Note Neutrality - Taking the Guesswork Out of the Fingerboard

July 9, 2020, 10:55 PM · 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.

measured 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:

  1. Remember how my hand and fingers feel for any particular note. To a violinist/athlete, the difference between a tiny space on the fingerboard will feel enormous and very specific.
  2. Trust my ear to know exactly what is in tune with the notes that come before and after. While performing, I can’t waste a moment comparing the note to an open string or other artificial gauge. The truth rests in the ear.
  3. To be in the moment, I try to feel the anticipation of the rhythm. I act spontaneously. There’s ample time to concentrate on every note, but when it’s done, it’s on to the next.
  4. To pick the right spot on the fingerboard, I think of a slot the finger goes into, just like a bowling pin dropping straight down. The little slot next to it, the one that’s out of tune, is another bowling pin. Each of them is neutral, with no chance of confusing one for the other. I notice that my mind can differentiate them, so picking the right one is easier. It felt wonderful to finally experience the delicate skill of organizing the tiny spaces of the fingerboard. Having come from a state that valued athletic ability, I felt enormous pride.

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:

  1. As soon as I hit the wrong pitch, I tell myself not to adjust. I need the time to figure out if I was sharp or flat, and by how much. Was it by a lot, or a very tiny amount? I begin to calculate the distance I will need next time I play it.
  2. I repeat the passage and try to make the correction. Most of my concentration is focused on not landing on the same wrong pitch as before. I’m having to override some pretty ingrained, ill-conceived, muscle memory. Pushing past that roadblock, it feels like jumping over a hurdle. But I’m jumping, which is the right motion. (Dragging my finger, or smudging my way up, won’t cut it.) There’s a very good chance I’ll hit the correct pitch, because my hand has established some good muscle memory after years of experience. If at first I don’t succeed, one more attempt may be all I need.
  3. I observe whether I succeeded on the first try or the third try. This tells me how accurate my movement is connected to my ear. I call that my “ratio”, and on a scale of one to ten, ten being best, I’m striving for the ability to judge and fix my mistakes quickly.

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.


July 11, 2020 at 01:45 AM · This is exactly what I do now, mindful placement of my fingers. When going to d on the a string from e string I use to always be flat now, I reach a little higher intentionally and “feel” that distance and remember it. It’s helped.

July 11, 2020 at 01:49 AM · When I realize I'm out of tune, I adjust so quickly that I never truly analyze what I did wrong. So I keep making the same mistake over and over again. I am going to take your advice, starting with Step #1, which is "not to adjust" and then "figure out if I was sharp or flat...and calculate the distance I will need next time I play it." As I read your wonderful article it occurred to me that I adjust so quickly to get the note in tune, that I'm not clear what my mistake actually was. If I can slow down on Step #1, I can then follow the subsequent steps you outlined! Thanks for another great post!

July 11, 2020 at 05:34 AM · Suzanne, thanks for highlighting the mindful placement of your fingers. It’s fun and rewarding to plan in advance and play something in tune. When it feels right, it’s more likely in tune.

Diana, it’s my reflex as well to adjust a wrong note without thinking what caused it. But the more I think about the cause, the better it is for not just my left hand, but my right as well. I get more determined. Planning has that effect on me.

July 11, 2020 at 01:48 PM · For beginning students, what are your thought on using a fingerboard template?

July 11, 2020 at 03:29 PM · @ 184, an excellent question. Just as I value metronomes for teaching rhythm, I count on many “scaffolds” to create a musical and technical foundation.

I think a template is absolutely essential, but with a few caveats. It gives the student confidence that he’ll play more in tune. It gradually prepares him to play securely on a concave surface, which is not that easy to do. As far as the commercially available pre-set, tape-on, template, I recommend them if they’re accurate. I like a rather wide width of tape so there’s no doubt where to put the finger.

Caveats: Along with the use of the tape the student should measure distances all the time. This is especially important when changing strings, during which it’s easy to confuse distances.

I try to encourage the student not to look at the tape, but just know where it is. The term “proprioception” means knowing where things are in space. It applies perfectly on the fingerboard. I’ve noticed that starting with a simple template leads to development of maybe our most important skill as violinists.

July 11, 2020 at 04:02 PM · Much of this advice reminds me of what my teacher said after I first restarted. Back then I did a lot of what she called "wiggling" and my playing sounded fuzzy and lacked clarity. Thinking about intonation this way opened up a whole world for me and my intonation has greatly improved relative to when I was a kid.

But one aspect of this that didn't work for me at all was this idea to trust your ear. My ear wasn't (and still isn't, although it has gotten better) trustworthy. Not only is my sense of pitch not particularly good, even more than that, I am very susceptible to learning to hear things incorrectly, such that something that sounds out of tune to other people sounds just fine to me if I learn it that way. For me that is especially true high up on the E string, and especially true right under my ear. A lot of that just sounds like an irritating screechy mess while I'm playing it. I probably should have played the piano instead of a stringed instrument, and I might do that in the next life. But in this one it's too late; I already fell in love with stringed instruments.

