Taking Aim at Intonation Problems

June 28, 2011, 11:38 AM ·

I was testing everyone's C# in group class before starting a tune, when I came across a student with a habit that many students develop:

I'll call it "land and wiggle."

This happens when you put down a lefthand finger for a note, but you accidentally put it in the wrong place. Then you slide up and down and all around until it settles in to the correct pitch. It was clear to me from the unsettled nature of her fingers, that this was an ingrained habit.

Ironically, this habit of searching and wiggling tends to develop when you have an excellent ear. You hear that the note is out of tune, and so you adjust your finger.

But here's the problem with this approach: you are setting yourself up for failure -- and for frenetic fingers. You may not be aware, but you are actually practicing landing in the wrong place every time, and then wiggling around to the right place.

Let's say your task is something different: you are throwing darts at a target, aiming for that nice yellow spot in the middle.



If your dart lands outside of the yellow circle, say in the blue ring, you are not going to adjust it by walking up and dragging it into the middle -- it's stuck. If you want to reach the point where you can throw the dart and land in the yellow spot every time, you must first figure out how hard to throw the dart and from what angle. Once you've got this down, you have to do it over and over, correctly, until you have physically perfected your aim and performance.

The same goes for a beginner, learning first-position fingering on the violin. A student must learn precision in finger placement, and it will only happen by placing fingers correctly, over and over. This would be one reason I advocate finger tapes for beginners. In theory, it makes some kind of sense to ask your students find their pitches by listening. But it's sad to see a student who, at such an early stage, has developed such a manic hand and such little sense of precise aim. Believe me, landing on the tapes also helps the ear, when the ear repeatedly hears the pitch played correctly! When the hand is set, then great, remove the tapes.

The searching and adjusting also happens to more advanced students and musicians in things like shifting, double-stop placement, artificial harmonics, etc. The same principle applies: Go to the correct form, and then figure out how to get there every time, without wiggling around and adjusting.

So in the practice room, if you repeatedly miss a note, try this: Stop. Ask yourself, was it too high, or too low? Then depending on your answer, aim higher or lower next time. It sounds simple enough, but sometimes we just want to go on, so we settle for a little wiggling and adjusting. Don't!


June 28, 2011 at 06:48 PM ·

This is a great explanation, thanks!  I think more beginning violin teachers are teaching this way nowadays, but they weren't when I was a kid.  

So as an adult I am still working on getting rid of the vestiges of this land and wiggle habit, especially in the higher positions.  (my teacher calls it "wobble" but it's the same thing ;-)

June 28, 2011 at 07:08 PM ·

This is a wonderful description of what I call the "Wiggly Pigglies."

June 28, 2011 at 07:28 PM · I am a great believer in Sevcik. It's boring and uninteresting, but it gets the job done. Playing the violin well isn't always easy and fun. The basics are hard work and needs to be done.

June 28, 2011 at 07:51 PM ·

I agree that repeating a piece, passage, phrase, measure, or even just a pair of notes while thinking about intonation and analyzing the execution is truly the best way to learn to play that piece, passage, phrase, measure or pair of notes in-tune.  And practicing playing out of tune definitely isn't desireable either.  But I don't agree that students should be discouraged from landing on the wrong note and then adjusting to the correct notes (thoughtfully and deliberately), for a couple of different reasons.

First of all, in my experience, beginning students tend to grip the neck and fingerboard way too tightly.  Requiring that students 'aim differently' when practicing and correcting something that was out of tune increases anxiety level and correspondingly increases tension and pressure.  Obviously this can be worked on, but why make things harder than they have to be?  I work with my beginning students on being relaxed and balanced when practicing, preparing them even from day 1 to be ready to move around the fingerboard when shifting is later introduced.  I think it's even more important for beginners to have soft contact in the fingertips, which doesn't mesh well with the bulls-eye concept of intonation.

Secondly, what is the student playing in-tune with when they practice putting each finger in the exact spot where third-finger should go every single time?  If this student will only ever play with piano accompaniment in a room or hall with rigid environmental control, this may be a reasonable way to learn intonation.  On the other hand, why not start teaching correct intonation from the beginning?  Unlike a piano, violins can -- and generally should -- play with just intonation.  The harmonic content of the music is going to determine where that finger should go, not a piece of tape.  Tapes are good for guides, but are not infallible in intonation. 

In the case of a student who will be going on to play in an ensemble, adjusting intonation is a critical skill in order to be able to blend and balance in addition to tuning the intervals within a piece. If all of the violins in a school orchestra are targetting their intonation based on where they have (or had) tapes, I hope that all of their instruments have the exact same A and that none of their instruments' tuning changes when they hit the warm stage from the cooler air of the hallway, or it's going to be one of those 'interesting' concerts, if you know what I mean... Teaching an ensemble to tune is more than teaching kids where to aim their fingers.  They need to be able to listen around them, recognize where the pitch center is, and be able to adjust to match.  These skills will be slowed if students in private lessons are taught that intonation is absolute based on where a finger should go.

