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Emily Grossman

Star Wars

November 6, 2011 at 5:39 AM

It makes sense, then, that the Greeks were into both astronomy and music. They studied the way objects in the universe related to one another, and then they studied the way musical pitches relate to one another in the innermost workings of our beings. Try teaching someone who doesn't recognize pitches and cannot match them to begin to latch onto their location and replicate them, first in their mind and then with their fingers on a stretched piece of string, and you may feel like tackling the universe next.

Jennifer used to be a witch, but now she's only just a little bit crazy, which is why we probably get along so well. She first came to me about violin lessons because she needed to feel the vibrations resonating in her chest as she held something that sang close to her throat. (I never thought about that intimate relationship that only the violin has with replicating the human voice; when you rub your bow across the strings, the sound can be felt in the throat and the chest.) The first time Jennifer felt the sound, it brought tears to her eyes. She had always wanted to sing, but had never learned, and claimed she couldn't. So, she wanted to sing with the violin instead.

Every person who comes to me for lessons possesses a certain level of ability to replicate pitches and remember where pitches lie. These are two different, equally important skills: one involves stepping outside yourself and grabbing onto the sound of something in the room and recreating it, either with the voice or instrument, and the other involves being able to mentally keep track of pitch locations and how they relate to each other. This is a completely internalized skill, and involves dealing with the voices in one's head, so to speak.

Whether child or adult, I come across barriers that must be broken before progress can be made. Say, you are someone who could be classified as completely "tone deaf". (I don't believe this exists, by the way, but it gets the point across.) We begin by identifying high or low sounds. Certainly, you can hear the difference between the microwave beeping and a dog's barking. Then, we go through a series of exercises listening to pitches on the piano and guessing which one is higher and which one is lower. I start big and obvious, and aim for 100% success. Then, the tricky part: can you match it? This is where the mind has to latch onto an external stimulation, determine its location, and recreate the sound. Lots of things interfere with this, and the more distracted the mind is, the more difficult it is to do. Distractions can come in the form of cluttered thoughts, lack of focus, other sounds stuck in the brain, general static, or external distractions, like multi-tasking (i.e. moving bow arm, thinking about scroll level, stance, notes on the page, etc.). If you are really not good at matching pitches, it makes no sense to try finding them on an instrument when you have to be thinking about so many other things. Voice matching is the clearest way I can tell if this part of the brain is working, but many students are bashful about singing, which is unfortunate. As soon as the mind experiences stress, listening becomes incredibly difficult. Just recall the last time you had stage fright or had to respond to someone yelling at you, and think about what the "deer-in-the-headlights" sensation does to your reasoning and senses. The overload of being asked to listen and match a pitch when stressed out makes this task difficult. I try not to put people on the spot, but when they opt out of this step, it doesn't tend to get better. If you work with me, I can help you get your voice onto that pitch, and I can help you develop that weak brain muscle so that you can use it on your own at home. Otherwise, you're on your own.


Jennifer has lots of distractions in her life, and I pull my hair out sometimes when I can't get her to put all the conversations in her head aside and focus on what's going on during the lesson. I have a feeling her practice time is equally overloaded, because we can leave a lesson with all the notes in tune, but when she returns the next week, they are all out of place again. Just the simple act of trying to do too many things at once keeps her from noticing her notes are out of place, and since she's used to hearing them there, no mental red flag pops up when she gets off track. And so go the habits. But a couple of weeks ago, she made a drastic change in her practice goals, and suddenly she was beginning to hear where her whole and half steps should be. What did she do?

"I don't want to play my songs for you. I just want to play scales. Can we do that today?"

"Why sure, actually, I'd be happy to!"

Back to square one. Can you match this pitch on the piano with your voice? She was a whole step low. No, clear your throat. Clear your mind. Listen, can you match this pitch with your voice? She was low again. Now she was beginning to stab around randomly, so I stopped her. "Here, if you're not sure, but you feel pretty close, this trick works--I use it all the time when tuning instruments. I drop it out of tune and come back up to it. Do this slowly: drop your voice down, and as you bring it back up toward the pitch--and, if you listen carefully--you will hear the sound waves line up. "Ahhhuuuuummm..." She stopped right when she arrived at the pitch. We worked on this a few times with various comfortable pitches, asking, "Too high? Too low? Just right?" and then introduced the first specific measurement: the whole step. "Okay, this is do-re." I will play these two notes and you see if you can hit both of them. We worked on that (too high, too low, just right?) until she was achieving a high level of accuracy and showing me she knew which way she needed to adjust her voice. Then we picked up our violins. Her next job was to listen to her open string, match the pitch with her voice, remember the space of a whole step by mentally creating the specific sound (no guessing) and making her first finger land where she wanted it. She should be able to tell if it is too high or too low and move her finger up or down accordingly until she is landing do-re on a consistent basis. Not difficult, huh? We are now mentally measuring and recreating sound waves.

What is the shape of Do-Re? How does it make you feel? What does it look like? What does it taste like? How does it relate to your mental structures? When do you know you've found it? And once you can do that, can you tell me about Mi and Fa, and then can you get all the whole and half steps to add up to Do? Once you can do that well, then we can talk about skipping around and keeping track of all the other interval relationships. Hopefully by then, you can keep your home base, Do, droning clear in your mind like the north star, guiding the way. Congratulations, you are now on your way to adding up the constellations and finding your way across your mental musical universe.

Jennifer and I have done this before. I do this as needed with different students. Some were born with a better relationship with their notes than others. For those who are not gifted, they must work, but it's possible to learn. The thing that made the main difference with Jennifer that gained her more progress in one week than during the past year was that she went home and contented herself with studying Do and Re, and then Mi and Fa. She got rid of the distracting paper, the black notes, the moving bow and rhythmic complications. She found the pitches on a keyboard so she could remember when she forgot, and then she worked on connecting with that part of her mind that puts the notes in their place and keeps them there. Most people needing this step in their life are not content or patient enough to stay with this step as long as it takes to get it.

I don't know, maybe they could do battle with astronomy for a while, first.


From Emily Liz
Posted on November 6, 2011 at 4:04 PM
You are certainly making up for lost time with your blogs!! Love it!

I never had a teacher who taught me ear-training systematically. Not even kidding... I once asked a teacher if she could do that for me, and she said she just didn't have the time. Now I look back at that and think, what??? Anyway, I've had to learn everything by myself, which is frustrating, and I haven't done that great of a job teaching myself, either. So your students are very, very lucky. Give yourself a big pat on the back.

From Emily Grossman
Posted on November 7, 2011 at 8:12 AM
Yeah, it's too bad she didn't take the time with you, because even the most difficult repertoire consists of these simple relational concepts, and if you want to improve your intonation, you simply take it down to the nth degree of perfection. But it's exciting that once you lock into it, you can work independently to solve your own problems.
From Christina C.
Posted on November 9, 2011 at 7:35 PM
I think your students are lucky to have a teacher like you
From Emily Grossman
Posted on November 9, 2011 at 10:03 PM
Aw, thanks!

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