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Karen Allendoerfer

Breaking through the plateau of okayness

June 30, 2008 at 7:49 PM

I knew it had been too long since my last lesson. I'd been playing Bach, the Courante from the 1st cello suite, and it was "okay." It had sort of reached a plateau of okayness, where it was better than it had been, but not great, and not really getting any better. I've been there, done that, too many times before.

I had tried to break through that plateau by recording myself and seeing if that would bring new insights. What I learned from that recording was that my intonation is consistently inconsistent, even in 1st and 3rd positions, where I usually feel reasonably confident. This too was somewhat discouraging, and not new. I envisioned posting the video of the Courante on YouTube and decided against it. Even if they could view it, what would people say about it? "You need to work on your intonation." Um, yeah.

So I played it for my teacher today and she confirmed the problem, but unlike me, she had an idea of what to do about it. She didn't say anything that was all that different from advice I've heard before, but what she did was connect the dots.

She has been trying to get me to put my fingers down purposefully and clearly on the desired notes and not adjust them afterwards. But I tend to often not get it right the first time, and to make too many adjustments after the fact, making it sound fuzzy and wobbly and unclear. With Bach at the speed it moves, this is especially problematic.

She says to hear the note in my head before I put my finger down. Admittedly, that part is still pretty unclear to me: I can't really hear notes in my head. I can't hear much at all really, at least consciously, until I actually have something to hear, until those sound waves are vibrating in the air and hitting the eardrum.

But, leaving that aside for a moment, her point was that I could learn to increase my intonation "batting average" through repetition. I could isolate small segments of the piece, play them slowly and repeatedly, and then, over time, I would increase my in-tune percentage. So maybe the first 10 times I did it, it would be in tune 4/10 times. Then the next 10 times, it would be in tune 6/10. Then 8/10, and eventually, hopefully, 10/10. This connects the dots of "practicing slowly" and "isolating passages." I'd been told to do both of those things before, many times, but had never done it very systematically because I didn't understand the specific goal. The ostensible goal was "better intonation," but that was too vague, and I couldn't really hear it anyway.

The key here, for me, seems to be two-fold:

1. Isolating a small and short enough passage for repetition so that I remember, when I'm done playing it, whether it was in or out of tune, and how. This is something that many people, especially people with more talent than I, seem not to understand why I even worry about. For most other players it seems to be really obvious to them what note(s) they've played out of tune and in which direction, and they can tell you when they've finished playing, because they remember--even for a relatively long, several measure section of a piece, or even for a whole piece. In contrast, this is not something I generally thought I could do at all for small nuances in intonation. (I can do it for my daughter, whose intonation mistakes are on the order of a F# vs. an F-natural, and whose pieces are a couple of lines long--but smaller differences in larger pieces tend to escape me altogether). However, it turns out I can do it, even for quite small differences, if the section I'm working on is short enough, i.e. 1 or 2 measures.

And, 2. Trusting the ability of my unconscious mind to make improvements that I may not be immediately and consciously aware of. This trust issue remains pretty difficult for me, especially because there were times today in the lesson when I played my little 2-measure section through 10 times and had no idea if it was better at the end than the beginning. It all kind of sounded the same to me, and I didn't want to reinforce something incorrect by repetition. But my teacher said I was definitely hearing it, and improving, she could tell, she could hear it. According to her, by the 10th time of repetition at a slow tempo, it was more consistently in-tune than it was at the beginning. She currently has more faith in my ear than I do.

I've started a new practice that I'm hoping will help with this, inspired by Shailee Kennedy, who suggested it in my blog some time ago. I brought along a digital recorder to record my lesson. I seem to be able to hear these small differences better on a recording than under my ear. And, since they're recorded, I won't have to worry as much about remembering. Maybe I can get some quantitative information about my intonation "batting average" over time and learn to trust the improvements and where to put my fingers.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on June 30, 2008 at 7:51 PM
Karen - one other thing that might help is doing the particular scale at issue in various forms, e.g., normal, arpeggiated, double stops of all kinds (thirds, sixths, octaves), and anything else your scale book or teacher offers. The best teacher I ever had, Rene Benedetti, often told me what, translated from French, amounted to "you cannot do too many scales." Good luck! With work, I am sure your consistency will improve. You might also want to listen to a recording of the particular piece to hear someone with impeccable intonation, so you can get it into your head.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 30, 2008 at 8:02 PM
I already listen to a lot of recordings, to the point that I sometimes have to be careful not to become too tied to other people's interpretations that I hear on recordings.

