review: skilful studies

Inspired by the posts I've done on instruments, I am planning on reviewing some of the music and materials I've used in band that don't have a whole lot of information about them out there. To start, I've selected Philip Sparke's series of etude books for wind instruments.

Sparke's books come in three volumes: Starter Studies, Skilful Studies, and Super Studies. I have the most experience using the middle level book (Skilful Studies), so I mainly focus on that. Each book is available for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, Saxophone, Trumpet, Horn, Trombone (BC/TC), Euphonium (TC/BC), Tuba, and Eb/Bb Bass (TC/BC). I currently use Skilful Studies in small group lessons with my 7th and 8th graders, and I am quite pleased with the selection of material in the books. There are forty progressive etudes (each about half a page) tailored to the range and idiosyncrasies of each instrument.

Things I like:

  • breath marks, delineating phrases, are given in every etude
  • a wide variety of tempo/style markings
  • just enough dynamic markings to help young students learn how to shape phrases on their own
  • tuneful, original melodies (often with clever, or at least interesting, titles)
  • a good mix of key signatures and time signatures
  • good pace of becoming progressively more difficult (range increases, key signature diversity, technical skill required, etc.)
  • plenty of slower etudes

Things I don't like (all of these are a little picky)

  • the clarinet book has some challenging early etudes (the first, for example, is in the key of G concert, and that is not a particularly common key for a 3rd or even 4th year player. Three sharps are doable, but I sometimes skip some of the early etudes and come back after students are more ready)
  • no supplemental material. It would be great to have a glossary in the front or back with definitions for all of the style markings. The book doesn't pretend it's anything other than an etude book, but there are times I wish for some scale or technical exercises mixed in with the etudes to help students build the necessary skills to play them well.
  • can't play most etudes with someone on a different instrument. I have a group of mixed saxophones--a couple of the etudes actually sound neat played in 4ths or 5ths (like #3, Modal Melody), but mostly they just sound weird. This is just one of the trade-offs of using this book in small group lessons, though, rather than in private lessons.

I have found that Skilful Studies has helped me help students work on expressive playing. While it can be nice to have a greater variety of materials in one book (like the Rubank series), I have found that assigning scale and rhythm exercises separately has worked out alright for me.

Sometimes, I have students who still struggle with note (and/or rhythm) reading in 7th grade. That's when Starter Studies comes to the rescue; it begins with quarter and whole notes on a single pitch, and it allows students to progress fairly rapidly to fill in the gaps in the music reading ability. From the end of that volume, it is a natural transition to Skilful Studies. I haven't yet had any 8th graders finish Skilful Studies and move on to Super Studies--they only spend one semester in the book each year (the other is spend on chamber music). The last volume is particularly challenging, and more appropriate for high school than grades 7 and 8.

I heartily recommend Skilful Studies for working on expressive playing and well-rounded musicianship.