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Karen Allendoerfer

Taking Stock

October 17, 2009 at 12:45 PM

This question, posed in the discussion by another adult re-beginner, was really food for thought.  In all the busyness of the fall, the new school year, walking to school, girl scouts, the Fall Concert coming up, I hadn't realized that it's now the 3-year anniversary since I started playing again, until she asked.  I've been with my current teacher for almost 2 years; I spent a year messing around on my own before I had the courage to get a teacher again.

In the thread, I posted about my progress (or lack thereof) on the first thing that came into my head, which was vibrato.  What I wrote was:     

"My teacher has also pointed out that I tend to vibrate only from the note and above, which pulls the pitch sharp (and relates to another problem of mine:  intonation), so I have just become conscious of that recently, and when I do my vibrato exercises and scales with vibrato I make an effort to vibrate around the note in both directions."  

A couple of the comments that came back were surprising and made me wonder if I mis-heard or mis-interpreted what she said.  I could have sworn that she said that vibrato should go in both directions, both above and below the note, but maybe not.  I'll have to get clarification in my next lesson.  But either way, her main point was that I am vibrating too much above the note and that pulls the pitch sharp.  In all these years of playing the violin and taking lessons on and off, I never thought about it that way before.

What's especially cool is the way the problems I'm trying to solve seem to be linked.  A tendency to go sharp in pitch is another problem that I've been zeroing in on over the past year.  I've always known that I have to "be careful with intonation," but that has been a kind of vague and unsatisfying--even anxiety-provoking--way to think about the problem.  And that had led to the following approach: isolate passages that sound out of tune, play them through slowly a bunch of times, over and over, listening and "being careful."  And then hope that eventually, with enough slow, careful repetitions, it would sound better than it did at first.   

This did work, sort of, to a point.  My intonation did improve with this kind of practice.  But I'd have to say, it plateaued.  It got to this level of okayness, where the piece was recognizable and not generally painful to listen to, but also not really beautiful, either.  And, there was occasionally an unpleasant edge to the sound, especially on the E string above 3rd position, that I heard as "screeching,"--a sound that I disliked so much I started playing more viola, where I didn't hear it.

With this problem, too, I think that my teacher has been an amazing help.  Even her just pointing out that I have a tendency to go sharp in certain situations was a big step forward.  It helps to define and classify the problem, in order to tame it.  It took a few months, but I've finally come to the conclusion, with her help, that playing sharp is the main factor underlying the "screeching."  It's not that I dislike the E string on principle, or am really a violist at heart trapped in a violinist's body, it's that I, like a good violinist, hear it when I'm playing sharp, and it bothers me.

Like they say, knowing you have a problem is the first step towards getting help.  What's also interesting to me, though, is that while I've been able to change my thinking around the perception, I haven't yet been able to change the perception.  That is, now when I hear that screechy sound, I say to myself "oh, I'm getting sharp."  I'll check the pitch, either against an open string or the tuner.  I might go back and play the intervals that led me there, slowly, and make sure they are the intervals they are supposed to be.  But, I still don't hear the screechy sound immediately as "sharp."  For example, I don't know just from hearing it how sharp:  a hair, a millimeter, an entire half-step?  Well, it's usually not an entire half-step, but occasionally the tuner goes and calls it an entirely different note than the one I thought I was playing.  Oops.

Last night I was practicing some orchestra music.  Schubert Rosamunde.  This is a fun piece.  It's not really that hard, as my stand partner pointed out.  But there are some spots that go by fast and I still need them up to tempo.  This is the kind of piece that, a few years ago, I would have just assumed the intonation would take care of itself.  And, if a few notes were off, well, they'd go by so fast anyway, no one would even notice.  Now I'm noticing that the intonation needs a lot of cleaning up, even in the fast parts.  

From PM Rolf
Posted on October 17, 2009 at 6:37 PM

Karen this is interesting.  I never play my vibrato above and below the note, I was taught to oscillate on pitch and below, maybe I read your description wrong?

From David Allen
Posted on October 17, 2009 at 8:40 PM

Hi Karen,

I have been told that the "correct"  way to play vibrato is to only vary the pitch down, not up. The reason being that the human ear hears the highest pitch as being dominant, or the defining pitch. Having said that, I will admit that I play mine incorrectly as a result of having played guitar, which, being a fretted instrument, uses a different technique.

Check out the lesson here:

P.S. I always enjoy your posts.


From Tom Holzman
Posted on October 17, 2009 at 11:14 PM

Karen - a very interesting and revealing post (as usual).  What I take from it, among other things, is what it tells adult beginners and re-beginners about the importance of finding a good teacher to guide you.  To those who would go it alone, your post is a good explanation of why that is not a great idea.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on October 17, 2009 at 11:58 PM

I was just never told anything one way or another about how you should vibrate relative to the pitch, and never thought about it at all, until recently.  And it was kind of an off-hand comment of my teacher's, that came about when we were talking about how to make some high notes in a Haydn quartet sound more beautiful.  She said  I was vibrating above the pitch, and that was causing me to go sharp.  I'm now not sure what she said as far as what to do about it.  I had thought she said that you should vibrate both ways, around the pitch, both above and below, but there is such unanimity here on this site that you only go below, that I'm thinking now I must have misheard or misunderstood.  

At any rate, it will good to have it clarified, because I think more attention to the matter on my part will make a big difference!  

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on October 18, 2009 at 2:43 AM


First, congratulations for all the progress you've made over the past two years and it sounds you've made a great deal of it.  A couple of things came to my mind when I was reading your blog and subsequent comment:

a) By Schubert Rosamunde, did you mean the quartet? If so, as I recall, it's not an easy piece as it seems. Schubert is always tricky I think.

b) With Haydn, my teacher and the chamber coaches I worked with all wanted me to focus on the bowing arm instead of vibrato if I want it sound good. In fact, I was told that when in doubt, play the open strings to get the sound I want and then apply the left fingers. This approach worked for me in general, not just Haydn. 

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on October 18, 2009 at 11:34 AM

 No, I mean the overture, also known as "Die Zauberharfe."  It's opening our Nov. 8th orchestra concert.

I haven't hit a big snag yet with bowing.  I still seem to be able to do most of the different strokes that I need to do for the music I'm playing, staccato, spiccato, varying degrees of on and off the string, string crossings, bariolage.  Although I  bought a new violin this year (and in retrospect really needed one) I kept my old bow.  

Since  I've been taking lessons again, the big topics have arisen more or less organically out of the music.  I've started to focus on a particular topic when it seemed to be limiting me, when I would hit a snag or plateau with a piece and be unable to move forward except by meeting the issue head-on.  Intonation was the first big plateau, now it seems to be rhythm/subdivision.  Next year it might be the bow.

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