December 16, 2008 at 11:31 AM
For my birthday I got a Korg electronic tuner/metronome. My teacher had been recommending I get one for a while, and I'd been resistant. Not hugely resistant, but I just thought, "oh, I don't need more electronic gizmos." I liked the A440 tuning fork that I carried around in my case. It didn't need batteries, was small and compact, and was cool-ly low-tech and analog in a digital world. If there was a power failure, an ice storm, or a total nationwide economic collapse such that batteries and electricity were no longer available, it would still work. I'd still be able to tune my instrument and play. Kind of like the reason I never got electronic windows on my car: if the car for some reason ended up in the water, sinking, I didn't want to be trapped by short-circuited window controls.
Well, I got electronic windows about 3 years ago. And I got a tuner last week. You can set the frequency of the A it plays, and it also tells you, by a digital needle and green and red lights, how close you are. I didn't think I could, but in fact I can hear the difference between A440 and A441. Interestingly, if I try to sing an A440, cold, I'm consistently just a little flat. And it's *really* hard to get it just right. I go up, down, around the pitch, without ever quite nailing it unless I stop singing and start again.
What seems most useful to me right now is to just leave it on while playing. It listens to the note you're trying to play (based on the A you set and equal temperament), suggests an identity for the note, and tells you whether it's sharp or flat. When playing the violin, I guess due to overtones, the needle wobbles and the +/- red lights flicker around the green, even if I'm playing an open string. The piano is slightly more stable, but even it causes some flicker. I make it my goal, and my daughter's, to keep the green light on consistently.
This has been a bit annoying to my daughter, to the point that she's said "mom, you're too dependent on that tuner!!" But then, since the tuner has been on, her intonation has improved markedly. It's just there in the corner of the eye, blinking red and green. I don't even have to say anything. Her arpeggios are usually right on. She used to argue with me sometimes about her low 2's. She'd say "it's *supposed* to be low!" But not that low. There's less room for arguing when it's so low the tuner calls it a B instead of a C.
But the thing is, I have another voice in my head telling me my daughter is right. In the back of my mind there is all this confusing stuff: am I becoming a slave to equal temperament? What about high leading tones? What about ensemble playing? As a musician you don't want to become "dependent" (there's that word again) on your gadgets.
I think, however, that there are levels to intonation and uses for the tuner at different stages of ear training. That more information is better, in this case. The A in my head is low. Without a tuner I would tune to something like A437, and it would sound okay to me. While that's a bit off, it's also, to my relief, not *that* bad. I actually had thought it would be worse. Maybe I can get it to be more solid with practice. And my daughter has to fix her low 2 and stop arguing about it. She can learn the subtleties of temperament and leading tones later, when she can play a basic C-major scale and arpeggio and keep it in the green.
I have this exact same tuner, and it is awesome....before I got it I had a lot of trouble with intonation and couldn't ever really hear if I was out of tune or not. Not so much anymore. The trick though is to not get addicted to using it while practicing/playing - make sure that you are listening to yourself more than watching. A good way to do this is to set the tuner across the room or somewhere where it is not in a direct line of sight to you, and only look at it when you want to double-check your intonation on a specific passage.
You are in danger of starting a contentious thread with this subject. I've seen it before and it seems to hit a nerve in the violin community. There is a clip-on mike available which plugs into the tuner and seems to make the tuner less finicky with overtones. I clip it on one of the pegs. I think there are also some tuners available which provide the other intonation systems as well.
Oh, how exciting, I can't wait for the anti-tuner flaming to start! (And I use a shoulder rest too)
I figure since my teacher recommended it and can help me use it appropriately I can't go too far wrong with it. I can always turn it off. And the fact is, I have intonation problems, I don't always hear it, and I need to do something about it.
Happy B'day! You got a great present. Unfortunately, IMHO your daughter is correct. You need to develop other ways of staying in tune. One is looking for the sympathetic vibrations of other strings when you play a note on one string that is the same note as a open string (e.g., D on the A string). Anyhow, have fun but use it sparingly.
