Intonation and Reliability
Recently there was a thread in which one of us linked a YouTube video and asked members of violinist.com to critique his playing. The individual was severely upbraided for his intonation, and even I could hear that his playing was significantly flawed in this regard.
In another thread, there has been discussion of repetition in practicing, and one of us wrote that reliability (reproducibility) is one of the critical aspects lacking in amateur violin playing, which seems correct and possibly even definitive (at least in part) of amateur playing.
If I shared a YouTube for y'all to critique, which one day I might do, I'm 100% sure someone would immediately say that I need to slow down and improve the intonation. But the plain truth is that I have a limited ability to just put my fingers in the same place every time. So there will be *some* finite variability in my intonation regardless of tempo or the level of the piece.
Now, obviously the reliability of my intonation (and of other aspects of my playing) is better than it used to be, because I'm improving, but it's still audible. (After all, I'm an amateur.)
For this reason I personally feel that it's maybe just a little too easy to automatically say "your intonation is off, practice slowly" unless (a) there are systematic kinds of errors such as certain pitches that are consistently too high or too low, that suggest the player is not hearing himself/herself correctly, or (b) the overall frequency and magnitude of the random types of errors forces one to conclude that the piece is entirely out of reach given the player's current level of reliability.
We should also understand that one does not improve his or her playing by choosing pieces and studies that we can play as well as Heifetz with, say, three hours of practice. I'm not sure I'd ever get past Suzuki Book 1 otherwise.
So, is there some middle-ground here?
hi Paul, you are asking where is the line between acceptably and unacceptably being out of tune. the proof of the pudding is in the eating. every piece you play or prepare has an intended audience. this audience may be yourself, and you have certain expectations of it. there the question is easily settled by yourself. the audience may be different people than yourself: one or two members of the family, some close friends, or perhaps a friendly group of people, or an audience at a free podium, up to paying audiences. they all may set the bar at certain levels, some lower, some higher. I would say, in general, when your intended audience is, on average, satisfied, then you did not play too much out of tune!
Great question Paul! Looking forward to seeing others' responses, as I too am the (unreliable) amateur who is slowly improving in this regard.
Jean thanks for that! I didn't mean to imply that it's fundamentally unachievable, only that I'm not there yet, and my approach thereto seems rather depressingly asymptotic.
Jean - audience satisfaction, what a concept!
I think there are multiple aspects to good intonation:
Paul, this blog by Dr Noa Kageyama is a useful read,
Hello Paul D. I found it helpful to thoroughly learn the intervals on the instrument; all 24 melodic intervals in all finger combinations- it's not as big as it looks, it fits on one page. Instead of trying to land on the right spot every time, learn how the intervals BETWEEN the notes feel in the hand. A similar concept is to shift positions by interval distance. A lot of players, when moving, say, between 2nd and 4th position, don't know know if they moving a minor or major third. Adjusting the pitch after the note starts is usually too late. When asked why the the violin does not have frets, my first answer is, "so we can play in tune".
I try not to get too complacent with my intonation, but I think that it comes down to a lot of just not getting to it, where I kind of assume it will get better as part of my practice in general, and it seems like I'm starting to see the limits of that attitude as I'm working on Rode Caprices.
I feel your pain, Paul. I'm at the sixth month mark as a returnee. It seems to me that I make a lot of intonation errors that are just fumbling (in addition to the ones I don't hear and the ones due to lack of familiarity with the piece). I hear the note is wrong, but I can't correct it fast enough. I can go back and repeat the phrase in which the offending note is embedded a bunch of times (and there is a decay after about 3 repetitions), but it's a toss up whether or not I'll get it right when I back up half a page.
+1 to Lydia.
Pamela, do you understand why your intonation was worse on the lesser quality instrument? Was it something about a lack of resonance, or unpleasant timbre when the note was in tune? I ask because I'd love for my problem to be my instrument--and not me!
Jocelyn - my instrument **under the ear** resonated whether I was in tune or not on certain notes (for first position examples, G on the D string resonated wildly - if I was in tune with the G string, the resonation was not all that different than the G being slightly sharp or flat) or not at all on others (an in tune B on the E string, or an in tune E on the D string). Yet, when I would listen to a recording I could clearly hear all of my intonation mistakes. My teacher always said it sounded like I was fishing around for the right intonation - and they were right! I could not hear if the note I was playing was in tune no matter how hard I tried. This is not to say that my oldie was a poor quality instrument, it's a good German violin - just a very finicky one ;) I grew out of this instrument, and happened to luck into an upgrade that did not cost an arm and a leg, and sounds wonderful quite soon into my search for a new violin.
