September 26, 2010 at 01:40 PM ·


this past lesson with my violin teacher i got told that my intonation was not good i think owing to a change of hand posture (i'm a returner and so i forgot proper left hand posture) and that might have changed my note fingering! so i left feeling quite low; i am threatened by the prospect of having malfuncitoning ears (worse than fingers). so my teacher told me to slooooow down the piece i'm playing (bach's bourree, that one in suzuki 3) and to dismiss all dynamics for now, concetrating on intonation and proper slow bowing therefore sound quality(issues there as well)...along with the wolfhart first  etude in op. 45, detache and same rules as in the bourree apply very slow, as well as c major go back to the basics. note i played this etude and bourree 5 years ago before i problem is, when i start to really slow things down, i'm worried i can't get that proper relationship btween one note and the other...slowing down makes you question so much that i feel i in tune or out of tune...then you lose the overall piece, which starts to sound like some other piece at this tempo..and by losing that familiarity, i sense the loss of the notes place in the melody that might help in instating it in its proper tone place. now, i'm driving myself to get reacquainted with the piece in this anatomical microscopic way...but i'm only 2/3 through it and its taken me an hour or so i on the right track or does it seem like i lost it altogether? any suggestions?

Replies (24)

September 26, 2010 at 03:13 PM ·

 There's a lot in that question to think about, so I'll just make a little point about the hour you spent in playing through 2/3rds of a piece.  That in itself is good - it shows you're thinking and listening, so don't worry about it.  My teacher tells me, when I come across a tricky bit (and always there's at least one in every piece of music you'll ever play), to isolate that bit and loop it for a minute very slowly, listening carefully for mistakes, and correcting them as necessary - and then, when you've got it right at a slow speed, loop it again at a slightly higher tempo, and keep doing this until you reach performance speed.  I'm sure this is one of the reasons top performers practice for long periods.

There's saying my cello teacher told me once - amateurs practice until they get it right; professionals practice until they can't get it wrong.

September 26, 2010 at 04:02 PM ·

thanks trevor. yes, but for this week i'm not going to speed it up to performance level  at all; its quite a new experience for me to play this slow. i want to get the relation between those notes right.

the GDAE are almost all obvious because of the sympathetic string resonance. this makes them easier. but with other notes, its trickier. i'm reading through Auer's "violin playing as i teach it" book and he's so right about the 1st finger. its the trickiest. 1st finger sort of determines the 2nd finger..third finger is determined, in 1st position natural note, by the resonance (even on G its not difficult), fourth finger also by resonance..although the B on the E string is quite tricky...i think B is not the most obvious of notes since the B on the A string is not shouting out here i am exactly here. F on E as well. i'm using a tuner sometimes to find out when i'm "green" and when i'm "red" but maybe maaaybe hopefully i'm improving. i just want to know when that note is not thinner or fatter than s/he needs to be. the bowing is defintely better since i started slow. now i'm worried about going forte, i'm used to piano :o/

September 26, 2010 at 04:10 PM ·

It's hard to be a returner.  I returned about 4 years ago and I can still feel overwhelmed by these kinds of issues.

Consider getting an electronic tuner and using it sparingly when you are feeling overwhelmed like this.  I am talking about the kind that has a green light and red lights and will tell you if you are in tune or out of tune.  I know these things have limitations, and with a tuner you're ignoring all kinds of subtleties, you're just teaching yourself equal temperament, and on and on.  But at this level, when you're feeling like this--is it in tune or out of tune, or, what note *is* that, anyway--I think just having some objective feedback during the week when your teacher isn't there can be extraordinarily helpful.  When the light is green and you're playing the right note, you get some positive feedback.  When it is red, it tells you whether you are flat or sharp, and gives you an approximation of how much.  (Violin teachers can apparently hear this automatically.)  

Eventually, with some immediate objective feedback of this nature (e.g. when it sounds like a cat whining it's sharp, when it sounds tinny and pathetic it's flat, when it rings clearly it's in tune, when you play the whole step you think should be there except that the composer actually wrote a half-step, the light may be green but the note name the tuner is feeding back to you is the wrong note), you will start to train your ears and you will be able to use the information your ears are giving you more effectively.  