I think it gets back to the memory issue again: when I hear a recording, what I tend to hear, and especially to remember best is a kind of gestalt musical flavor, rather than any specific notes or intervals.

But having practiced a piece by breaking it down and repeating it in very small sections might help me to learn to listen to a recording that way also.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on June 30, 2008 at 8:25 PM
Try breakin it down. But, do not forget scales.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 30, 2008 at 8:55 PM
Yeah, I kind of ignored that part, because in my opinion you *can* practice too many scales. Or at least I can. While I don't doubt their theoretical value, they seem especially prone to the "need to have a concrete and specific goal in order to not be a waste of time" phenomenon.

In another part of the lesson that I didn't describe here, my teacher helped me specifically with when I should bring my thumb around in preparation for a shift during a G-major 3-octave scale (which is harder on a viola than a violin). I'd been playing that darn thing for the past 3 weeks and having a horrible time with it: there was one particular downshift that really sucked--it hadn't even reached the dubious level of okayness--and I just kept practicing it over and over and it still sucked just as bad after I was done as when I started. I'm not convinced that that process helped me at all, it just pissed me off: in that way, it was a good example of the "too many scales" phenomenon that I'm talking about.

But now that I have some idea of when and how to move my thumb--and the downshift is already much improved--I'm more than ready to go at the scale again.

From Samuel Thompson
Posted on June 30, 2008 at 9:19 PM
Yep, that's it...keep up the great work!
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on July 1, 2008 at 12:33 AM
She might have meant "hear the note before you put your finger down" as an exercise. I've seen people on here saying hear the note before you play it, I assume in normal playing. But that would cause problems if you took it literally; a big rhythmic complication to begin with. But if you hear the note _as_ you play it, then mission accomplished, right? At least if the two match. You say you can't hear without sound being present, but I think it's only the aural equivalent of the visual idea of the mind's eye. You seemed to say you could hear intonation problems on a recording, but not as you were playing. That's a well-known, little-understood phenomenon I think. Once you can hear everything you do, you have it made. You have to figure out a way for all this playing activity to not get in the way of your hearing.
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on July 1, 2008 at 12:56 AM
t does seem to me that a lot of work on repetition hits would be very helpful.
Idle thought,
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on July 1, 2008 at 1:15 AM
I just want to be clear. I do some scales, and no doubt could do more, but scales are like anything else in practicing, I think: much more effective and enjoyable with specific goals and good diagnoses of problems--something that I get much more out of in lessons than on my own. I'm now thinking about trying to get more lessons in the summer while work is a little lighter . . .
From Mendy Smith
Posted on July 1, 2008 at 3:44 AM
I have an idea for you intonation challenges. It is something that my teacher does with me - that is to play a scale with the base note droning (electric tuner is good for this). It helps you hear the intervals and correct the intonation. If you can get someone to play the scale in thirds with you, it is even better.

Another way of applying this to a piece is to play consecutive notes as a double-stop. So, play the first note by itself, then add the second as a double-stop, then the second note by itself, then add the third note as a double-stop, and so on...

As far as that thumb in 3-octave scales, that is something that just takes a day or two of work to "sort of get". Keep the focus on the shift itself (not the whole scale) and think or say "prepare thumb!!!". Sounds a little silly, but your thumb WILL eventually follow direct instructions. :) It took me 4 solid days of doing nothing but that to "finally get it".

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on July 1, 2008 at 6:12 AM
Karen, I share your experience and this is how I think one can quickly see the result:

First, the key is the ear training. The best way to achieve this is to play scales and arpeggios, not a lot of them (yes, we don’t want abuse them), but do one set/day very slowly, one bow per note first, then 2 notes/bow, 4notes/bow, etc. Check open string whenever possible, and like Mendy suggested, have a base note on by using a tuner. You have to tune the viola/violin according to the tuner first, then play the note according to the key of the scale you are playing and let this note buzz at the background when you do your scale.

Second, isolate the tricky parts of a piece and play them very slowly, block when you can. This is a test I use, I know I haven’t learned the part if my intonation gets shaky when speed up. I also don’t keep repeating a particular passage for longer than 15 minutes. I’ll move on to something else and let the brain work it out. Next day, it usually sounds better.

Third, I agree with you that listening to recordings doesn’t necessarily help with intonation, although it’s vital for musicality. On the other hand, playing with a pianist or with your teacher helps, because you are listening to the underneath chord progression instead of ‘drawing’ the sound with a single line without the constant support of a coherent background.

