Close, But Not in Tune: Creating the Habit of 100 Percent Accurate Intonation
"About what percentage of notes would you say is acceptable, to play out of tune on the violin?"
I asked in the most earnest tone I have in my repertoire as an actor, though I suspect that my student knew I was kind of joking. And yet, he wasn't quite sure about the answer. The percentage of "close but not-quite-in-tune" notes I'd just heard him play was very, very high; despite the fact that this student has shown me over time that he actually has a fine-tuned ear for pitch.
"Mmmmm," I said. "I'm afraid it's lower." I made an "0" with my hand, "It's actually zero. It's a tough percentage to achieve but that's how it's got to be."
Unfortunately for us string players, there is one way to play a note in tune, and countless ways to play it out of tune. Fingers easily fall in the wrong place or at the wrong angle; to land with complete precision 100 percent of the time requires very precise physical training and an ever-attentive ear.
Is that really necessary? It is, and it's also do-able if you accept a few things about the way you need to practice:
- Play in tune when you practice. The way you practice is the way you will play, and so good intonation has to start in the practice room. This sounds simple enough, but it means that you must apply a high standard to your practice. If you are too tired to listen carefully, you actually could be doing more harm that good, by practicing with lazy intonation and committing those physical patterns to memory. Slow everything down to the point where everything note is perfectly in tune - every note! Make those physical patterns your "norm."
- Watch the way you correct bad intonation. Sometimes string players get in the habit of landing on a note, realizing it's out of tune, then sliding to the correct note and moving on. Doing this ingrains a habit of landing in the wrong place and sliding around, rather than simply landing correctly in the first place. When you play out of tune, you must stop, back up, and play the note in tune, in context. If you are unable to do so, you are probably practicing the passage too fast. Slow it down to the point where you can land every note, with precisely correct intonation.
- Practice scales, arpeggios, etudes and patterns (such as Schradieck) - but of course practice these things in tune! It's better to practice 10 minutes of technique work with perfect, dead-center intonation than 2 hours with sloppy fingers. This is a place where you can establish and strengthen physical habits for your fingers, so accuracy and careful repetition is key.
- Listen and understand the resonant notes on your violin or other stringed instrument. These are the notes that coincide with the strings, so for the violin they are E, A, D and G. Because of those open strings, the notes E, A, D and G - played anywhere on the instrument -- will ring more clearly on the instrument, provided that you find the dead-center "sweet spot" of the note. When these notes are played perfectly in tune, the open strings will ring in sympathy with the note, causing the instrument to vibrate more. It's a phenomenon you can hear, feel and even see, and making yourself aware of this will greatly improve your sense of intonation on your instrument.
If you can create the right habits, you can make accurate intonation your norm, rather than tolerating a percentage of "close-but-not-quite-in-tune" notes.
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