But I honestly don't understand how most people get beyond the whining cat stage just by listening on their own and relying solely on their own ears, no matter how much they slow it down.  If they don't have someone or something to tell them what they're doing wrong, how can they make it right?

September 26, 2010 at 04:32 PM ·

When I first started the violin, I had difficulties trying to tell what I played was in tune. But immediately I figured out that playing a lot with piano will help the intonation because you have a reference all the time. I started with simple pieces so I won't struggle just to get the fingerings and bowings correct. Less distraction means I can focus even more on listening.

Single note-to-note comparison is pretty tough (say, sitting in front of the piano, check the single note from time to time during practice session), but if you play with piano where usually chords will be played as accompaniment, you can have much better idea if your single note "fit" into the chord or not.

With todays technology, it's even more convenient to do so - a simple laptop, decent speakers, and some tweakings to the accompaniment audio file to slow it down so you can practice with slower speed. Though, nothing beats a jamming session with a pianist and a real piano.

On the other hand, IMHO a better instrument is critical on helping the intonation. Better instruments have clearer and cleaner tone with less harsh overtones.

When I first got my more expensive step up instrument ($2000'ish), I thought my intonation was all wrong - because it gave me so much better idea whether I'm playing in tune or not. You'll start to experience moving the finger slightly off you'll hear the harmony of the sound with the piano begin to sound funny.

September 26, 2010 at 08:23 PM ·

As an adult, you could really try and perhaps benefit from visual charts that involve a little cognitive effort but reward so much (NOT tapes. I mean a chart printed on some paper to study as a nice little homework...)  Everyone always tell that violin pitch is something you must hear. TRUE but it is still useful to regularly study some charts of the entire neck of the violin + charts of individual positions.   When i started violin, no one told me this.  I found some charts by myself and it helped me so much. 

After you can make little relations between things in your head such as: hey, the A and E string finger pattern in this position are the same as the D and G string in that position, this note is just above that other note, there is just a tone or semi-tone between x and y notes etc. 

Seems really childish but it helps very very much people who are patient ennough to memorize these charts in their head.  After, you'll see your violin's anatomy in your head (but in your head, not with tapes...) and you'll have a better instinctive idea about where to place your fingers and the relations between the notes. 

Just an idea or suggestion of something who maybe could help.

Intonation is never easy, even for pros. 

Good luck!


September 27, 2010 at 12:06 AM ·

I found the the Intonia software was a real help to me regarding intonation. Sort of like a teacher telling you if you're a little flat or sharp without the teacher being present.. Helps you hear what the intervals should sound like.  Quite a good piece of software for the price. See:

September 27, 2010 at 01:56 AM ·

That site sounds like a good idea, I have to check it out. For me, it was the teacher calling out "higher Becky, HIGHER", and of course, LOWER when appropriate. It made me realize how I was not even hearing certain differences in tone. Some pieces just force you to notice more. Some notes played together just illustrate it more. I know playing broken chords really points it out, that is if you don't have a wonderful teacher calling out to you!

September 27, 2010 at 02:27 AM ·


First of all, I think you are asking all the right questions and you are the right track.  Intonation is something all violinists have to keep working on, even the good concert violinists, they don't always play in tune on everything. The harder pieces we work on, the more pressure we are under when we play, the harder it is play everything in tune. Your teacher is right to bring you back to the basics, which is what we all should be doing. It's hard on the ego to play stuff we worked as a child, but we may not have done a good job then so going back and do it the best we can is a smart thing to do.

Poor intonation is often self-taught. We sight-read and play something in tempo way too soon. Before too long, our standards for intonation and the quality of sound go down without knowing so. This is why we have teacher to keep us on track.  In short, intonation has to be built over time so if it seems slow, keep at it, it does take time, but I wish we had other choice:)

You are absolutely right to feel the piece is entirely different when slow down. You can't dance to it when it's too slow, for instance, and at some point, you wonder where is the joy that you had before when you play it? You could discuss this with your teacher, but my guess is that you are not clear just how many issues there you need to work on, one at a time. You may want to have a plan, say, 15 minutes on playing these 4 bars sloooowly but perfectly in tune, so you get a clear idea what the distance between these notes should sound and where your fingers are. Then the next 15 minutes you build tone production on these bars, then next 15 minutes on playing with different rhythms, and so on. When you take these steps, you are not playing the whole thing so don't worry about whether it fits the larger picture or not, because you are not there yet.

