Don't fret, you can play in tune without a chromatic tuner.
Actually I'm not going to tell you whether or not to use a chromatic tuner to help you, any more than I'm going to tell you whether or not to use a shoulder rest. Based on past Violinist.com discussions about chromatic tuners, I can see that people are passionate about the use or non-use of chromatic tuners as they are about the use or non-use of shoulder rests -- Egads! Here's my advice on both fronts: use anything that ultimately helps you to play better.
Nonetheless, I advise my students to use a chromatic tuner to tune the strings on their instruments, and when it comes to finger placement, I direct them to other references.
So if you have been using a chromatic tuner to help you place your fingers, how do you learn intonation, if you take it away? The advice, "Just use your ear!" -- said with frustration and a sense of moral superiority by a respected teacher -- probably will not help a student who just isn't hearing what's wrong.
Certainly, start by tuning your instrument with the tuner, and frankly, I think you're going to be fine if you tune all four strings with it -- it's going to be better than guessing, before you have developed your sense of pitch. Because yes, there are levels and refinements when it comes to hearing pitch. That's something Mendy Smith wrote about a number of years ago: she had realized that she had approached a level where she needed to refine her intonation without the use of a chromatic tuner because she truly was beginning to hear the subtleties of pitch in relation to other tones. You can't tune your violin by hearing a perfect fifth until you can hear a perfect fifth.
A good, basic place to start learning intonation is by becoming sensitive to the ringing tones, also called "resonant notes," on your violin (or viola). What I'd like to do in this blog is to give you an introduction to ringing tones, if you are a student who doesn't yet know about them, or give you some ideas for explaining them, if you are a teacher. I welcome everyone's thoughts on the subject, as well.
The most obvious ringing tones are the strings: E, A, D and G (If you are a violist, A, D, G, and C). As you may have noticed, the open strings ring in a louder, fuller, more obvious way than notes played with a finger placed down on the string. In fact, try playing an open string. Notice that, not only does it sound very full, but also the string vibrates quite a lot -- this is something you can see with your eyes. Notice also that the wood on the body of your fiddle also vibrates, and you can feel this vibration if you put your hand on the back of the violin while playing, or even if you hold the scroll of the violin (yours or someone else's).
Any note on the violin vibrates, but the open strings vibrate the most.
So here's the cool part: What happens when you play an E, A, D or G that is not an open string? For example, try playing the G that is located third finger on the D string. If you play it perfectly in tune -- and only if you play it perfectly in tune -- your violin will have a party and ring with joy. More specifically, the G string will vibrate in sympathy with the G note you are playing on the D string. If you play this note with very good, even tone and perfectly in tune, you can even see the G string vibrating. Certainly it will ring much, much more than an out-of-tune G or than a note such as an E flat, which does not have its own special string to ring with it.
As you can guess, your violin needs to be well-tuned for this to actually work. Where else is there a G on the fiddle? You can try the G that is located on the E string, low second finger. It will not make the earth shake in the same way as the G that was an octave closer, but it definitely will hit a groove when it's perfectly in tune, and the violin will respond by ringing in a very clear way.
You can try this also for all the D's on the fiddle (third finger on A string, third position fourth finger on E, etc.); all the A's (first finger on the G string, third finger on the E, etc.) and all the E's (first finger on the D, etc.) and for the viola, all the C's (third finger on G string, low second on A string, etc.) Yes, and it works if you are playing a fourth finger on the G, the D string will ring in sympathy with the exact same D. Just make sure you aren't touching the string that should be ringing, or it stops the physical vibrating.
Why does this work? It's because all of the A's (and D's and G's and E's) are an octave (or two) away from one another, and an octave is a perfect interval. If your A string is vibrating at 400 hz, the "A" above it -- the third-finger E string A -- is vibrating at twice that, or 800 hz. Their vibrations can mesh very easily, as long as the pitches match.
Guess what else is a perfect interval? A fifth. For example, your A string vibrates three times for every two times that the D string vibrates. The vibrations in those notes also mesh easily, but not quite as easily as octaves which vibrating two to one. Violins are tuned in fifths, therefore each string is a perfect fifth away from the next -- if it is perfectly in tune. This meshing of the fifths is what violinists learn to hear when they are tuning without the help of a chromatic tuner.
But take it a step at a time. Start by listening for the octaves, by really honing in on the natural ringing tones of your instrument. There is a reason why so much violin music -- and especially beginning violin music -- is written in the key of D or the key of A or G. Those keys contain many of the violin's natural ringing tones.
When I hear a student (or anyone!) play and they play slightly out of tune and fail to trigger the resonance of their violin, it makes me cringe. By the way, your violin is cringing, too. The more your violin rings and resonates, the more it "opens up." This is not some mysterious thing that violinists talk about, it's a real phenomenon. The more the wood vibrates, the more pliable it becomes to sound. Make it vibrate a lot by playing in tune, and it will "open up," and so will your ear!
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