I teach my students to quickly and accurately correct their intonation if they land on a bad note.  I don't teach them or encourage them to wiggle back and forth, but I do work with them to develop a sense of pitch where they can hear what the note *should* be, hear what they actually played, and know which direction and how far to adjust their finger -- a quick, precise, calculated move instead of random wiggling.  I ask them to then think about what adjustment they had to make, and use that knowledge in practice.  There is still a time commitment to practice correct intonation, but this method works (the challenge is getting younger kids to THINK about what they are playing and how, instead of just running through the notes while the practice timer is running).  I use a lot of solfege, singing, and drones in my beginner lessons, and all of my students have remarkable intonation with minimal use of tapes.

June 29, 2011 at 06:26 AM ·

I think Buri has covered this in detail. His advice worked for me: Don't adjust. Ensure that you land on the correct note.

June 29, 2011 at 07:10 AM ·

I've always use dart throwing as the analogy of intonation - you collect the "datas" every throw, so you know how much strength, at which angle, using specific gesture, to get the dart to hit a specific spot - and then perform exactly that everytime.

Just that every semitones on the fingerboards are the bullseye!

June 29, 2011 at 03:31 PM ·

Thanks for the great post! Intonation seems to be my nemesis and it always helps to hear others' advice on what to do. I probably do some of the 'wiggling into place' and just don't know it. Now I know what to look for when I practice.

Also, any ideas for what to do when you play just slightly out of tune, but can't really hear it? I practiced for years like this (most unfortunately, my teacher then did not care about intonation). I can hear any slight discrepancy of tone when someone else plays, but not very well myself. Is there any way to retrain my ears and fingers? Any thoughts, comments, and advice would be greatly appreciated!

June 29, 2011 at 04:23 PM ·

 Hannah, see if your teacher can find you some exercises or pieces with a lot of resonant notes (E, A, D G). It helps to start here. If you play, say, a 3rd-finger A on the E string, (and your fiddle is in tune) you should be able to hear the A string ring in sympathy, if you are playing perfectly in tune. You won't actually play the open A along with your note, instead, you are listening for the note to ring in a special way. I find that the Doflein method books have a lot of exercises that have ringing tones, or resonant notes, as various people call these. 

Yes, Buri has spoken frequently about this issue, as has Drew Lecher, who talks about "target practice" in reference to shifting.

June 29, 2011 at 04:32 PM ·

Excellent Blog.  I think we play in tune first by feeling, then by seeing, then by hearing.  The hearing is just an affirmation that all your planning was successful.  Mistakes are one thing but constantly adjusting and therefore playing it wrong the first time and right the second (or third, etc.) isn't reasonable.   Of course, in an emergency ....vibrato!:-). 

June 29, 2011 at 04:47 PM ·

Going right back to the basic situation of a new player knowing what note to play "next " assumes they have a mental image of what a scale is.  If a well tuned piano -----in even temperament ---is the standard learned by the pupil from various sources (also   tv,  pop music ,guitars  ) , then there is no "internationally calibrated scale " to work from. Not for a violin player at the beginning level. So in a class  situation , the interaction of other kids making their presence felt in a superior/inferior social way will induce indecision and damage confidence.   It all comes back to the way pianos are tuned . That  needs to be sorted out first.  Big job. Then again , how are tuners manufactured? What is the standard tuning system used by electronic firms?  How many instruments play a fixed tone anyway?  (Apart from well- tuned  out -of -tune pianos) What is the exact frequency of a note with vibrato? They listen to that but have to learn without it , until they are more advanced.

June 29, 2011 at 05:38 PM ·

Heifetz once said "I don't play any better in tune than anyone else. I just fix it faster."


June 29, 2011 at 08:01 PM ·

Seems like this conversation is starting to cover the same ground as this one, which has some very interesting points:  www.violinist.com/discussion/response.cfm

I'm guessing that Heifetz was referring to minute corrections that most listeners in his audiences would never notice rather than the sorts of wiggles that Laurie addressed in her post.

June 30, 2011 at 02:00 AM ·

This bad habit is learned over time.  It's not really a beginner student's bad habit but caused by poor  teaching skills. The causes can be from poor finger height and lack of intonation reassurance. Some problems are caused by a student's inabilities ,but not this one. Working on technique and intonation will prevent this.

June 30, 2011 at 05:09 PM ·

 I don't blame a teacher for everything a student does or doesn't do, though. I can still remember one of my early teachers, an excellent teacher, trying to get me to straighten my left thumb. I didn't understand, didn't want to change, and just physically couldn't figure out how to make this work. He'd try and try, then drop it for a while. One day, out of nowhere, he seemed to have a revelation. Whatever we were working on, we stopped. He came over, "Let me see your thumb." I held it out. "Right here," he said, pointing to a specific spot on my thumb, "is where you need to touch the violin with your thumb." Fixed. Forever. But it took at least a year to arrive at that moment.

July 3, 2011 at 03:52 PM ·

My current teacher fixed my intonation problem that even a famous teacher coulodn't do. She had me play Sevcik and Scales to a drone. The hand has to keep it's shape while shifting or putting down fingers in tune otherwise you've added a variable that shouldn't be there. I got a terrific CD drone called "The Tuning CD." Just use the track that has the key for whatever you're playing. It's not a single note but various Major and Minor chords.

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