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Kate Little

Practicing Intonation

September 13, 2014 14:26

Precise intonation is essential in playing violin. For some of us intonation does not come easily or naturally, and we have to actively work at developing an acute sense of pitch. I spend up to a half hour of every daily practice session working solely on intonation, and also revisit before each exercise and piece worked on that day. Here are some useful methods:

Tuner: Keep the tuner on and in sight when practicing. If fingered a, e, b and f# are not precise in first position, work every day at finding and memorizing the sound, sight and feel of these four notes.

Keep the tuner on the entire practice session. When practicing a scale, exercise or phrase, if the tuner indicates that a pitch is not correct, work at fixing it before working on other aspects.


Open Strings: Using the 4th finger successively on A, D and G – match unisons e to open e, a to open a, and d to open d. Using the 3rd finger successively on E, A and D – match octaves a to open a, d to open d, and g to open g. Don’t bother using sheet music, just go back and forth and back and forth between strings matching pitches. Improvise exercises with multiple iterations of the same unison or octave, or create sequences of various unison and octave pairs.

Drone: Drones are excellent for tuning pitches via harmonic interval. One can create a drone via a double stop, which requires having developed the ability to play a double stop. If a chromatic electronic tuning fork is available (free cell-phone aps are available), a drone can be played through speakers, or, if the volume is turned down low, through headphones or ear buds (my preference). Make sure you can recognize the sonic qualities inherent to perfect intervals.

Sing. Sing. Sing. The ability to hear, sing and play pitches are intimately intertwined. If you can’t hear and sing well and easily, you’ll probably have difficulty with intonation on the violin. Join a choir if you can. Sing pitches and phrases before playing them. Sing them multiple times and check vocal intonation with the tuner. Developing your voice is akin to learning to play violin.

Listen. Listen. Listen. Make sure you can recognize Tartini tones, beats, and the clarity of perfect intervals. If you don’t know what these are, or how to hear them, have someone teach you, and then listen for them. Use them to improve your intonation.

Teacher: Choose a teacher who is insists on accurate intonation, and who is diligent (and kind) in teaching this skill.

Self-awareness and self-discipline: Pay attention to your own playing and the little needle on your tuner. What is it telling you? Don’t ignore it. If the needle is off, if the red light is on, do something to fix it. Mix up your methods and keep fixing until the needle is consistently straight, the light is consistently green. Listen to your own intonation and insist to yourself that you get it right.

As difficult as intonation can be on the violin, it does improve with intentional practice, as does the inner ear.

P. S. As can be inferred from reader comments, using a tuner to assist in developing intonation skills is controversial. All I can say is: Be practical. If a method works for you, use it.

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Previous entries: August 2014


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