This is the first of a series of interviews conducted by Andrew Kohn. Andrew is the Professor of String Bass at West Virginia University, is a member of the Pittsburgh Opera and Ballet Theatre Orchestras, and is an active soloist.
Diana Gannett is Professor Emerita of University of Michigan and former President of the International Society of Bassists.
Each of these interviews explores the application of etudes into one’s development as a bassist. Enjoy!
Interview with Diana Gannett by Andrew Kohn, Aug. 5, 2005
K. What is the pedagogical use of etudes?
G. I have very specific reasons for using etudes. Other instruments may have a whole set of etudes as preparation studies for isolated technical challenges in a given concert piece. I don’t think we’re that well organized in the bass world yet, though I can see the merit in doing that.
K. For example, preliminary etudes before studying the Koussevitzky Concerto?
G. Right, something like that could be very useful. And now that we’re starting students a lot younger, there may be room for that to occur – where people actually compose etudes to support some of our literature. But usually people start so late, it’s just a matter of trying to get them up to speed with basic technique.
I use five of the Kreutzer etudes — the first five— and I have them all fingered with pedagogical fingerings.
It’s an efficient way to acquaint people with different fingering ideas and strategies. I used to let people evolve their own fingerings and gradually work into advanced fingerings, but I found it wasn’t fast enough. So I give them these pedagogical fingerings that are challenging, and their job is to make it work. A lot of it is four-finger, a lot of it is cross-string. So, the different fingering approach is one goal. The same five etudes are also used to practice: left hand-right hand coordination, intonation strategies, development of speed, and memory. These are buttons that rarely get pushed in their own etudes.
K. What kind of buttons do you mean?
G. That we don’t really work on speed or memory, for example, in an isolated fashion. In my approach, each etude is performed first at a controlled tempo for pitch and fingering accuracy and conscious left hand-right hand coordination. Next, speed is the objective without sacrificing pitch and clarity. Finally, memory is the goal. (Speed does not need to be from memory and memory does not need to be at speed.) Once all five etudes are memorized, we may let them sit for a time before returning to them with the focus on bowing variations.
I also have a limited number of other, often easier, etudes with pedagogical fingerings that I will sometimes use to very quickly acquaint people with some of my ideas about four-finger technique. This approach has been enough for students to start incorporating new ideas on their own.
K. What makes a good etude?
G. Short! If it’s about a page in length or less, it’s not overwhelming. You can say, “Okay, I’m going to get this. I’m going to study this, I’m going to get this this week” — it’s a contained problem. It’s a way to develop a skill beyond what is needed musically so that this skill becomes easy when approached in the context of the music.
At the other end of the spectrum are the really long, arduous studies like the Findeisen Etudes, that also serve a huge purpose, in that the student is confronted with a complex map of problems. There’s a real sense of accomplishment in tackling them. I will use these, too. In fact, I have friends that are now using them with high school students and getting very good results. While the student earns a feeling of accomplishment, it worries me some that they may not be technically ready to perform at this level of challenge. However, that sense of accomplishment and the ability to get around the instrument has an incredible amount of merit.
K. Yes, I remember playing those when I was in my late teens, and — exactly what you’re saying — getting through them, feeling I’d accomplished something, but I’m glad I don’t have to listen to a tape of what it sounded like.
G. Yes, what I’ll do now, with people who’ve been through my etude process — I’ve had them for a couple of years or so — I might put them on the Findeisen and say, “Bring them up to recording level,” and actually have them record and perform them. And that’s a different task.
K. One thing that you said was “a contained problem.” What do you mean by that?
G. You know, let’s say that spiccato is a problem, or the double stops in the Koussevitzky Concerto. Have an etude that parses that out, and you can deal with that one specific problem. I know that pianists will sometimes take a specific problem passage and make an etude out of it by taking it through the circle of fifths. I’ve had that in my mind to do, but I haven’t really tried that much with students. Nothing has jumped out enough to say, “Okay, you really need to work this in all different keys. Cycle that through and prepare it for next week.”
K. Yes, I haven’t done that either. That’s an interesting thought. The closest I’ve done is, when I’ve had transcribed etudes and the transcription is in an awkward key, I might have them then relearn it in a more comfortable key.
Do you have any thought about the virtue of transcribing etudes? You said you used Kreutzer transcriptions.
G. I really like transcribing etudes from other instruments, because they’re often more evolved. The studies we have are useful for our instrument and for beginners, because they lie within the instrument, and so on. But I like a lot of the violin etudes. For instance, Gustav Saenger’s The Violinist’s Daily Companion. I had it when I was studying violin. It has really good pithy little etudes in there. I would just work on those and memorize one a day. I found them very useful for pushing my technique. And I worked on the Paganini Caprices, for a while. And I’ve done some of the Popper cello etudes, as well. I think if you want to push your technique, start eating etudes for breakfast. So, yes, if a young professional really wants to progress with technique, I would say start collecting etude books and playing through them. It’s a great way to work on reading, a good way to warm up, and generalize some of your problems. If you work on technique only in the context of a concert piece, the problems becomes associated with the piece instead of a sense of freedom and expression. Take the problems out to etudes and work things out there.
K. Yes, I tell my students to get their technique better than what they need to play the piece so they don’t have to work on the technique in the piece.
K. Is there anything else that you think of as pedagogically equivalent to an etude?
G. I have my own set of exercises – the “Phase Warm-Up Exercises” that fall into seven levels or phases. Again, the idea is to develop your technique to a high level in a generalized way, away from the music. The first three “phases” are usually enough to challenge all of my students as it can take a year or more to get facile at each level. In each phase, there is first a section on scales, going through all the scales. I do them in a cycle of thirds so that you get the major and the minor scales in pairs. And then there’s always a section on arpeggios, usually combined with bowing variations. And then there’s a section on hand strength, agility, and intonation exercises. So there is ample opportunity to talk about, and work on, technique in lessons with the Phase Warm-Ups, and, again, the students have a place to work on their technique that’s not a performance piece. I think of the warm-up exercises as a laboratory for working out technical issues.
Another thing I like about the “Phase” is that only samples are minimally written in manuscript. There are cue sheets that allow everything to be done out of your head — the patterning and so on — so you can spend more time being aware of how you’re playing, and use your eyes internally.
K. Yes, that sounds like ideas I’d want to work more into my studio myself. When I practice on my own, it’s often without music in front of me. But I notice my students always have music on the stand.
G. Yes. And that pulls their head forward, changing their body position, and their body mechanics, often resulting in unnecessary tensions.
K. Yes, and it changes what they’re focusing on. They’re focusing on their eyes not their ears.
You said that etudes that you wished had been written included preliminary etudes written for specific repertoire. Any other etudes you’d like to see written or available?
G. We can borrow so much from other instruments. For example, I use Sevcik on scales with students to work on bowings, and I use the Zimmermann Contemporary Bowing book to work on string crossings. There’s just so much out there, I’m just not sure it’s really necessary to compose new etudes. Wait, I thought of an exception. I’ve had some talented students work on creating etudes for some contemporary techniques that explore unique timbres.
K. It sounds like you’d say what’s necessary is to learn what’s out there.
G. Yes, there’s plenty out there to learn. But if somebody had the inspiration to make a few preparatory etudes for some of the major concertos, I think that would be a fascinating project. The Tubin Concerto is becoming much more popular. There would be a place right there to say, “Okay, if you really want to play this, try this set of exercises. These are some of the problems you’re going to be facing.”
Reprinted with permission from American String Teacher, Vol. 57, No. 2, © 2007 by American String Teachers Association.
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