Tip and Tricks: Technical Etude Preparation

Think back to last year’s all-region audition: you go into the audition room with your heart pounding out of your chest with anxiety, you shake while seated in the chair, your mouth is dry but your hands are sweaty. Sound familiar? If you have ever experienced any of these audition day symptoms, it’s probably because you felt you weren’t as prepared as you could have been for the audition. Here are 4 steps to audition preparation that have proved to cure the curse time and time again!

1. Planning: “There’s no way I can do this! It looks impossible!” So did landing on the moon, but with enough careful planning, mankind reached new heights, and so can you!

Get a clean copy of the music without any pencil markings- it is ideal to start fresh!

Have a pencil, metronome, and recording device at the ready.

Use a journal for logging daily tempos and creating your preparation timeline chart to be used for planning of tempo goals and checkpoints.

Preparation Timeline Chart

Begin by determining how many weeks fall in between the time you begin learning the etude and the day of the audition. Write down the date of one day from each week on your chart.

Determine your final tempo goal and what tempo you want to achieve by the end of each week. If you have more than one etude or piece, create multiple charts!

Example: your final tempo goal on a certain etude or piece is quarter note = 144. You receive the music on August 8th, and your audition is November 1st. Above is an example of a chart you might create to organize your tempo checkpoints. Note: You should plan to meet your final goal tempo two weeks before your audition.

A visual I like to use to guide my preparation is a sideways hourglass (pictured above). In the beginning, think about working the music in larger passages in order to see and hear the big picture. Then, you'll want to gradually focus on smaller sections, working out any technical and musical issues. Finally, once the mechanical kinks and artistic decisions have been thought out and worked through, then spend the remainder of your time zooming out to see the bigger picture.

2. Learning: “Where do I begin? I’ve never played anything this hard!” Just take it one step at a time- don’t dive into the deep end without first learning how to swim.

Start at a tempo that ensures perfect sight-reading capability. If that means you set the metronome to quarter note = 40 or slower, do so. Never start learning a piece at a tempo faster than you can sightread it successfully.

Stay slow. Trying to speed up too quickly will develop bad technique habits. Practice at the same slow tempo for an entire practice session.

Continue practicing at this tempo until you can consistently (four or five times in a row) play the etude correctly without fingering or articulation inaccuracies.

Increase the metronome tempo by 2-4 bpm ONLY after you have mastered the slower tempo.

Remember to journal your tempo so you can remember it at the next practice session.

3. Practicing: “What do you mean, ‘you have to play it faster’? I can’t even play it slow!” Muscle memory is an amazing thing- train your muscles how to perform and you will impress yourself!

Follow your preparation timeline chart diligently. Do not allow yourself to get ahead or stray away from your tempo checkpoints. There are many practice techniques you can use to develop personal technique and consistency as you increase tempo. Beyond practicing what is written on the page, try:

Altered Rhythms: These exercises ultimately assist with finger dexterity, developing even technique, and increasing finger agility by creating different note length patterns in a sequence of sixteenth notes. They can also be used to assist in enhancing muscle memory and eliminating blips and another inaccuracies.

- Snap Rhythms -

- 6/8 Rhythms -

4. Polishing: “I can play my piece well, but I’m not sure I will be able to in my audition.” Consistency is key in any music performance setting. You want to know that you will play well and not have to flip a coin when it’s your turn to audition. Techniques that have worked for me:

Record yourself! Professor David Dees at Texas Tech University introduced me to the importance of recording yourself. See Ben Donnell’s blog entitled Record Yourself: When "In the Moment" Doesn’t Cut It for more insight on the recording process.

Continuing in the hourglass idea, it is time to shift towards more large scale focus on your etude, meaning you should “zoom out” more and more as you get closer to the audition date. How do you do that? Begin to shift your practice into rehearsing large chunks. Play half of your etude, and then add a little more each as you get farther into the practice session.

Practice performance! Work your way up to performing run-throughs of the entire etude(s) every day starting two weeks before the audition date. Nothing builds consistency like diligent practice of performance. This offers you the chance to iron out any performance wrinkles (bad habits) you may have developed.

A neat practice technique I learned while in high school was the half-tempo trick. Set out nine small objects - coins, marbles, rocks - whatever you prefer! Set your metronome to your goal tempo, but play the music twice as slow as you would at the goal tempo, thus creating a half-tempo rehearsal of the etude. When you’ve played the entire etude accurately- notes, articulations, dynamics - move one coin over. After each successful run, move a coin over. Your goal is to move all nine objects over, but there’s a catch - if you play a run with some type of inaccuracy, move all of the objects back to the other side and start over. This can be frustrating, but if you are honest with yourself the result is rock-solid muscle memory and focus.

Perform for as many people as you can, even strangers! This allows you to experience performing with nerves and adrenaline, thus making the feeling in the audition nothing new to you!

The day of your audition, think about all of the careful and organized work you did to get to that point. Go into that room and impress yourself by playing just like you had the day before at home - if you do that everyone else in the room will be impressed, too! Let us know if you have any questions, and good luck!

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© 2020 Mirasol Quartet.  All rights reserved. 
Photos by Brianne Butterworth/Sebastian Serrano Ayala.  Artwork by Pat Maines.
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