As the account goes, someone once asked child prodigy and virtuoso violinist Jascha Heifetz: “How are you able to play so well in tune?” To that, Heifetz replied something to the effect of: “I don’t. I adjust before anyone notices.” Although playing perfectly in tune all the time on a violin family instrument may be a superhuman goal, improving our intonation consistency centers around a paramount, though often forgotten pillar of musicianship: listening!
However, before we discuss specific ideas to help improve listening skills and intonation, let’s explore what intonation is and what reasonable goals for intonation might be. Contrary to what your tuner or some camps of musicians might tell you, my experience has proven repeatedly that intonation on a violin, viola, cello, or bass is NOT set in stone. The simple act of playing a one octave D major scale starting on the open D string, then trying to harmonize the scale F# in a double stop against the open A, will prove that notes that sound “in tune” in one situation may not sound as perfectly in tune in other situations.
If you were listening carefully, your F# probably sounded just fine when set slightly high against the G, the next note in the scale. Melodically the F# is in fact escorting us up to the G, and before we even hear the G our ear wants to reach for that resolution at the top of our first tetrachord (tetrachord: a scale of 4 notes). However, the F# functions differently when played against the open A. Rather than a melodic role, it plays a harmonic one. Since the A string’s tuning is fixed in this example (unless you suddenly re-tune the string), the F# will sound slightly dissonant (dissonant: not pleasant, lacking harmony) when it isn’t played within the constraints of a more tempered tuning system (tempered: like the tuning of the piano keys, an even spacing between all notes regardless of their melodic or harmonic function). Move the F# slightly lower and a beautiful minor 3rd harmony emerges. However, return to the scale and that same lower F# will sound slightly flat and won’t make our ears long to hear that G note quite as much...
Another common example of our changing intonation landscape might be when playing in the key of F major. If we listen closely and are forced to play a few open Es, they will probably sound slightly flat, even when tuned perfectly with our tuner or against the open A string. Why is this? In the key of F, all E notes function as the leading note (Leading note or tone: 7th note of a scale). Similar to the previous example, the E ushers us up to the F. It naturally wants to reach, like a plant growing towards the light of a sunny window. Unlike most other instruments, since we can easily make these minute melodic adjustments on a violin family instrument, we usually develop a natural ear for them and our playing becomes more melodically expressive. However, in this example, unless we tune the open E slightly sharper for pieces in the key of F, we may always hear that pitch as slightly off.
Sill, there are many situations where tempered tuning is our best choice. When we’re playing with a pianist, a guitarist, or in an ensemble setting where the harmonies are more dense, like the example of the F# played against the open A, we need to more or less divide our scale tones evenly - all half steps equal.
Years ago I had a heated online discussion with another teacher who believed we should teach students to take the mean of all such differences. His rationale was that considering it’s hard to play in tune in the first place, why bother with adjusting notes situationally. My rationale - aren’t we adjusting pitches all the time anyway? Why not train our ears to listen comprehensively and learn to adjust to pitches that ring in perfect harmony, note by note, phrase by phrase?
Which brings us right back to listening. Chances are, we all know we should be listening more (we’re playing music after all!), but we’ve never thought too much about how that looks in the practice room or what type of listening will lead to measurable improvements in our playing. The bowed strings are exceptionally physical instruments, and while it’s helpful to know how and why something about our playing works or doesn’t work, many problems could probably be solved simply by listening for and creating more of the sounds we enjoy hearing.
One of my more recent projects was to learn to play the cello. Intellectually I’ve been playing cello for about 20 years, gathering enough book knowledge to instruct in beginning group classes, youth orchestra clinician settings, and with a number of private students over the years - usually the siblings of my violin or viola students who wanted to take lessons with me too. Overall, my intellectual understanding of cello playing and my experience playing violin and viola translated to cello playing relatively quickly, though figuring out the important ways in which the cello and it’s soprano and alto cousins are different showed me a few learning curves I hadn’t considered. I’d worried about intonation initially, but once my hand frame had a sense for the spacing I surprised myself with the ability to start shifting to higher positions and playing more advanced repertoire within a few months. As with any note we’re about to play, and apparently on any instrument, if we can hear that pitch ahead of time we can organize our body around what it will take to make it happen.
I find that a student’s intonation improves immediately once he or she can sing the phrase in question. When intonation issues occur repeatedly, we must stop and consider whether we have a good “internal recording.” Most of the time the student might have an overall sense of the melody, but doesn’t have a good grasp of pitch of the offending notes. He or she can pick them out of a line-up so to speak, but can’t hear them internally (audiation) or reproduce them on the spot. When this is the case, we’re stuck playing defensively rather than confidently, reacting to out of tune tones (which often builds tension physically and mentally) rather than envisioning the pitches we want and going for them. We could tell such a student to adjust her finger higher or lower week after week. We could even get frustrated and install finger tapes. However, these instructions won’t stick. The root of the issue is not poor muscle memory.
It has happened too many times to count, yet I’m always still surprised when I get a new student, especially one who has been working through Suzuki materials, who reports that she hasn’t heard a recording of the piece she’s currently working on. In a number of situations, former teachers apparently told these students to “throw away” the CD that came with the book. Granted, sight reading is important too, and some Suzuki renditions are better than others (I’m excited about Hilary Hahn’s recent recordings of Suzuki books 1-3!), but if the Suzuki method can offer anything, it’s the idea that to learn a language a child simply listens, mimics, and finally becomes fluent, independent, and expressive. We don’t hand a young child a book and send him to the corner to read it with the hope he’ll eventually decipher the characters, what sounds they make, and learn to speak! Why would the language of music be any different?!