Paul, et al.,
Christian, I'm not sure that I agree with your assertion that the intonation demands go up with the difficulty of the music. I think that more difficult music often requires bigger jumps and whatnot that might require better fingerboard knowledge, but the intonation demands (in terms of precision requirements) don't ever change. Our tolerance level for what constitutes "good enough" intonation should gradually get narrower over time (the brain has to be forced to pay attention to the difference, at the very least) but that likely only takes a year or two.
Trill studies helped a lot with my intonation. I do them in positions in addition to as written. One issue I had was that I could always hit the notes with resonance, but c's and f's were inconsistent. I found that to be the case with my students as well. When I would play a passage, my brain would focus on the resonant notes, then sort of skip over the non resonant ones. Discovering anchor fingers also dramatically improved my overall intonation. Listening to my own recordings helped me hear that while I played, I wasn't really, really listening. Improper hand position and tension also contributes to intonation issues. It's almost impossible to hit the same note twice when your hand is tight. I think it's many little things added together that incrementally improve overall intonation.
Great stuff so far! I think part of the issue for me is that ever since I learned about "expressive" intonation, it's hard to know what's really right. (Was that C-sharp good? Too high?)
Simon Fischer's take on Lydia's points 3 and 4:
Ah! So vibrato hides bad intonation after all! *grin*
Paul, perhaps vibrato means the hand is alive and supple enough to correct more quickly.
Well I have to chime in as intonation is all I am working on right now; this is how I am working on it:
Hmm, Lydia, I guess I mean that good intonation is more difficult the more actions you are doing at once. Comparing Rode 10, which I'm doing right now, with Kreutzer 2, the intonation is more difficult in Rode 10, because there are more extensions and contractions, there is more needing to set fingers across two strings at once, the bowing is more complicated, the key has more sharps. It's just less comfortable, so it's harder to play in tune. Not that Kreutzer 2 is simple to play in tune.
Actually K2 is not in the most violin-friendly of keys (C major). From the outset you need to land a nice clean "C" and the intonation of the rest of the study depends mightily on the awareness of local harmony.
Yeah, I'm reminded of that when I pick C as a scale and it doesn't go how I thought. C at least has the advantage of having 4 of it's pitches rooted to open strings and C being a perfect 4th with G, so you can always go back and check.
I think the first point Lydia made has been and always will be THE most important of all. You have to hear the pitches first and continue to listen while you're playing to the relative intonation in order for your left hand to adjust to the proper position.
A lot of major conservatories require functional piano studies alongside the main instrument (not just for improving your pitch, but it's one of the reasons).
As Nate notes, one should definitely be aware of the dangers of equal temperament, whether you're using a piano or using a tuner gadget.
@Nate I hope what you say is true because I've also played the piano as long as I have the violin. Even more because I didn't give it up entirely for 25 years. I'm keenly aware of the difference between equal temperament and "violin intonation" though. I'm kind of a Sassmanshaus disciple on that point.
Being that I teach a LOT of beginners, I've thought about this point quite a bit. "At what point is a student's intonation deemed to be acceptable enough to move on the next piece of music"?
Paul - I think your background with the piano can only enhance your violinistic skills and musical understanding of the score when you play a concerto, sonata, or showpiece.
Anyone who seems to have perfect intonation 100% of the time, has probably mastered the art of changing pitch so quickly that nobody notices.
Yes I think you’re right Kate. Great players can make adjustments very quickly. They all know about vertical & horizontal intonation as well. A pretty famous 1st violinist of a string quartet said to me playing quartets really opened up his ears to vertical intonation.
Just to clarify: "vertical" intonation refers to just-intonation or harmony, whereas "horizontal" intonation refers to tuning a line or phrase by essentially tempering the notes in a way that offers the least amount of compromises?
Yes Erik, that was essentially what I was referring to. As I said earlier, I personally try to avoid using equal temperament tuning in unaccompanied violin music.
This thread is a keeper, closing in on the classics of the past.
Julie wrote, "Trill studies helped a lot with my intonation." Okay, like what? I just opened my trusty Kreutzer volume to No. 16 and played through that, but I'm not sure it challenged my intonation any more than any other study.
I'm guessing Sevcik op. 7? If you haven't done those, you may find them useful. I
Yes all right, I'll look into that Lydia.
Paul- Yes the Sevcik trill studies:
Paul, maybe you could preempt receiving a list of your intonation problems by pointing them out when you post the video? Something like, "There is a note out-of-tune at 1:32 that I miss about 20 percent of the time." It might even steer the discussion towards creative ways to address intonation errors, besides the usual "practice slowly." I don't know--just a thought.
Paul, are those problem spots exclusively in higher positions and/or shortly before or after a shift?
Paul another classical trick is to slow down just a tiny amount at those passages, probably imperceptible to the audience but just enough to give you a little bit more confidence.
Lydia: Of course they're more likely there, yes. But to my eternal chagrin, not exclusively.