Tom-- I never said I was *only* using the tuner to stay in tune. I'm using it to get some different, and additional, feedback on my intonation than I've gotten in the past. I think my daughter was just annoyed that she couldn't argue with the tuner in the same way she tries to argue with me.
Nothing like having something objective with which kids can't argue! Although, sometimes they do figure out a way to argue. They do the darndest things.
I have always found the most difficult intonation issues to arise when the key signature has enough sharps or flats so that you do not have any notes for which open strings will vibrate sympathetically. Otherwise, I use those vibrations as a device to test intonation.
I agree, I like listening for the open string sympathetic vibrations. I showed that to my daughter also. And playing against open strings.
For some reason the low-1 on the E string, the F, is really hard for me to hear, even when I play it against an open A. And then the A-flat and B-flat on the E as well. Yikes. I played Vivaldi's Largo from Winter in church last year and there was one passage with one particular measure that I couldn't seem to get in tune. It involved all three of those notes. That measure (but not the whole piece) might be a candidate for the tuner.
I'm not really big on using the chromatic tuner for playing...
When it comes to the sympathetic tones (the ringing that occurs with the open strings when you play E A D or G notes) there are two ways to sense this: you can hear the string ringing, but if you are doing it right, you can feel the vibration as well.
yes. And its differnet on every violin.
Are we flaming yet?
A tuner _and_ a shoulder rest! Tsk, and double tsk!
Have you tried Intonia (a nifty Java program written by a v.commer) yet?
Bart, how about a shoulder rest with a built in tuner and that new electric body shock metronome? That would solve eevrything.
I am very stubborn and very proud that I do not use an electronic tuner. Karen, I like your reasons for using a pitch fork. I'll be a snob and tell you that I still use the same pitch fork I used when I was a kid. None of this here fancy plactic one, either. Mine is larger than yours and is made of a metal that they used to call blue steel. It's still blue after all these decades of air pollution. I had it tested electronically once, and it was within 0.01Hz (the sensitivity of the electronic measuring device) of 440 Hz. I do not have perfect pitch, but when I try to produce a 440 A without a turner, I'm between 439 and 441. When I hear a true 440 A, I can reproduce it to the limits of the testing device (0.01 Hz). Did I mention that I'm a snob? I used to make my students use pitchpipes instead of electronic tuners, but I've compromised my principles on that issue. I try to teach them how to tune their strings relative to one another by recognizing the interval of fifths as soon as possible.
I agree with Laurie about using the internal resonances of your violin to tune and play in tune. I have one student who is very good, but he has had trouble hearing the octave made by playing an open string with his third finger on the string above. I couldn't understand this because his intonation is usually very good. He recently had new strings put on his violin, and now he can play and hear the octaves perfectly. His new strings resonate.
Bart, what is the Intonia?
Pauline, I'm curious as a teacher how you deal with students whose ear isn't as good as yours, and/or who are stubborn themselves.
I'm pretty convinced that, even among those of us in the vast middle--without perfect pitch, without complete tone-deafness--there is still a broad spectrum of variation.
As I was telling Tom off-list, I think my daughter and I share the following characteristic: we "learn" very quickly to hear the wrong thing as right. My daughter had gotten to the point with C and G major arpeggios that she would play the low 2 at the top, the C or the G, so flat that it was almost a B or an F#. I could hear it was too low and I would point it out to her and she would argue that it was "supposed to be low" and it sounded right to her. I would play it for her correctly myself, on my violin, even on her violin. No effect on her. That might be how mommy played it, but she played it differently. And she played it consistently flat, it wasn't like it was all over the map. She practiced it that way, and learned it that way. It had become an unproductive battle of wills.
When I put the tuner up and the tuner wavered between low C and high B, completely in the red, for a note that was supposed to be a C, something changed in her attitude. She didn't argue with the tuner the way she did with me. After a few repeats she started playing the arpeggio in tune, including the top C. We've only done one session with the tuner so far, and I'm curious to see what happens without it. I'm hoping that now she hears it differently now that she's played it herself and heard it correctly a few times. Even if it doesn't turn out to be that quick or easy, I can't see how the current situation isn't an improvement over the battle of wills and cringeworthy out-of-tune arpeggios we were stuck in before.
