Nov 24, 2013

Cello Focus: The Popper Etudes

Why teach and learn etudes?

I have been teaching other people to play the cello for more than 35 years, and for most of that time, I have been grateful to my first teachers for including etudes as part of my weekly lessons. In my view, the most important thing that a teacher must give his or her students is a good technical foundation which is based on proper physical set up at the cello. Because of the size of our instrument, easy physical access to the entire fingerboard coupled with a comfortable and effective bowing pattern is essential information for the beginning student. It is often the first thing I need to correct when taking on a student that has not been given that information, so that they can move forward and play comfortably with a good sound. Scale study and related exercises (arpeggios, broken 3rds, etc.) can then be undertaken to build a solid technical foundation that gives the student a method of moving accurately and easily from position to position to find the next group of notes in whatever is being played.

At about this point in their study, students can rightly begin to wonder.........”but why am I doing all this hard work, and when do I get to play a piece?”

This is the time to introduce the study and performance of well written etudes as a bridge between pure technique and making music. There are a number of time-tested etudes that provide solid technical practice as well as interesting and tuneful music. Some of the old favorites are the Dotzauer collection (113 Studies in 4 volumes), the various etudes of Sebastian Lee (I have used his excellent 40 Melodic & Progressive Etudes for many years and find that students enjoy them.), David Popper’s 15 Easy Studies in first position, and the excellent series of etudes by Rudolf Matz are great for less advanced students.

Later on, and as the student progresses, I would recommend the 20 Etudes by Josef Merk, and the 21 Etudes of Duport,(essential for good left hand structure!).

The Popper 15 Studies, the Duport studies and some of the Lee etudes include a 2nd cello accompaniment which is another important device for not only making the etude more fun to play, but to begin to introduce the concept of ensemble playing! Students love playing duets with their teacher and when etudes are turned into duets, the learning takes place in a better atmosphere. It is for this reason that I composed 2nd cello accompaniments for the challenging High School of Cello Playing by David Popper (published by International Music Company (edition # 3631), and why I recommend using etudes with accompaniments and other cello duets as wonderful teaching tools! Popper wrote the accompaniments for only the first ten of his 15 studies, and so I was asked to compose the last five 2nd cello parts as editor of a new edition of the studies soon to be published by International Music Company.

Some other 2nd cello accompaniments I have composed for popular pieces that students like to play will soon be available here at

The study, understanding, and mastery of Popper’s technical principles as demonstrated in his High School of Cello Playing Opus 73, are essential components in the development of every aspiring cellist. The 40 etudes of Opus 73 were termed “forty etudes of transcendent complexity” by Lev Ginsburg in his History of Cello Art, and they certainly are that. But as we become more familiar with more of the etudes, we begin to realize that the technical requirements of playing them with relative ease are consistent and quite simple. Popper tells us, in not so subtle ways, precisely how the left arm and hand must be positioned and organized in order to successfully navigate the length of the fingerboard as we make our way through the many sequential  and chromatic passages contained in these excellent studies. Along the way, Popper has a great deal to teach us about the Romantic style of cello playing that he exemplified during his long and distinguished career. Cello pupils of our time know Popper primarily as a composer of very challenging etudes, but we need to remember that he also composed nearly one hundred short pieces, four cello concerti, a suite for cello and orchestra, and enjoyed a busy and successful career as a performing cellist. He composed the 40 etudes of Opus 73 between 1895 and 1898 while he was on the faculty of the Budapest Conservatory because he felt that his pupils needed better preparation for the careers that awaited them. It is no accident that so many of the etudes resemble the cello parts of Wagner operas in complexity and chromaticism since Popper was Wagner’s principal cellist at Bayreuth. Others seem to be based on selected and standard cello repertoire, at least in style. He also composed two other sets of cello etudes-- both composed after the completion of the High School--the Fifteen Easy Studies,  and the Studies, Opus 76 [Preparatory to the High School of Cello Playing].

