Baseball and Etudes

A few months back, I was delighted to watch Red Land Little League, my hometown team, advance through the gauntlet that is the Little League World Series, eventually winning the United States championship (only to be crushed in the final by Japan). Though I was brimming with pride - I played (poorly) on those RL Little League fields, myself - I couldn’t help but compare Little League Baseball to cello playing. 

Because, of course I did.

Despite what many in both athletics and music would have you believe, the arts - and specifically playing a musical instrument - have much in common with sports. In many cases, playing a musical instrument takes considerably more focus than playing a sport, and just as much physical exertion, admittedly in a very different way. Those things aside, what really got me thinking was the size of the Little League baseball field. The Little League field on which the twelve year old Red Landers won their championship is significantly smaller than its Major League counterpart. Similarly, in violin-family playing, younger students play smaller, fractional sized instruments that are more conducive to their developmental stage. For example, a half-sized cello has a string length of 600 mm, while a standard, full-size cello measures in at about 695 mm. (Aside: though only four inches, that is a huge difference!)

It’s not just dimensions. When Red Land pitcher Cole Wagner took the field in the 2015 Little League World Series, the ESPN broadcast team went out of their way to mention that Wagner's success as a pitcher was due primarily to his fastball and changeup: he did not throw many (if any) curveballs. In addition, Little League Baseball limits the number of pitches that any pitcher can throw in a game, no more than 85, and requires significant rest - up to four days, depending on the number of pitches thrown - before the player can pitch again. Wagner’s father, Bret, and Bret's twin brother, Kyle, were excellent baseball players in their day (Bret was a first round draft pick, and both he and Kyle played at Wake Forest), and they must have known the potential harm a curveball and hundreds of pitches could have on the young pitchers arm, prematurely ending Cole’s career, despite his recent advanced maturity (the announcers also went out of their way to let us know that he’d grown seven inches in the past year), and limited his pitch repertory to "straight" pitches, fooling batters with speed changes and natural movement.

Why should I, as a cello teacher of some experience, all but insist that my advanced students tackle physically demanding etudes and exercises even if they lack physical maturity? 

Short answer: I shouldn’t. 

Long answer: we seem to make concessions - in both sports and music - in the name of safety and ease of execution for young children, many of whom have not hit puberty and whose bones and muscles are still developing. Just like my hometown team had a few players who were more developed than others, so too are some cellists further along in their physical growth.

However, students who progress rapidly with their technique should not be hamstrung - so to speak - by their physical progress. I am very lucky to have young students in my teaching studio, some as young as sixth grade, who are so well-developed in their technique, that they are venturing into the DuportGrutzmacher, and (the most famous of all) Popper etudes. They are further along in their playing ability than many of their peers, but some are quite far behind - or even exactly average! - in their growth and physical maturity. These students are not physically prepared to take on the demand of playing Popper etudes, some of which require such physical stamina that professionals find them difficult to complete. And even Popper etudes often pale in comparison to the etudes by Grutzmacher which can run to three, four, even five physically and technically demanding pages in length.

What is the purpose of an etude, after all, other than an as exercise meant to help - by challenging and building technique - an advancing young student become a talented adult performer? (Side rant: I am and have forever been baffled by teachers who insist that their students learn, perfect, memorize, and perform these etudes, whether in studio classes or on the concert stage. Though some may be beautiful, works of artistic genius they are not! While I advocate for mastery of technique, I do not necessarily believe that an etude need be "performance ready" to achieve technical proficiency.) One needn't perfect the entirety of Popper #1 to work on string crossings or triplets, nor should Popper #6 be completed to master the coordination of the right and left hands at high speeds. In fact, these two etudes and others like them, which I assign frequently to all of my students, cause the most problems for my younger, less-physically mature members of my studio. Many of these young cellists simply don't have the stamina to play from beginning to end, no matter their technical proficiency.

I am not suggesting that teachers eliminate etudes from the learning process, nor am I recommending that students be assigned only a phrase or two of a sixty-five measure etude. Because I believe that stamina is built through exercise and conscious, thoughtful, intelligent practice and that goal-setting and achievement encourage students to devote more energy and effort to continuing their musical journey (phew! #runonsentence), I'd like to pose a solution to my perceived etude problem:

Let's just edit them. 

Arrange them, if you will. We do it all the time for school orchestras. (Merle J. IsaacSandra Dackow, and others made a living making hard music easy to play). Why not apply this principle to difficult etudes? You might argue that there are easier etudes out there, etudes that are not so physically taxing that could take the place of these more strenuous exercises, and I would agree with you, but with a caveat: these less-strenuous etudes are usually too easy for technically advanced students while some are just as physically taxing. For example, this year's All-State audition etude for 9th and 10th graders in the state of Georgia is by Carl Schröder (op. 44, no. 6) and is similar in nature to Popper #1, with constant triplets, a lot of shifting, and many string crossings. The same repetitive stress injury that is a danger in Popper #1 is also possible here, purely because of it's length - 63 measures, just less than the Popper - and it's tempo - 108 beats per minute, pretty much equivalent to its counterpart. The Schröder etude is technically easier. Much, MUCH easier. But the danger of injury is just as real.

The point is not what is "easy" and what is "hard." A student may have the technique needed to execute Popper #6, but may not have the stamina - the physical maturity - to do so. (If a student is physically developed, has (close to) the requisite stamina to complete these etudes, and needs some work on the required techniques that etudes develop, then by all means, they should be playing these etudes, in their entirety.) So while we shouldn't water them down, by making them technically easier, let's at least edit these etudes. I've spent next to no time, all of thirty minutes, editing Popper etudes 1 and 6, sitting at my local dog park while my delightful pup, Mylo, gets his morning exercise. 

Here are my results.

In both cases, the changes that I've made delete musical elements (repetitions, patterns, etc.), removing what I deemed to be "unnecessary fluff," advancing the ultimate goal of building the technique and developing greater stamina while avoiding injury. The new changes will be musically clunky - I have made almost no concessions in the name of good composition - but could be smoothed out with another thirty minutes at the dog park and some time with Finale. 

With these edits, I've eliminated approximately 25% of the total number of measures in the etude, making it significantly easier for a student who is still physically developing to attack these difficult exercises from beginning to end. Over time, as students mature, and with smart practicing and consideration of physical limits, the students' technique can be challenged via these edited etudes, their stamina developed, and - most importantly - serious injury can be avoided. Eventually the edits can be removed and the student can take on the challenge of learning the full etude.

Too many music teachers look at sports with disdain or lack of interest. But it is exactly the wealth of experience and research put into youth sports that music teachers of younger, less-physically mature students should seek out when developing the musicians of tomorrow. Take the lesson Little League Baseball is offering: that less is sometimes - just maybe, even though it's not as much - a little more. 

And, hey, Little League is fun to watch, too!