We were in this box of arguing about her version of reality (it's supposed to be low and it sounds okay to me) vs. mine (it's out of tune and the top note is too low). The tuner allowed us to think outside that box.
But I'm not throwing away my tuning fork, either.
LOL Buri - your invention is awesome!!!
Just because no one has mentioned it, electric windows do work underwater. It must be true, as I saw it on the Discovery channel!
Whew, that's a relief! ;-) Thankfully, I've never had the opportunity to put the electronic car windows to the ultimate test, I just have seen on TV shows like the ER episode I linked to, where their failure is used as a plot device. But I assume the Discovery Channel is a more reliable source of information than ER!
maybe it depends on the brand of car?
Buri - I have all the parts for your invention: a SR, a Peterson Strobo-flip tuner (does many other temperments), and the body-shock gizmo.
In moderation, all these electronic gizmos help. Make sure they don't become a crutch though. I'm currently using my tuner to figure out 8th position... my ears are having a hard time hearing those higher notes at the moment.
Episode of Mythbusters...windows worked for a couple of minutes before they shorted out. Supposedly enough time to let the air pressure out or something like that.
I've got a Korg. My teacher doesn't want me to use it though. After awhile I've gotten to where I can tune pretty well without it. She always tweaks my tuning though.
I read your article and of your struggles with intonation. It holds great interest for me and I would like to see if my peculiar background may give you some keys to eliminating the struggle and making yourself happier with your sound.
I don't mean to be argumentative because I don't think that belongs in this field and you got a lot of good and sympathetic comments, but I must admit that I thought the entire discussion went back and forth without touching on the real area of concern to string players. The fundamental concept underlying intonation is the idea of a system of pitch.
It is like the scientific concepts of accuracy versus precision. Accuracy is the right and wrong, ie: is it the note desired or not. Precision is the degree of exactness achieved in the approach to the note. They are not the same.
Let me take a moment to tell you how this worked in my life. I am a 66 year old violinist, former scientist (biophysical protein chemist), and former piano technician and tuner. In my family I am the second generation of violinists and have had many struggles with intonation until I was taught by a true master of the art how to tune a piano. Until that time I had been very dissatisfied with my intonation, even when others thought it was exceptional.
I studied violin with my father, Louis Berman (Curtis Quartet) and later with Jani Szanto, who also taught Bill Steck, later concertmaster of Atlanta and then the National. No problems with them about my intonation. I hated it, could not stand to listen to myself on tape, but they liked it.
What the piano method taught me I believe would help every string player, if not to improve his/her intonation, certainly to learn to put any piece in tune faster. The concept is this, to learn the definitions of tempered and untempered pitch and then to apply them with great concentration AND, surprisingly enough, with the aid of a modern electronic tuning device.
Untempered pitch is , simply defined, playing (or tuning, in the case of a piano) in one universal key, and this is how the tuning devices (I call them meters) are set up. To accomplish this, the piano tuner uses a system which sets one note exactly on a predetermined pitch, then sets all others equally out of tune (subjectively) with it.
It results in the piano sounding in tune with itself because there is a set of natural matched resonances in the system based upon the overtone series and we no longer hear the variations in pitch which are used. It also compensates for our ears lessened ability to hear the pitch at the far ends of the keyboard.
On the violin, we have a very large advantage, infinitely variable pitch within the range of the instrument. We have neither piano keys nor frets to place us in a fixed spot for each printed note. Therefore, and here is the main thrust of the discussion, we can play within one key at a time!!! Poor pianists are out of tune for their whole LIVES without the services of a good tuner, and WE can make the adjustments at will.
So what do we do about this marvelous characteristic of our instruments? Mostly complain how hard it is to play in tune. However, if we stop and think about the system that is the opposite of tempered, the UN-tempered system, we have a way to sound beautiful that requires very little technique or advancement in our studies.