Finally, don’t let any bad note get away with it. Catch it, analyse why it’s bad and how to avoid its occurrence are what practice is about, for me anyway. Otherwise, repetition is harmful.

To me, in a way, playing in tune is very much like playing with a good sound with your bow: it’s a matter of degree – the degree of precision and the degree of sound quality that can only be improved in stages. It takes a lot of detailed work and hard pushes from within ourselves and from our teacher. You are just doing great and I’m sure you’ll soon go on to the next stage.

From Shailee Kennedy
Posted on July 1, 2008 at 11:20 AM
Hey Karen, good for you for recording your lessons. It's tough to listen to sometimes, isn't it? I still do it every time, though, and just recently had an intonation issue myself---I have a jig I'm learning that constantly goes between fnat/f# and Bb/Bnat, and I knew the fingering was a struggle, but I didn't realize how badly I was missing the notes until I heard it on the recording. What I did notice, though, was a pattern---I wasn't getting my first finger low enough on either string, and just realizing that has helped, and I'm playing it better. So sometimes intonation flaws can have patterns to them.

Anyway, I watched the clip you posted of your recital from a few months ago, and I think you play beautifully. Keep at it!

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on July 1, 2008 at 11:06 AM
Playing against open strings is a good idea, and I have done that. But for me I think the most important issue here is the one at the very beginning: the fundamental difference in approach between trying to increase my batting average of hitting notes correctly immediately; and what I often did in the past, which was to put the finger down somewhere in the general vicinity and then adjust, if necessary, after I heard it.

Differences in how it goes later all flow from that beginning step. One can, for example, practice slowly against open strings either way: put the finger down inexactly, hear it vs. the open string, realize it is wrong, and then adjust until it is right. One can even do this repeatedly, so that what one learns is to play a note with a fuzzy beginning and maybe (or maybe not) a strong ending. One might even internalize it that way: when crossing onto the Ding and putting the third finger down, it always starts a hair low for a split second and then scoots up. Practice it that way often enough and it starts to sound normal.

Or, do a scale in all it's variations. Shift where it says to shift, and miss the note. Adjust until you find the right note. Do that repeatedly. Even do it slowly, against open strings. Still, what you learn is to aim wildly and adjust later. In this scenario, practicing slowly can even make things worse, because you have all the time in the world to adjust, adjust, adjust. And you hear mostly the right note. The little hair of a wrong note at the beginning is barely noticeable, only a fraction of a second, only a negligible percentage of the whole.

That's the habit I have to overcome. I have to form a new habit of getting it right the first time. There are a lot of ways to do that, but it all starts with the understanding of that goal.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on July 1, 2008 at 11:30 AM
Shailee, thanks! It's good to know that someone managed to download that clip; a few people told me it took so long they gave up.

I find all sorts of things distracting about recordings. If I use a camera I tend to get distracted by watching my facial expressions, which I always think look weird. I have round cheeks and I also have an annoying tendency to push my face against the chin rest so I look like I have a double chin while I'm playing. My grandmother had those same round cheeks and she was a cute, plump, little old lady (who had a double chin all the time. She was a wonderful person, but she didn't play the violin). And then I start thinking, "eek! I'm turning into my grandmother!" None of this has anything to do with intonation, of course . . .

So I wised up and started using a recorder only!

From Terez Mertes
Posted on July 1, 2008 at 7:02 PM
I just love that term, "plateau of okayness". That's great. : )
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on July 2, 2008 at 11:21 AM
For reference, this thread on repetition hits is really useful. Drew Lecher has some wonderful and generous advice. (He hasn't posted for a while, I've missed him).

The thread was a bit long and complicated, so I skipped it at the time, and it's amazing how one can just not notice what's right in front of you until you're ready for it.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on July 2, 2008 at 11:30 AM
I've seen people on here saying hear the note before you play it, I assume in normal playing. But that would cause problems if you took it literally; a big rhythmic complication to begin with. . . .You say you can't hear without sound being present, but I think it's only the aural equivalent of the visual idea of the mind's eye.

Jim, that's what I would think too. But you can do this with a scale. Play a note and then think the next note, then play the next note, and see if they match. I tried this last night. Then I tried singing the next note first. That was a little better. It helps make "hearing it in your head" possible. Technically, when you sing it, the note is really there, in your head. I don't have a wide voice range though, so I have to drop down an octave for the third octave of the G-major scale.

