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Mendy Smith

Learning to Trust

November 13, 2010 at 2:53 AM

It started with a "trick" I learned at Interlochen this summer.  

I was having a difficult time blending (musically speaking) with my stand-partner on the Brandenburg Concerto #6.  So I signed us up for coaching at the chamber camp and learned the trick of playing back-to-back which forced me to finally really listen to and trust my friend.  With all visual queues removed, all I had to rely on was my sense of hearing - the intake of breath, the volume and quality of tone, the articulation, and so on.  I was surprised to discover that I could determine rather accurately if he was playing up or down bow and where in the bow he was playing by just listening.  

Recently, I've begun to remove some other visual queues while practicing that hinder my listening.  First and foremost is my tuner.  I have a Peterson tuner that mounts on my stand, and have been using it not only to tune to, but to also check my intonation while learning to navigate high up on the fingerboard.  

Though it served me well to learn how to play at the highest nose-bleed sections relatively in tune, I started to rely on its visual queues to tell me if I was in tune rather than my own ears.  This is a problem when I perform at church or with others.  So recently I've used it to tune and then close the lid on it and trust my own ears to tell me if I'm in tune either with my own instrument or with the group that I'm playing with.

The result has been a richer tone.  What I had thought was a deficiency in my instrument before turned out to be an issue with trusting my own ears.  This shouldn't surprise me, but it does.  

It makes me wonder what other visual indicators are hindering my playing...


From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on November 13, 2010 at 2:01 PM

 I do the same thing with a tuner, and I've noticed a big improvement in intonation since I started doing that, just a year or two ago.  And that improvement in intonation has translated into a better tone--because sometimes what I thought was bad tone was actually bad intonation.  Reading your blog makes me wonder if I'll soon be ready for the next step too, weaning myself off the tuner.  It makes sense, the tuner could be thought of as a bit of a crutch. Congratulations on feeling ready to take that step!

On the other hand, I also wonder if there's a danger in taking this step too soon.  And just viewing the use of visual cues as a "hindrance" rather than a stage in development seems to me as if it could be problematic.  At least, thinking of myself, I used to "trust my ears" and they led me astray.  They didn't deserve to be trusted:  I played out of tune and didn't even realize it.  

And in fact, it's still happening.  I had a lesson yesterday, and I went over the Franck Sonata 4th movement after having taken a break from it for a while for the solo.  Most of it was pretty good and had settled in, but there were a few spots where my teacher kept harping on the intonation.  I was getting kind of annoyed--even though I like my teacher--because those spots really sounded fine to me.  Those spots weren't (and still aren't) my favorite part of the piece, and she kept stopping me and making me play them over and over.  

We finally decided I must have learned to hear them incorrectly.  There was one where I was hearing an F-flat too low, like an E-flat.  It took repeated slowing down, and her demonstrating the correct intonation, before I heard the correct intervals and could play them to her satisfaction.  And, to be honest, at the end of the lesson, I still didn't hear much of a difference between how I played it when she hated it and how I played it when she said it was okay.  Just a little bit, but not something I would even notice if I was in the audience for a performance.

So now I'm looking at a days to weeks of retraining my ear to hear those passages correctly, so I can bring them back up to tempo with the rest of the piece and have them be in tune.  I think that's going to have to involve use of the tuner because my teacher isn't going to be there when I'm practicing either to point out when it's wrong, or to demonstrate how it should sound.

Probably trust-your-ears purists would say that a piano, or a recording (which I have, and listen to already) should be enough, but I don't think it is, because the feedback isn't instantaneous, and it isn't actually me playing the violin.  What I have to re-learn is hearing what it sounds like when *I* play the correct notes in tune on the violin, in real time.  Not when someone else does, or when I play it on a different instrument.  Is there any way to do that just by "trusting your ears"?


From Kathryn Woodby
Posted on November 13, 2010 at 2:55 PM
I think Mendy's point is huge. I teach my students that there are three senses you use when playing, sight, touch, and sound; but we sometimes have to let go of using the sense of sight to allow our other senses to work the best. (Or so the eyes can concentrate on reading the music!) I think this is especially important since most of us tend to be primarily visually oriented, but the violin is not a primarily visual pursuit. However I also agree with Karen that our sense of sight, which possibly is more naturally developed in most people than their touch and hearing-and I'll leave that for another discussion!-that sight can be a very valuable learning tool, used to help train the other senses. Intonation occasionally, though I do tend to minimize that; checking to see if the bow is parallel; and yes-even finger tapes! Maybe it becomes a crutch if I keep the visual aid when the sound or touch should be taking over the responsibility. Interesting can-of-worms question which I will not presuppose an answer to: can notation itself become a visual crutch?
From Sue Buttram
Posted on November 13, 2010 at 5:01 PM

 Such a great discussion!  I'm a violin teacher and I have students who use a tuner while they practice.  I don't totally discourage its use but I do think that eventually one needs to be able to hear the right pitches, so there must be a "weaning" away.  I would suggest an intermediate step of recording yourself playing without the tuner in front of you and then play back the recording with the tuner on to determine which notes are not in tune.  Work on those notes and then do it again.

The last point raised about depending on the visual page of music is so close to my heart.  I really would love to be able to improvise but it is a matter of letting go of that sheet of music in front of me.  So difficult.


From Michael Snow
Posted on November 16, 2010 at 2:11 PM

While tuners can be of help to get in the "range" of correct intonation, I don't see how they can really teach you to play in tune, because, unless you're playing with a piano or guitar, we don't use equal temperament to determine intonation as string players. And every time you play a double stop that is completely in tune to your ear, at least one of the notes will be "out of tune" according to the tuner. I think it is a much better idea to practice passages against a drone note (the root note of whatever chord or key the passage is based on), listening intently to the interaction between the drone and the notes you're playing, to develop good intonation. Of course, if a passage rapidly moves between different key centers, the drone thing is tough to use. Playing way up high was a challenge for me, too. I thought I was in tune, but then playing with other people realized I wasn't. I spent some concentrated time playing up high, listening to the response of my instrument (interesting to hear and feel what it does when a note is in tune), constantly checking against open strings, etc. Then my up-high playing was much more in tune than before, and I wasn't afraid to play up there!


From Christina C.
Posted on November 16, 2010 at 3:58 PM

My bare minimum practice-routine has become scales & arpeggios through the circle of 5ths. I just finished creating tracks of drones & am about to put them together in the sequences I need for each key. Adding drones will be a great tool for intonation work & I'm glad I'm able to incorporate this as part of the work that I'm already doing


From Charlie Gibbs
Posted on November 17, 2010 at 6:55 PM

I agree that reducing dependence on visual cues is a good thing.  Processing visual information takes up a large portion of the brain's capacity - although this is often not noticed because it's such a natural process.  I like it when I know the music well enough to stop looking at the printed page and can just concentrate on the sound.  Actors get the same liberated feeling when they've gotten their lines memorized and can go "off book".


From Hannah Williams
Posted on November 20, 2010 at 3:32 AM

Thanks for sharing!! I love the "playing back-to-back" idea. I had never thought of doing it before, but I think I will now. I'm certain that it could help me and any musician for that matter.

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