Now to the practical. We have, most of us, been told, if not taught, to play our sharps high and our flats low, and hopefully to shorten our 1/2 steps to be less than a real 1/2 of a step. But how much?
Here's a way to test it on a single note and then you can expand it yourself to the entire range of the violin. I believe that once you hear it you can do it all the time if you go slowly, so here it is.
Start by playing an A major scale, one octave from A on the G string to 4th finger A in unison with open A. Make sure that your A's both match the open A. Now take your meter and check the position of the needle on the G#, one half step from the top A. Of course your open A should be tuned to the meter, and to 440, because our modern instruments have been tuned in their construction to 440. Place the G# as close to A as you can before it sounds distinctly out of tune to you.
Next, play an A flat major scale, same place on the instrument, one half step below the first scale. Start this on on A flat on the G string, tuning the note as low towards the open G as you can go before you hear it to be distinctly out of tune. As with all pitch considerations there is an element of subjectivity here but the idea is that you can hear it close enough that the meter will agree with your assessment. When you get to the higher A flat a 1/2 step below the open A, check it against the lower octave, then against the meter.
For these two notes, your G# and A flat, you should see the needle go noticeably above and then below the G# center line or green light.
The exact distance between the pitch that sounds right for the G# and A flat will vary with both the individual player and fiddle but the meter should reflect the difference to some degree for everyone and every instrument.
Keep in mind that the meter is tempered!! You cannot use it for all the notes or you will be forever out of tune like a piano, but with an overtone series that does not support that system of pitch. Each individual can be different degrees off the temperament, but some compensation is necessary for the various keys to support the strengths and weaknesses of the overtone series unique to the violin in general and yours in particular.
I believe this is what Laurie was talking about when she referred to relating pitch to the resonances of the instrument.
Finally, if you're still awake after all this rambling, please experiment and do it systematically so you can write more to us others interested in perfecting the performance and teaching of good intonation, and see if the concepts of pitch that lead into the idea of intonation on a continuously variable instrument will lead you even further on your own to ideas of interpretation using the concepts of pitch. I believe many players will be happy to hear of your results.
One footnote. I have only studied one of the Ysaye Sonatas, the Ballade, but even in that one he makes a note of places where he wanted quarter tones, so he might well have been thinking of pitch also. Unfortunately, he didn't write notes about his notes to tell us but it is interesting nonetheless.
Best wishes with your progress and be sure to stay in touch with your own ideas as they develop.
Karen, I tell all my new students to buy an electric tuner unless they have a piano or electronic keyboard at home to use. The latter, of course, give audible and not optical feedback. I gradually teach them to recognize fifths as I play them, and after quite a while they can learn to tune by ear when they have something to tell them where the 440 A is.
I don't consider just tuning the violin to be a problem, and I don't use the Korg to tune the instrument, except for the A. I seem to be able to hear those 5ths okay. But it was interesting when I started viola: the C-to-G fifth is unfamiliar, relatively speaking, and it still takes me longer to tune the C string than the others.
BJ, your comment is quite interesting, but you kind of lost me early on, when you said that you were never satisfied with your own intonation, even when others said it was excellent.
The thing is, I have a mirror image problem: intonation that sounds fine to me doesn't sound fine to others (or to the tuner). It's hard to know, but I think you have a naturally "better" ear than I do in some way if you can actually hear all that stuff you're talking about. I have an electric piano, tuned to equal temperament, and I don't hear anything out of tune with it. In fact, most pianos don't sound out of tune to me at all, unless they've been languishing in some church basement for 20 years.
I haven't given up on training my ear--I think it is trainable, and I even have evidence that it is. But part of that training process, if it's going to be anything but hopelessly inefficient and frustrating, seems to be receiving other kinds of feedback than my own hearing. If I have to rely on just my own hearing, and judging what I hear in the moment, I get confused and seemingly can easily learn to hear the wrong thing as right. Or, I just don't hear it at all and go blithely along on my merry way, playing out of tune and not noticing.
