticipating the challenge. 45 minutes and uncountable dead ends later, you are tired and frustrated, questioning the shoes you wore, hungry, and ready to ask for help.

Thankfully, there are people in watchtowers who can see you in the
maze and direct you to the correct path. To them, they can easily see
the path of least resistance. With their overhead view, they have a much
better ability to get from the beginning of the maze to the end than
you do on ground level.

Learning a new etude is very similar to this. You get assigned Arban’s Characteristic study No. 1. You start at the beginning and start reading it down. Of course you checked the key signature, and rhythmic structure to help you with your road map. It’s a lot of arpeggios, how hard can it be?

After the first line, you start running out of air and make a mistake. You stop, breath, blaming the mistake on running out of air (note to self…. Write in where I’m going to breath). One line later you stop again because those descending triplets are a little harder to play than you thought (note to self… practice triplets). Next it’s the accidentals.

And so it goes. You make it to the end and go back to work on all your “notes to self”, get your breath marks, practice some of the problem spots slowly, and try again. Amazingly you get hung up on the breathing, triplets, and accidentals again! But you just practiced them!!!

The frustration grows. You are tired, questioning your mouthpiece choice and general health, and about to waive the white flag. A week later in your lesson, you have 75% of the etude there, but amazingly the same places that stopped you on the first day, are still stopping you on lesson day.

Is this ringing a bell with any of you? What I have just described is generally the golden rule of practicing that we are taught. If you follow these steps, you’ll learn the music:

  1. Check the key signature
  2. Check for accidentals
  3. Make yourself aware of the rhythmic structures throughout.
  4. Choose a slow tempo to start
  5. Find your problem spots. Once you can play them correctly 3 times in a row, you can move on.


This is good advice, but it never really worked for me because it focuses largely on technique first, and song second. I realized I need the watchtower view first and foremost. For me the watchtower view is knowing what is coming next at every point in the song. To get this view, go to Youtube, or download a recording of your assigned etude and listen to it on repeat. I will go on a walk for an hour before my practice session and listen to the etude on repeat until I can anticipate the next note, phrase, and section. Ideally, I can hum through the whole etude before I pick up my instrument.

When I have the watchtower in place, I start working my way through the maze of learning it. I break the etude into sections. I play each section at such a slow pace that I can sight-read it perfectly (this is pretty slow). Once one section is perfected, I move to the next at the slow tempo. Then, connect the two together until I make it through the whole etude at this slow pace, always sitting in my watchtower with the overhead view of what is happening in the etude. From there I start working up the tempos.

It will take a portion of one practice session to work the etude from top to bottom without having to stop when I know my road map. Within 2-3 days, I have the etude worked up to tempo, and I can practice the mental and physical endurance it takes to get from top to bottom.

What happens when you don’t have a recording? Then you need to create your watchtower. To do this, you will follow similar steps as to what you were taught, but rather than focus on technically getting from point A to point B, you must focus on teaching your ear the song.

  1. Break your etude into sections that make sense for the musical phrases
  2. Familiarize yourself with all the normal details: Key signature, rhythm, tempos
  3. Start the first section at a speed that will not allow failure.
  4. Repeat section until you can sing and play the melody without mistake.
  5. Learn the next section in the same way, and then add the two together.
  6. Do this with each section until you can sing and play the etude from top to bottom.


If you are going slow enough, you should have no problem playing all the right notes. What you are trying to master first and foremost in both scenarios is the relationship between the phrases, and some of the more difficult passages before you start working on technique. If you know the song, the technique will follow in line with the song and not create a stumbling block as you play the etude from top to bottom.

I can say fairly confidently from my own experience, that if you start with technique first, it will always get in the way with the song and connections, because you have initialized your focus on getting through the technique, not the song. In addition to creating a more musical and technically clean statement, approaching your etude challenges in this way will save you time and lip for all the other practicing and playing your week requires.

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