Someone said this: if people pass by your practice room recognize what you are playing, you are not practicing it right; i.e., you haven't broken the piece down to chunks small enough to be effectively worked on. It helps me a lot over the years when I'm practsing, and I hope it'll help you too.


September 27, 2010 at 06:00 AM ·

I'm a returner too. I feel a deal of sympathy with you. My gap was 30+ years and my hands are bigger now than when I first stopped. Also I've since done a lot of computer work and have a few RSI/arthritic  issues. Stretches that my muscle memory says were large aren't so large. Other stretches like getting a full tone between 2nd and third fingers are difficult. But with Practice and Patience these problems whilst still there are less promininent. And my whole left hand  is becoming freer and faster.

September 27, 2010 at 10:46 AM ·

September 27, 2010 at 08:10 PM ·

thank you all for the helpful responses

@Karen; yes i'm following the traffic lights of the tuner. green, carry on, red, stop. i'm glad im not epileptic  :o)

@Casey; keyboard is not at all a bad idea, i'll scout around for one. i think my violin has its limits but its ok for where i am at now. if i get better in time, i will deserve a better instrument but for now, my teacher thinks its good and i trust her

@Anne-Marie; it sounds like the finger placement chart will help a lot, thanks for the suggestion. where do i get them, any downloadable ones online? or should i buy them from somewhere? thanks again

@John; well yes i live in the UAE although i'm from Lebanon. Very mixed sort of musical heritage, classical arabic, western, byzatine (greek orthodox and catholic churches as well as others), armenian, turkish, egyptian...etc. So not really about scales. my first memory of films were king kong and my second..sound of music :o/

@jux ta; thanks for the Intonia link, i will def check it out. could do with some tone policing

@yixi; your post i think says it all in terms of why my teacher wants me to slow down. and after 3 days of slow practice, 2-3 hours a day...i think my bowing is much calmer, i am less likely to rely on chance to hit the right notes, i am thiking so much more during practice that its a different world of practice...its not about the mechanics as it was before.i thing my intonation is much better, more conscious now but i will wait till my tnext lesson to see whether thats true. however, i tried speeding up the piece just to see what its like and my mind is still listening even at this pace although its easier to tire the ear-mind-fingers coordination at higher speeds...we shall see

@ Julian, after a long time of not playing the violin, my fingers felt more lethargic as well but with practice of course

@Martin, thats exactly what i'm doing as well. but i also turn it off quite often so i can get a chance to play without a safety net. just using it to teach my ears.

@ Rebecca; i can tell when im out of tune during the lesson only because my teacher's face turns twisty. :o) maybe i should record her expression and link it somehow to a software tuner via some program  so i can get her on laptop to cringe everytime im out of tune. :op

@me, to bed 


September 28, 2010 at 08:59 AM ·

@ Rebecca; i can tell when im out of tune during the lesson only because my teacher's face turns twisty. :o) maybe i should record her expression and link it somehow to a software tuner via some program  so i can get her on laptop to cringe everytime im out of tune. :op

the above made me chuckle, my teacher also makes a funny face if I'm out of tune but also, even more funny and actually hilarious, he often has a cup of water and sips regularly from it, so often I'd be playing and he's having a sip of water.....if I am out of tune his face will contort, he will want to say 'no no fix it fix it' but because his mouth is full of water you can just hear him gurgling and he sounds like he's chocking!!! HAHAHAHAHA one of these days I'll make him drown!

September 28, 2010 at 10:19 AM ·

It's when your teacher runs around the room with hands over ears that you have to really worry. That's why its best to lock the door at the start of the lesson so they can't get out.

September 28, 2010 at 04:47 PM ·

Peter, this is called wrongful confinement:)

September 28, 2010 at 04:48 PM ·

duplicate deleted.

September 28, 2010 at 04:48 PM ·

Sorry, the duplicates were not intended. I don't know why this happens.

September 29, 2010 at 01:24 PM ·

Should I tune my violin using Pythagorean or Just Intonation?