For example, here's a recording of me playing the 2nd movement of the Bach Double (I'm the first violin on the left):
I'm imagining it's obvious to everyone else here that the first phrase I play in this performance, when I come in, is out of tune. I can sort of hear it too, in the recording, although what it registers to me as, first and foremost, is a certain nasal quality to the tone, rather than a pitch problem. And when I was playing up there, I had *no idea* there was any problem at all. I thought the intonation had been just fine--hadn't really thought about it at all, in fact--until I heard the recording. I played the recording for my teacher and she was the one who could identify it as "sharp," as well as when I "settled in" to better intonation as the piece went on.
I titled this blog "Intonation Feedback" because what I am doing is trying to explore different ways of getting feedback about intonation. It's nice for people who *can* just hear it: who can sing an A440 cold, who have perfect pitch, who can hear pianos being out of tune, or some of these other things. But I can't do any of that. My teacher can give me intonation feedback, and I'm glad she does--she also does it gently and in a way that doesn't make me feel intimidated or put down (unlike some teachers and others whom I've dealt with in the past). But I only see her every couple of weeks for an hour, she's not there with me in the practice room. And so I wish I'd had the tuner back then to tell me about those problems with the Bach Double before I went out and performed it like that in front of a bunch of people.
Intonia is an elegant computer program, written by v.commer Jerry Agin, that enables you to see the pitches you play on your computer screen, together with an indication if they are sharp (red), flat (blue) or correct (white). You can choose from among equal temperament, just, and Pythagorean tuning systems. It is discussed in this thread.
The program's website is http://intonia.com .
Thanks for the chance to clarify my thoughts and to help you with this. I listened to some of your Bach and I recognized your problem almost at the beginning.
It is what I tried to tell you about. Let me say this for now, since I am exhausted and may not be coherent. If you will stick with this dialogue I will try very hard to break down the study of pitch into smaller, less technical steps, so you can work with your teacher in attempting the experiments and developing your intonation from a system.
You do have the problem I had long ago and I remember well the frustration. I will try to figure out a way to provide you with examples and I would very much like to correspond with your teacher as well to try to develop my own way of explaining these things with clarity enough for students as close to beginner as possible.
For now, have you tried my scale experiment? Can you see the difference with the meter? If you see it does it make sense to you?
Let me know these things and I will try to go with you towards a really precise sense of pitch and break down the steps into smaller bites. It will help me, also, since I decided at the age of 60, having been a professional from age 16, to start from scratch and learn from a friend the Soviet method with the goal of writing a book about it with him.
It has occurred to me since then that I will have to include the universal basics that all systems of playing share, and that part would, of course, include this study of pitch. So, you can see that the opportunity to help someone with it under adverse conditions, not being able to get together, will be a very interesting challenge.
Please start with the experiment and see if you can hear it. Then add another step. Find access to a freshly tuned piano and compare the meter readings for the same notes from the piano to your scales and let me and the others who may be interested in the topic know how you do. If the experiment is not clear to you I will try really hard to give you a better explanation and to find a way to show the results to you as I do to my own students.
That's it for now. I really need sleep. I have a bow to rehair, to make a tip-tip for, and also to make a bridge for a client tomorrow.
Good luck and rest assured, this IS something you can learn and learn well. You simply have to find the perspective that makes it click for you.
Best to you and your teacher,
This post of yours deserves a Humility Prize :) .
Thinking again about the occasions when I tend to play out of tune, the idea of using a tuning gadget, be it a standalone tuner or a computer, loses some of its appeal for me. For one thing, they make the feedback loop longer, and they introduce a visual element that you cannot use in performance.
Random thoughts follow..
I remember numerous occasions when someone who meant well told me that I was playing this or that passage, this or that note, consistently too high/too low/out of tune. My initial reaction always was one of annoyance and disbelief, like: "Hmmpf.. thanks." Sometimes I had got used to the false notes; at other times I was aware that I played out of tune but made it worse by applying the wrong "correction". Careful listening always solved the problem. Thankfully, this mostly happened during rehearsals.
