In Texas, sports are everything, so I figured I had found an escape from it when I started the violin in my Dallas elementary school. I experienced a little bit of dread when our teacher, Ms. Cook, asked us to draw a straight bow. I breathed easier when I realized she meant straight-ish. Even though I had zero athletic ability, I was heartened by the violin primer that tried to make me think that the violin was easy. By the time it dawned on me that my bow was scratching, flopping around, and off-target much of the time, I couldn’t back out. My parents had rented the violin for one year.
What I needed, I didn’t have: the ability to judge space when there were literally no reference points. It would be a long time before it sunk in that there were no frets on the fingerboard.
My intonation was at the whim of unknown forces. Fortunately, many of the kids in our orchestra were sports-challenged, so we happily flailed away and collectively sounded much better than individually.
There’s a Time and A Place for Every Note
Within three months of starting the violin, I felt at home in our school orchestra. The music ringing in my ear helped me ignore the feelings of technical deprivation. As long as I could be one step ahead of feeling inadequate, I could stick with this new hobby. What I didn’t know couldn’t hurt me. Even the tape on my fingerboard was hiding the elephant in the room, that, if I were slightly off, I would be out of tune. Even so, a rather dark thought started lurking. Could I summon the skills of an athlete to navigate space? I knew deep down the answer was no, but I hung in there because I won second place in the contest to see who practiced the most. Hey, some rewards come in small packages.
The issue was that my left-hand technique was dependent on both time-sensitivity and the slimmest margin of error familiar to basketball and tennis players. Could I combine the two to create a more reliable solution?
Creating Imaginary Frets on the Spur of the Moment
Here is my checklist to keep me on my toes for playing in tune and listening to what’s coming up next:
How to Pick the Right Intonation Slot
I noticed a peculiar regularity that happened to both me and some of my students. If I played a note out of tune, especially after a shift, the mistake was almost always at the same wrong pitch. This was good news, since playing in tune depends on getting the right pitch and avoiding the many wrong ones. While too many possibilities abound on the fingerboard, resulting in many unfortunate pitches, my mind put my finger in the same wrong spot every time. Coincidence? No, everything happens for a reason. I measured and misjudged, simple as that.
I use a three-step formula to get the right pitch:
Trial-and-error is at the heart of my efforts to play in tune. The most rewarding thing about playing the violin, other than its sheer beauty, is the privilege to work out its puzzles and mysteries. It’s no wonder so many scientists and engineers love to tinker with it.
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