I think you're right that this is the aural equivalent of the visual idea of the mind's eye. Yet the visual mind's eye is generally not very accurate for most people. All those stories about eyewitness reports being wrong, people swearing they saw something that never happened. "Photographic" or eidetic memory is extremely rare. (I wonder how it compares to absolute pitch.) It's intriguing, but non-obvious, to use the "mind's ear" as a basis for intonation and how that would work.

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on July 2, 2008 at 5:02 PM
The visual thing isn't accurate for some purposes, the interesting witness problems you mentioned for example. It's naturally going to have limits. But for something more fundamental it's fine, for example arranging some mechanical parts around in your head to see how they all might mate up. I think maybe it doesn't even have to be a complete and literal image that you have. In another recent thread, maybe about tuners, a guy named Christoper (I thin) talks about a "brain thing" that he discovered that helped him with intonation. I think it's something to do with this. I've heard the visual version termed "structural visualization" btw. I'll have to look at Drew's rep. hits again. I couldn't figure it out the first time :)
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on July 2, 2008 at 11:55 PM
"But for something more fundamental it's fine, for example arranging some mechanical parts around in your head to see how they all might mate up."

Or think before speaking/writing to make sure things come out are exactly what your head intends, something I don't do very well. I usually get a general idea what kind of thoughts I want to express and make the sound, then check to see whether it sounds right and correct if necessary, not unlike wiggling the finger to play in tune. It always fascinates me how we have enough time to compose what we want to say and then say it when we talk in normal speed, or do we?

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on July 3, 2008 at 10:57 AM
Making sure things come out exactly the way your head intends when you speak? Can anybody actually do this? (in a situation other than actors speaking lines that they've learned or something like that) Isn't that why there are teleprompters?

When I write, I think while writing. The thinking is part of the writing process and happens more or less simultaneously, or maybe with a small lag on the order of a fraction of a second. Then, if I have time, there's more time spent editing after the fact.

It's one reason I prefer email to the phone. I have more time to think about what I want to say.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on July 3, 2008 at 11:41 PM
Completely agree with you about writing. But how do we explain when people (fine lawyers and professors came to mind) talk like they are reading from a book – making complex arguments without losing fluency, clarity and accuracy and without missing a single beat? More specifically, I wonder how the timing of the mind and the speech organism works during a normal speech. Does thinking and talking happen simultaneously or one precedes the other? The former does not make sense if we were consider it being a causal relationship. If it’s the latter, the process must be so fast that we don’t hear the gap between the thinking and uttering, in most cases. Sometimes, I think it’s likely we are thinking about something and just babbling and then trying to make sense of what we are saying afterwards.
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on July 4, 2008 at 1:06 AM
Yixi, being a lawyer, you're supposed to have been taught that :) If you weren't then we have to assume it's a natural talent... One lawyer once told me how to handle a phone conversation, basically have points I want to make, and then make them in "winging it" style. Another lawyer I used to know, we got in a friendly argument over something when we ran into each other in the supermarket once. I heard him in lawyer mode for the first time then, and it was scary. Very slow, and Southern gentleman-like is the best I could describe it. He was doing with his speech what a policeman does with a billy club or special holds. Very entertaining and educational it was.
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on July 4, 2008 at 3:30 AM
Jim, you are absolutely right that law school and years of litigation experience do teach people how to verbally present a case as persuasive and polished as possible. But this is what distinguish a very fine barrister from the mortals: the latter are able persuade the audience and do a good job to win cases, but the really talented ones can talk like they write! This kind or level of talent can’t be taught. My husband is a very good talker, being a senior professor he has a lot of experience talking. But many of his university colleagues have just as much experience if not more, aren’t so good speaking publicly. I think for most of us, one way to achieve fluency is to know your stuff really well and don’t be too creative when you do the talking. My problem is I hate to parrot others or repeat my own lines, so I always end up saying strange things that make people laugh.
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on July 4, 2008 at 3:56 AM
Ha! You've probably read The Devil and Daniel Webster. If not, google it and you can find it online. American Romantic period short story where a guy sold his soul to the Devil in order to prosper, and when the Devil shows up to claim it, Webster gets hired to try to void the deal:) About repeating yourself, there's a philosophical writer who often repeats what he said a couple of paragraphs ago. It doesn't bother him, or maybe it's what he wants emphasized. It works fine.
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on July 4, 2008 at 4:33 AM
Not really from the Romantic period, but reminds me of it enough to make me remember that it was :)

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on July 4, 2008 at 10:25 AM
I agree, this is a talent. One that I don't have. But I did get better doing Toastmasters for a while when I was a postdoc. And that work that I did on public speaking helped me with violin performance anxiety too.

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