September 29, 2010 at 02:01 PM ·

"my problem is, when i start to really slow things down, i'm worried i can't get that proper relationship btween one note and the other...slowing down makes you question so much that i feel i in tune or out of tune...then you lose the overall piece, which starts to sound like some other piece at this tempo..and by losing that familiarity, i sense the loss of the notes place in the melody that might help in instating it in its proper tone place. now, i'm driving myself to get reacquainted with the piece in this anatomical microscopic way...but i'm only 2/3 through it and its taken me an hour or so i on the right track or does it seem like i lost it altogether? any suggestions?"

perhaps i am the only one here that feels this way, but when i read this paragraph,  i have changed from being relaxed to being tense.  it feels like i am watching someone running to catch a bus,,,and he may or may not make it but i am praying for him! :)

the following is not necessarily directed at the OP since i am not very sure about his situation. 

so here we have a situation where the teacher is concerned about intonation and has made excellent suggestions what to do about it.  meanwhile, the student has additional concerns as voiced in the quote.  please just walk toward the bus.  don't run.  :)

in my amateur opinion, lets first deal with intonation at the most basic level.  it is a feedback system involving the finger, the ear, the brain, with emphasis on the latter two. it is easy to move the finger around but very difficult to learn to use the ear and brain to appreciate good intonation, but don't we focus more on the easy finger part and neglect the ear and brain training?  say it together: yes we do:)

which finger to use is not important. it is not the point.  for that matter, one can play the entire 3 oct scale on first finger only, just shift, shift, shift.  at this level, the relationship to another finger is totally irrevelent.    the question is: whatever finger you use, have you really taken the time to listen very very carefully?  of course, for most people, until cautioned or warned, the ans is no.  we have things to do, places to go, pieces to conquer, we have no time to slow down, esp after watching some clips from those violin competitions! :):)    we are in a rush to get better (and in that process, we get worse)

my kid has a good ear and often she plays out of tune.  doesn't make sense, does it?  if she has  a good ear, she should have played in tune.  but that is not the case and i suspect that is a common problem among even those with great ears.  BECAUSE THEY DID NOT BOTHER TO SLOW DOWN, PLAY SOFTLY AND REALLY LISTEN AND LISTEN AND LISTEN.  AND THINK ABOUT WHAT THEY ARE LISTENING.

with adult players, because they are more mature, they should have a higher level of understanding and discipline to not to waste more time going forward.  practice correctly, aka, slowly and enjoy the process of discovering better intonation.    the writing is on the wall everywhere.  don't try reinvent the wheel.  haste makes waste.  with poor intonation, listeners shut off their ears in 2 seconds.    perhaps cruel, but the reality is that the standard out there is very high and people have things to do, places to go and their own pieces to conquer,,,

in my amateur opinion, unless the player has essentially no clue on intonation, using the 4 well tuned open strings is enough of a help in practicing intonation, if not a better way when comparing with enlisting help from an electronic tuner.  but, just like with shoulder rest or not, whatever works for the time being.

September 29, 2010 at 02:07 PM ·

Ariel, just and Pythagorean tuning have the same 3:2 pure fifth, so there is no difference :).

September 29, 2010 at 03:07 PM ·

First of all 2/3 through when working very consentrated is maybe even too fast. I remember watching Zukerman saying (in the art of the violin) that he had spent days on one line in the Beethoven concert.

It's always good to practice things slow, even if it makes no sense musically, because how will you play it fast if you can't play it slow. Practicing a piece slow for intonation will also help on your over-all safety in left hand.

When you say that you used to play, I suppose you had some kind of training of your ear. Trust your ear!! Never doubt what you hear, because then you are lost. How can you trust your ear? Train your ear. Listen to a lot of music, practice scales and your pieces slow and _listen_. Remember you can always check with open strings and from that work your way.

I'm making a free online service for classical musicians.

September 29, 2010 at 07:33 PM ·

@Al: good points on slow practice and good listening. However, which finger plays does matter a lot because another key element to ensure solid intonation often being overlooked by many is the distance beween fingers.  An action of each finger is appropriate only if it is appropriately positioned in relation to the actions of other fingers played before, playing now, and will be played next.  Even if we have good pitch and nimble fingers, we won't play in tune if we try to reach each note by thinking it is just a single hitting finger's job to reach that note. It's a team work that the hitting finger may or may not even be the leader of the hand and other four fingers (yes, four, including the thumb) even if it is the note this finger plays. In other words, if our left hand is not solid with respect to the distance between fingers and the shape of the hand in each position, we won't play in tune, and slow practice won't be sufficient, not when we play in tempo and under pressure. Something I've been struggling for some time -- speaking from my own painful experience here:)

September 29, 2010 at 09:35 PM ·

 Al, you say your kid "has a good ear" but often plays out of tune anyway.  What you suggest is very sensible for that situation.  