So I ended up doing several things: 1. wearing a foam earplug in my left ear while practicing. It cuts out a lot of overtones and buzzing and extraneous noise and enables me to hear pitch better; 2. switching to viola as my main instrument. I just enjoy the pitch range of the viola more and have really thrived as a violist, although I haven't given up the violin altogether; 3. judicious use of the electronic tuner to check notes that sound "funny" to me but that I can't tell if they are sharp or flat (this is the majority of out of tune notes for me. I can't tell by ear unless they are really off) and 4. recording myself and listening back. I hear intonation mistakes much better on recordings than I do right under my ear, and sometimes I can even tell if out-of-tune notes are sharp or flat when I hear them on the recording.

I've had a number of people tell me the same thing you have up there, "While performing, I can’t waste a moment comparing the note to an open string or other artificial gauge. The truth rests in the ear" but I don't understand how a performance situation is relevant. I need the tuner, recording, or open string drone *while practicing* so that I can relearn it correctly and adjust my muscle memory. But while performing, I don't have time or bandwidth to think about mistakes, let alone fix them, I just have to let them go and move on. My current teacher actually concurs with this. She believes that creating and evaluating should be separate processes.

So why does it matter what you hear while performing and whether you trust it or not? Are you actually able to fix mistakes while performing? Do you think it's worthwhile for someone like me to try to do that?

July 11, 2020 at 05:41 PM · Karen, your points are spot on and go to the heart of the matter. The first thing I want to comment on is the last thing you mentioned.

I think the reason for listening intently to myself while performing is to give myself a wake up call if something is out of tune. While I can’t do anything about the mistake, I can concentrate and measure intervals afterwards. Henryk Szeryng once said he didn’t like to record himself because it made him too self-conscious. He preferred listening more intently, so that what he heard would be the same as if he were recording it.

Concerning how good we think our ears are, I’ve had the experience of playing a note in tune, but because the bow sound was weak, I would think I was out of tune. Therefore I needed to keep the sound at the optimum level so I keep truly tell if I was in tune.

Some of my students will continually play a note out of tune, so I assume their ears don’t hear the difference. I then play the passage three ways and ask which time had the correct intonation. Invariably they picked the correct one. It demonstrated their ear was good, but when they played it, they weren’t paying attention. That gives them hope because they realize they just need to pay attention. They feel more confident about their ear.

July 11, 2020 at 06:31 PM · Hmm. Interesting. I could easily be one of your students who hears it out of tune when someone else plays it (or when I hear a recording of myself after the fact) and doesn't hear it out of tune under my ear in real time when I'm playing it. But the suggested remedy "just pay attention" doesn't work for me. "Just?" It may indeed be that my ear can be trusted when I actually hear the pitch, unencumbered by extraneous factors, but I don't find that to be simple or even possible much of the time, at least not for small pitch differences, and not without some distance (that is larger than the size of my jawbone) between my ear and the sound source.

It seems to me from what you wrote as if the way a person enables themselves to hear pitch is mostly a matter of personal preference. It's nice to hear what Henryk Szeryng prefers I guess, but I'd be willing to bet that he has a better ear than I do--or maybe a better auditory memory, or a better internal filter, I dunno. As for me, I don't want a wake-up call about intonation while performing. I have way too many other things to pay attention to already, and I'm certainly not asleep when I perform, so I'm not sure exactly what would need to be woken up and how that would be a benefit.

The idea of letting go of mistakes during performance has been very valuable to me. In the past I have been prone to let mistakes throw me so much that I just made more of them in a downward spiral. But if I don't pay attention to mistakes I can pay attention instead to what comes next, which is the only thing I can change or control anyway.

I also think it's very much worth working on and getting over the self-consciousness that recording oneself engenders. I used to hate recording myself but now I do it almost every day as a teaching and learning tool. I only have lessons every 2 weeks at most, and recording reveals so many things in addition to intonation that I wouldn't notice otherwise. It helps me brainstorm solutions and gauge improvement when I'm alone without teacher or playing partners. It has also helped me overcome performance anxiety and stage fright, and that has had good outcomes for me in other areas of life in addition to music.

July 14, 2020 at 03:18 PM · Wondering how this method works for people who play on different size violas, or who switch between violin and viola(s), or who switch between four and five string instruments?

July 14, 2020 at 08:41 PM · Jan, I think because every instrument is different, the feeling of where the pitches are will also be unique. When I observe the different tactile sensations I experience going from one string to another on just one violin, I liken them to what I imagine a blind person works with when he’s navigating space. If course, the violinist has it much easier.

So when I’m playing viola, my muscle memory encompasses a whole new set of sensations. Then I make a mental note of retrieving them when I’m on that instrument. I’m so thankful that muscle memory is such a reliable and straight forward tool for string players.

Concerning commercially made fingerboard dividers, does anyone have an opinion on how reliable they are?

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