The Secret Life of Etudes (947 Hours)

Even thinly disguised by the romantic French word for musical studies, my enthusiasm for Etudes has always mirrored my eagerness for “vegetables” or “homework.”  So whenever I find an etude that manages to straddle the border between the sensuously sweet and the densely nutritious, I savor the moments I have with it in the practice room.  This week I have found such a one in the Schröder etude 34 (aka Dotzauer 120, no 5), a beautiful meditation on double stops (two string harmonies).

 As you can see from the video above, double stops can be extremely lovely things when well executed.  They are also somewhat dreaded by new (and even mature) cellist because any intonation or bowing issues are magnified when you bring two strings into the equation.  For starters, being off by more than a few hair widths on either note will make the combination sound like two cats on a hot August night.  This is further complicated by the unique characteristics of each Cello (and the hands of the player) because parallel fingerings on adjacent strings are not precisely parallel, but rather can be staggered by game-changing millimeters.  This can be clearly observed when double stopping two strings with a single finger.   By now you may be realizing that the beginners tape on your fingerboard was really more of a general suggestion than a precise measurement!  If this weren’t enough, there is also the issue of the strings requiring different pressures to play cleanly (just as in string crossings) so you end up monitoring the pressure on the lighter string by pivoting on the heavier string as a fulcrum.  Going from tip to frog makes this even more interesting since uneven bow pressure can make the pitches waver even when the fingerings are accurate.

Yikes!  If this seems like quite a lot to think about, then you’re right.  It most definitely is.  Which is probably why double stops, despite their potential for beauty, are not all that common in cello music.  Why torture yourself by playing two strings when playing a duet is so much fun?   Well for one thing, the inherent difficulty of double stops makes them of tremendous educational value: ear training for intervals, fingerboard geography, intonation, hearing two distinct notes played simultaneously, enhanced bow sensitivity.  This is just the short list of stuff you can pick up in the early stages of learning them, and that by itself is a gold mine of tactile cello lore.

My “discovery” of this relatively simple Dotzauer etude reminds me of the story how the Bach Cello Suites almost disappeared into academic obscurity.  These jewels in the crown of cello repertoire were once regarded by those who knew of them as mere “etudes”, only played in the confinement of solitary practice rooms, until 1889 when a fateful young teenager named Pablo Casals discovered an old copy moldering in a thrift shop in Barcelona.  The first to perform them in public since their composition in (1717-1723), Casals transformed these studies into the international treasures that they are today, thus rescuing them from the dustbin of history.

I find this story compelling and inspirational because it challenges me to see the true beauty in what might otherwise be mistaken for the mundane.  I picked up this wonderfully singing instrument because I wanted to unlock a voice capable of expressing the part of myself that is beyond the articulation of mere words, and I see now that in order to do so I must first learn to tease out the beauty from the even the most unlikeliest of places.  Find ways to express even subtle moods where little or no emotional content is readily apparent: etudes, scales, even simple melodies and technical exercises.  Like the much maligned number Zero (upon which rests the creation of all modern Mathematics and thus Science) there is a Taoist saying that an empty vessel has the most potential for being filled.

I will end this entry with a selection from my favorite promoter of Etudes: Joshua Roman and his famous Popper Project with the spritely Etude No. 40.

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