But I am going to postulate that not everyone has a good ear.  I don't know about the OP either, but I have come to the tentative conclusion about myself, that I don't have a naturally good ear.  Why I started to play the violin in the first place, given that that is the case, is a bit of a mystery, but since that was over 30 years ago, and I didn't know one way or the other back then, this is the position in which I find myself.

My ear does seem to be somewhat trainable; that is, I can learn to hear intervals, etc., I can learn to hear intonation, but I didn't, and don't, just hear it naturally.  I got a tuner and started using it for the first time about 2 years ago.  I won't say that my intonation, as played, is massively better now, but my ability to *hear* intonation seems to have improved a lot.  It's a mixed blessing, really.  I used to be able to listen to youth and amateur groups and just sit back and enjoy and not be bothered, but as I've gotten more critical about the intonation, that has, sadly, decreased my ability to enjoy such performances.  The plus side is that I think my own intonation has improved somewhat.

But it takes longer than 2 years to undo ~35 years of not really being able to hear subtle differences in pitch.  I have a solo now that I am working on, up in the stratosphere, and it has a high B.  I invariably play it sharp, and it still sounds just fine to me.  I sometimes hit the B so high that the tuner tells me it's become a C, and if I didn't have the tuner flashing C at me, I would never know there was anything wrong with it, no matter how much I slow it down.  To some extent I feel like I have to learn to rely on muscle memory and repetition hits.  Can I do it 10 times in a row and hit a B instead of a C?  (No, not yet, but I can do it 3 or 4).

September 29, 2010 at 10:39 PM ·

hello yixi, what you have said makes perfert sense (as usual:).  what i have said perhaps is one step prior to yours, meaning, to learn to appreciate each note or pitch individually first and foremost.  i suspect that most people who have intonation problems, as i said earlier in that post, simply have not slowed down enough to really listen, to the whole spectrum of  each pitch.  so when they in a hurry group multilple notes together, it becomes messy.   when we do vibrato on one single note, we can appreciate the range, perhaps from slightly lower to slightly higher even.  but the true pitch, like one slice of a color prism,  is hidden in that range.  when that spot is hit, the violin gives a different feedback in resonance.  PING!  the sunshine pierces through the cloud:)    but to get to that PING feeling or hear it consistently takes time and work.   for instance, i would propose that a good teacher can tell, quite easily, if a student has done enough of  slow, deliberate, practice in the previous week:) 

meanwhile, i totally agree that it is very important to appreciate the inter-relationship among the fingers, for accuracy, efficiency, reliability and repeatability.  then we get into issues like better hand position etc.  but my opinion is that with a good ear or trained ear, the ear will lead the fingers naturally and the fingers simply self-correct.  someone has to know where to go; it is the ear! :)    the ear is the horse and the fingers is the cart.

hello karen, first of, i am continously impressed and amazed by your handling of so many things at the same time,,,being a mom, wife, prof person and then ventures with music making on top of those!  incredible!  i am not worthy!

you have brought up a good point, that perhaps everyone has a different starting point with intonation aptitude.   it is probably the case that with a little learning,  it is easy to find out that some people have perfect pitch, others relative pitch and some still with issues identifying pitches and they need addn help.  i don't know where i belong, probably somewhere between the latter two.  when my kid plays, i can easily tell which note is "off", but i cannot identify it by naming it.  THAT ONE!  i would scream:)  since my kid knows which one, just too lazy to fix it before my uproar, to fix it is usually uneventful.  but i hear what you are saying.  if the e tuner can help you set up the framework and let you develop some sense of familiarity and trust, you can build on that.   if we listen to a lot of good intonation for a long time,  we naturally tune our ears to better intonation, without even necessarily paying much attention.  perhaps that is how children learn to speak with the same accent as the parents...

October 1, 2010 at 08:44 PM ·

better news, today's lesson,  the teacher says my intonation in the pieces im playing is much better now. slow practice, a tuner and ears.

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