Getting to the High School

I would recommend that the Fifteen Easy Studies be the first Popper undertaken by most cello students. They are all playable in first position, but in ways that will test the playing level of the beginner. Another benefit of using these studies is the second cello accompaniment included in most editions. Popper composed the “teacher’s part” for only the first ten, and some editions provide the last five accompaniments as created by other cellist/editors. These tuneful etudes become much more enjoyable when both parts are present.
After these first position studies are mastered, I recommend the study of other etudes by Dotzauer {at least volumes 1 & 2}, Sebastian Lee,  Joseph Merk, Franchomme, and definitely Duport. The Twenty One Etudes of Duport {published in 1813} were the first etudes published for cellists and there is great similarity in the message put forth by these two cellist/pedagogues even though they lived a century apart. The Duport studies are full of double stopping and a few carry hints of the kind of sequential passages that Popper would later employ. Look for an edition that has the original second cello accompaniment. Both Duport and Popper were telling us that the left arm and hand must be placed in a position and at an angle that gives complete access to all of the notes in that position, and often across all strings. In all positions, this means that the left hand structure must enable the cellist to be able to play the octave { thumb and 3}, the third {2 and thumb}, and the fifth {thumb} without altering the angle and structure. Number 9 from the Opus 73 Studies makes this requirement frustratingly clear in the first two bars. The most important interval of those mentioned above, and the one to first focus on when learning these etudes, is the interval of the major or minor third formed by the thumb and second finger. Popper uses this as the primary means for moving the hand up and down the fingerboard {like two wheels on tracks} during the sequential chromatic passages that help cellists learn the fingerboard. With that interval in place the hand is stabilized, balanced, and all of the other notes and intervals in that position are within easy reach, provided that the angle of approach is correct.

Now that the cello student has developed more facility and better access to the fingerboard, it is time to finish the Popper experience. While several of the High School etudes are fairly accessible to hard working cello students by a certain point in their studies, I strongly recommend the mastery of the Studies Preparatory to the High School of Cello Playing, Opus 76 before attempting most of the Opus 73 studies. Popper was well advised to create these ten primers, because while they are not as long, as chromatic, or as complex as many of the 40,  they make clear what type of left hand structure needs to be in place and this knowledge will save the student a lot of work when the High School studies are undertaken.
When practicing the sequential passages in the Opus 73 High School {examples: #5,m.66-73; #11, m. 7-10; #12, m.31-33; #31, m.22-25} take care that you are shifting the interval of the major or minor third as you move gently and securely to the next position, and remember to create the extension for the larger major third with your thumb! Practice playing just the thirds as double stops(2 and thumb) as they are the foundation of each position.

The 32 Essential Etudes in Opus 73 and the Popper Diet.

As you get to know the High School etudes, you will soon realize that the technical requirements for virtually all of them are very similar, and based upon the above discussion of hand structure and accessibility.

Here is a list of  all 40 in approximate order of difficulty:

3, 11, 1, 2, 5, 10, 6, 19, 21, 17, 7, 34, 8, 36, 25, 12, 22, 16, 30, 31, 18, 26, 20,
15, 23, 28. 27, 32, 35, 40, 4, 24, 9, 14, 38, 39, 37, 13, 33, 29.

Non- Essential Etudes in Opus 73

I consider the following seven studies to be non-essential, either for technical or musical reasons: 14, 25, 27, 29, 32, 37, 40. Some of these are very similar to the style and requirements of other studies in Opus 73, others are simply weak musically, and a few involve specialized bowing techniques that can be studied separately in a volume dedicated to bowing issues. Learn them later on if you wish, but they need not be mastered in your first exposure to the High School because the issues they deal with are covered in other etudes or in studies.

When you have mastered at least half of the forty, I recommend beginning a daily practice of playing 3 of the etudes as a set, a Popper Diet. You may not lose weight, but you will certainly minimize your daily warm-up time. Choose the first one from the less challenging etudes near the beginning of the above list, the second from the middle, and the third from nearer the end. Challenge yourself to learn the etudes with which you are unfamiliar and you will soon realize how similar are the techniques required for playing them. Keep adding new ones until you have all 33 listed below under your fingers. Doing this on a daily basis, right after your normal technical warm up of scales, triads, broken thirds, etc., will set you up completely for whatever is on your musical agenda for the day. It works like a vitamin supplement for the health of your cello playing. Enjoy!

A suggested Popper Diet:

Day one: 1, 21, 17                               Day two: 2, 18, 4                    Day three: 3.34, 24

Day four: 7, 19, 35                              Day five: 5, 31, 9                    Day six: 10, 30, 12

Day seven: 11, 22, 33                         Day eight: 6, 15, 13                Day nine: 16, 23, 38

Day ten: 8, 26, 39                               Day eleven: 36, 28, 20

A graduate of the Eastman School of Music,Carter Enyeart has enjoyed a distinguished and varied career. His experience as a member of the Pittsburgh and San Francisco Symphony Orchestras, principal cellist of the Dallas Opera, member of the renowned Philadelphia String Quartet and American Piano Trio and his duties as Associate Artistic Director and cellist of the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth give him strong credentials in the symphonic and chamber music fields. His teaching at Ball State University, Northwestern University, and the University of North Texas preceded his current appointment as Rose Ann Carr Millsap/Missouri Distinguished Professor of Cello at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory where he also coordinates the String Chamber Music Program. 

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