June 30, 2008 at 7:49 PMI 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.
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.
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.
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".
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.
Anyway, I watched the clip you posted of your recital from a few months ago, and I think you play beautifully. Keep at 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.
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!
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.
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.
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?
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.
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