• Sarah DelBene

What I Learned from Independent Etude Study

When the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in an 8-week lockdown in March 2020, I suddenly realized I had a significant hole in my practice routine from all my music event cancellations. This also came right after completing my DMA audition journey, and following that I received some sage advice for improving the fundamentals of my playing if I planned to immediately continue my graduate education. Because I struggle with embracing rest and quiet, I aimed to make the most of the extra space in my practice routine by creating my own “Flute Boot Camp.” Personally, this included increased attention with daily exercise work in order to improve nuanced aspects of my playing including note connection, tone homogeny, and musicality details. In addition, I decided to work through the Henry Altès’ Twenty-Six Selected Studies for the Flute. One of my applied lessons students at Baylor University had recently completed the book, so I decided it would be beneficial to my pedagogical skills as well as my own playing progression to work through this book on my own.

Considering the length of some of the etudes and my four-month break in the Spring 2020 semester in preparation for my first DMA recital and a sublist audition, it took me almost a year and a half to complete this project. After this extended time with Altès’ etudes, I have improved the fundamentals of my playing while learning so much about myself as a musician. In order to spare my readers a novella, I’ve synthesized my learning reflection into three broad categories.

Increased Independent Expectation

When the eight-week lockdown began in Waco, TX, I had just come off of a long DMA audition season that was an extension of the music I had prepared for my second MM recital the previous semester. My music preparation included hours of work with my flute professor, which included extensive detailed feedback in order to showcase my abilities for recital performance and later auditions. While I was working at the time to record myself more often, I was receiving the most formative feedback from a highly trained individual rather myself. Starting this independent etude project shifted the feedback proportions drastically. I was the sole arbiter of what worked and what did not regarding technique and musicality for each study. Even though I was already my own biggest critic, being my own source of feedback helped support my already progressive journey from “Harsh Critic” to “Objective Teacher.”

Recordings as Your Teacher

With this being an independent project, I decided to use a full run recording as my signpost for when individual etude work was “complete.” After recording and marking the completion date in the book, I would wait up to a couple days before listening back to my recording. These recordings ended up taking the place of a teacher by being an outside perspective on my playing and how I responded to performance and recording pressure. Listening back later to myself helped me catch elements of my technique and musicality that I would otherwise miss in the moment. I also could hear noticeable playing progress that is sometime hard to catch while juggling multiple practice factors. Furthermore, I would record my etudes as videos so I could also work on my person Body Mapping technique, noticing how I used by body well (and not well) to convey my desired musical ideas. The videos over time also allowed me to see my long term progression and find more and more movement freedom. This in turn allows me to better communicate musically.

Completion Over Perfection

This Altès etude book is progressive like most, but the etudes also increase in length while increasing in difficulty. As a result, my goal of completing one a week was quickly reevaluated when I started working on etudes 4-6 pages in length. In addition to this, I also took a four-month hiatus when I was preparing for my first DMA recital that occurred in March 2021. As a result, this project also intensely tested my patience with myself, having not completed it in as timely of a manner as I initially hoped. Sometimes I would be close to recording an etude and thinking, “It is still not where I want it to be though. There is still so much to work on.”

Over halfway through the book, I adopted the mindset of “Completion Over Perfection.” The more I worked the more I realized how much more there was to go. That being said, I could spend months on the final etude, record it, and still create a list of aspects I would want to improve in it. Ultimately, we as musicians are constantly learning and never fully arrive at perfection or total completion in our playing or teaching. Therefore, as I neared the end of this project, I decided to go ahead and acknowledge what I learned and improved on in each etude, record myself no matter the imperfections, and move on. In the words from a James Clear newsletter:

Finishing projects is part of what it means to deliver high quality work. It’s not high quality if your perfectionism prevents you from finishing it.

I have completed many projects throughout my collegiate and graduate music education thus far, none of them being the definition of perfect. However, many of those past projects I would still consider quality work. High quality work and perfection are not synonymous, because even the most seemingly perfect things will have contrary naysayers with even the most picky critiques.

At the end of the day, I can say I am proud of myself for undertaking and seeing this project to completion. While I may not consider it a true high-quality work in regard to fully consistent flute technique and unwavering musicality, it can be considering a notable work for what was gained through other factors. My fear of recording myself has greatly diminished, I now confidently have a teaching strategy for future students who will study that book, and my personal practice strategies have become more cohesive and intentional. These are valuable learning goals for any practice project, and I look forward to a future for myself as a musician with stronger technical skills and more refined mental intention.

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