Even the basic example of teaching a student to tune by ear demonstrates how necessary it is to first internally create and hear the notes we wish to tune on our instruments. On many occasions, I’ve played my A string, asked a new student to play theirs, and when I ask whether he thinks it’s too high or too low, the student might shrug or scrunch their face and after a few seconds make a guess. 50/50 chance right!? If I take the process a step further and ask him to listen to my pitch, sing or hum it out loud or internally, then play his string, sing or hum that, and then notice what his voice needs to do to move between the notes, nearly 100% of the time the answer is correct. Most effectively, the guesswork is gone. His conviction is now unwavering. The time between these two attempts might be one minute, proving that with awareness channelled appropriately, even most beginners have the skills needed to listen carefully and make elegant intonation adjustments.
Setting time aside to listen to good recordings of the music you’re trying to play leads to swift improvements. In my mind, listening time is just as crucial as time spent practicing. We should spend time both actively listening and passively listening. While passive listening means having the music on in the background while you’re doing other things, examples of active listening might include:
- reading along in the sheet music (helps us orient the sounds we hear to the notations we see and to eventually develop the ability to “hear” notes we see before we’ve actually played them)
- humming or singing along - out loud or internally
- fingering along with the notes - on the instrument or in the air
- bowing along with the notes - general arm movements in the air or with the bow on the shoulder
- listening for phrasing, including highs and lows in pitch, dynamics, articulations, vibrato style, mood/emotion
- listening to a few recordings of the same piece back to back and comparing their musical differences
- picking out the accompanying instrument(s) part more so than the melody you’re trying to play (this can be a real exercise in mental gymnastics, but necessary for developing the ability to play seamlessly within a group)
- listening for the harmonies and relationships between the your part and the accompanying part(s) (for instance, how do the parts support each other and the overall mood/feel of the piece? Are the parts having a “conversation” at any point? Is your part always playing the melody or do you ever play a harmony or rhythm role?)
- playing along with the recording and trying to listen to the other violin/viola/cello and ourselves equally
- playing along with just the piano accompaniment of a piece and trying to listen to the piano as much as the part you’re playing
Another tool I enjoy using when a student struggles with intonation is having her play melodies she knows well by ear - Happy Birthday, simple Folk and Christmas tunes, pop melodies, anything the student knows unshakably. Intonation usually sees immediate improvement for all the reasons I’ve mentioned above. Different then having them listen to recordings and learn from sheet music however, time spent learning a melody by ear helps the brain map the fingerboard. When sight reading later on, having a map of what every spot on the fingerboard sounds like helps us match the notes we see and “hear” off the page to the right pitches on the strings, even on the very first run through. Furthermore, we develop the ability to hear a melody and immediately be able to play it by ear without having to fish around for notes. This has come in handy on numerous occasions for me - a student wants to learn a piece I’ve never heard before from a YouTube video; a guest at a wedding wants me to play a song I don’t have sheet music for; a melody comes to me and I want to record the idea and turn it into a composition. In all of these situations if I take a moment to ensure my internal “recording” is strong, I can usually find all the notes on the first try, saving countless hours starting from the beginning and trying dozens of possible notes before moving on to the next note in the melody and starting the search again.
Beyond these tools, we’re lucky as string players to have particularly resonant instruments. Any note that matches an open string will resonate especially well. In first position, this aids most of our third and fourth fingers on a violin or viola, and our fourth fingers on G, D and A on the cello. If we can hear the enhancement of the open G ringing out sympathetically with a perfectly tuned G on the D string, we don’t ever have to second guess ourselves. The instrument sounds more “alive” when we honor these natural sympathies. This is certainly a primary reason I’m able to switch easily back and forth between the relatively similar feeling violin and viola. This was also probably one of the elements that helped me also map my new cello fingerboard so quickly, despite the significant differences in hand shape and spacing compared to my violin or viola.
Additionally, it’s sometimes necessary to root out technical issues and tensions that can make it a struggle to find the correct pitches. The range of common and individual issues are too broad to cover here, but a stiff left shoulder/upper arm is often a culprit, especially when one or two strings are routinely better in tune than the others. When we lack mobility further up the arm, our intonation is literally locked into a situation where finger placements on a couple strings are easy and consistent, but our fingers and left hand feel entirely different when setting up for other strings. With regard to intonation, our goal with left hand technique is to open up to the movements that will allow all the strings to feel virtually identical. As Itzhak Perlman describes it, playing on a fretless fingerboard is like reading braille. Feeling around in the darkness so to speak, we can’t be placing obstacles in our way.
Finally, I should note that in my experience, tone is often the bigger offender when a new student shows up thinking they have terrible intonation, so it’s important to learn how to separate actual pitch from pitch quality. Almost all tone issues are bowing issues, so it’s usually futile to hound the poor left hand for problems with tone. Spending a bit of time in lessons separating out what an poorly tuned note sounds like compared to a well tuned note with a tone issue is usually necessary since we always hear both factors simultaneously. Demonstrating is often very effective. I might play a passage with fingers slightly out of place but with good tone, verses in tune notes with a range of scratches and squeaks - airy bows (bowing too light and/or fast), ponticello (the sound we get when we bow too fast too close to the bridge), scratchy (bowing too heavy and/or too slow), inconsistent (the bow is sliding or we’re changing the speed and pressure unconsciously), and more subtle issues of clarity (incorrect sounding point for the speed and pressure we’re using). I often see a student’s body relax a bit, apparent even through Skype, FaceTime, or Zoom, once they hear that I too can easily create all of these offending sounds for them on the spot. Though such sounds might surprise and frustrate us when they happen, none are a mystery. While a bit of troubleshooting is sometimes needed, any sound we hear coming from our instrument is a matter of a few principles working together (or at odds).