Playing in tune with others is much more difficult than playing in tune alone. As a student I sang in a choir. Its conductor would start each rehearsal by a few minutes of intonation practice, getting the first few chords of the piece we were singing just right. In the end, the careful listening in those first minutes carried over into the rest of the rehearsal. Over the protests of my fellow quartet players I introduced the same method in my string quartet. Within a year we were known as the Quartet that Played in Tune :) . It cannot have been true, but we tried.
Other eye- or rather ear-opening things were the recordings of our rehearsals.
Hope this helps,
BJ, I haven't tried your exercise yet. I'm going to have to print it out and take it down to the practice room. Which I'm hoping to do over the holiday vacation. Or sooner--we are in the middle of a big snowstorm and the town has declared a snow emergency! I'm not going anywhere else ;-) But thank you for putting so much thought into responding to the blog of a person you don't even know.
Bart, I guess I'm not sure quite what you mean by the "humility prize"--I hope that's a good thing! I still find it remarkable the ways in which intonation can be viewed as a moral issue. You made some interesting comments at the end of that blog, I see now as I look back. My position here is, if I don't talk about this problem, don't put it out there in the clear light of day because I'm afraid of being embarrassed, I'm never going to solve it. I don't think there's anything shameful in and of itself about poor intonation. It's all in how one responds to it.
In any case, what you recommended about spending a few minutes at the beginning of a playing session, whether practice or before performance, to just get the opening notes right and in tune is something that my teacher recommended to me also. The need for it was brought home again when I took the music for the Messiah in to a lesson. We didn't have that much time and there were so many movements that at one point I just jumped right into a movement in a problematic key (B-flat), and played along for a while until she stopped me and asked if I noticed it was out of tune.
And the answer was, unfortunately, no, I hadn't noticed until maybe the end of the phrase where she stopped me. Then I was getting an inkling, maybe, but I was still more focused on other things like rhythm and dynamics, and just on getting through it at all. So she asked me to go back and play it slowly and set up a couple of the intervals. I played the F against the B-flat together and only noticed then that it was not a good fourth. I fixed that interval, played the rest of the phrase slowly, and then went back and played it up to tempo, and she claimed it was much better that time. (I of course couldn't really tell, not having noticed there was a problem the first time and therefore having no basis for comparison, but I trust her not to lie to me). After that, and our discussion about that Bach recording, she has stressed several times how using those few minutes at the beginning to just focus on intonation can really make a big difference. This was kind of hard to implement for the whole Messiah because there were just so many movements to "spend a few minutes with" but I did try to do it for at least the most difficult ones or the ones where the 1st violins had an exposed or showcased part.
As far as the tuner (or Intonia) goes, and your concerns about introducing visual intonation feedback that you can't use during performance, I see that a little differently. I see use of the tuner or Intonia as a wake-up call, or as a diagnostic tool. It's something that calls attention to the existence of a problem that I had previously been unaware of. But then once I know about the problem and correct it, I learn and internalize the new thing. Once I do that and know how it's supposed to sound, then I'm okay. Then I can rely on my ear to identify and correct mistakes in performance on the fly. I won't need continuous visual feedback or feedback from other people or a recorder for ever and ever afterwards, just during that early identification stage, while the clay is hardening, so to speak.
And interestingly, now that I've been thinking so much more about intonation than I ever did before, I am starting to notice when other people play out of tune. I'll hear someone warming up and notice notes here or there that are just a little off. That has never happened to me before. Conversely, I have been *very* tolerant of student orchestras and the like. I could listen to almost any kids' or amateur group, at any skill level, and get significant enjoyment out of it. Even if it was out of tune. It was kind of a nice thing to be able to do--I hope I don't lose that.
Obviously, you were prepared to own the shortcomings of that video recording before all of us v.com members. I admire that, and I believe it's called humility. However it's called, it is one of the factors of enlightenment.
This entry has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.
Violinist.com is made possible by...
Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.