If you read the music, can you hear the notes accurately in your head? And then, away from the violin, do you have a kinesthetic sense of what it feels like to play those notes? If you pause while playing and imagine the kinesthetic feeling of hitting the next note before actually doing so, can you accurately play the pitch?
Q: If you read the music, can you hear the notes accurately in your head?
Paul, you may find Simon Fischer's intonation and shifting exercises in "Basics" to be really useful, especially the finger patterns in all positions / keys exercise in the intonation section. (I cannot seem to find where my Basics has gone in my disorganized sheet-music piles at the moment, or I'd give you the number.)
Lydia I think that's No. 285 or such. I know exactly the one you're talking about. Anyway I totally agree, that's a great exercise and I should do it more.
I've always wondering about intonation system. Over the years I've come down to 2 important aspects of getting intonation right:
All the above advice is valid, but can I insist on
Returning to this thread after Lydia's posts in the Pag 16 - biking thread...
There's an interesting Wikipedia article here:
I remember my daughter was playing something and later I asked her teacher about her intonation and he said "it's fine." What he meant was, don't worry, it'll improve, she's working on it, but it's not going to happen overnight. And by and by, it has improved -- a lot.
Paul: yes, the perfect 4th is probably the single hardest interval for me to tune. One of the most difficult things I've had to play on the viola this year was the lower line of a "2 violas soli" passage in parallel 4ths. Even though the passage was steady quarter notes in slow tempo, it was challenging because it was so hard to hear the correct interval in my head.
I would guess that many amateurs (and some lower-level pros) also have intonation lapses because their brains are working hard enough at playing the instrument that there's not enough cognitive power left to fully pay attention to intonation and rapid correction.
I've been thinking a bit about what causes instability and inconsistency, and the question of how out of tune I really am, and what the deviance is from occasion to occasion, and how it affects the performance impression.
What I do to check my intonation is to play the treble or alto part of one of the Bach Chorales ("371 Harmonized Chorales and 60 Chorale Melodies", publ. Schirmer). Simple music played at no quicker than hymn singing speed, and so ideal for spotting tuning errors and learning to utilize the resonances of the instrument. I argue that, since slow practice is ideal for improving playing, so it should be for listening to and checking one's tuning. If you can't play in tune slowly and accurately what hope do you have of doing it fast and accurately!
Lydia, I enjoyed all three performances. You play very elegantly. And the intonation issues weren't not noticeable, but neither were they distracting from the overall performances. Definitely more good than bad. I liked your quote: "But it's not really within *my* desired tolerance thresholds."
Trevor, for the dictation test of my GCE A-level Music exam, we had to write down the four parts of a Bach chorale...which was only played three times!
Lydia, I really enjoyed listening to your video performances. I'm not at your level - I am a recent 'returner' - but I have been thinking alot about the question you ask about what to do to remedy issues, as I relearn to practice. It would seem perhaps helpful to consider, as you probably already have, under what circumstances your intonation is at its best, and also, when it is at its best, is it within your tolerance threshold, and that this then would lead to remedy tactics. That is, if when you are not nervous at all you are satisfied with your intonation, then dealing with how to deal with nerves, and/or performing more or recreating performance like circumstances more might be useful, or if when you play slower you are satisfied then that leads to practice with increasing speed and so on.
Man, that brought a flashback to my college theory class. :-)
I enjoyed all three and honestly I liked No. 1 the best. In the first section that went high, you totally nailed it, and I was sold for the rest of the movement. Yeah there were intonation slips, sure. But if I were in the audience and then later I heard you'd be playing again, I'd be marking my calendar for it. I agree with Julie that your playing is very elegant. What you lack in technical perfection you make up with musicality. To me, that's a good bargain.
The musicality is really more about good teaching than about me, definitely. My teacher has a really good sense of what an audience is drawn to, and while he doesn't demand that his students play like him, he's superb at noting what is convincing and what isn't. (It is fairly common for audience members to ask me when else I'll be playing this season, which I take as a good sign even when I don't feel I've played well.)
Maybe its just a matter of adjusting your own sense of acceptable range for intonation!
"Fourth movement"? Good grief ... three more such movements? That'a s long sonata. I can see why that's considered one of the hardest.
Er, third movement. The whole sonata (three movements) is in the third video -- the whole thing is almost 30 minutes. The third movement is the hardest by a decent margin.
I think playing with a group forces me to listen and adjust, and for me, having to do that on the conductor's time makes me quicker at it. When I'm playing by myself, sometimes I miss out of tune notes until I listen to a playback, but in a section, there's no hiding that my c's aren't right. The orchestra I'm currently playing with is really good- much better than the last one- so that could be helping as well. Playing with students probably screws up my ear more tbh. I have to work really, really hard not to automatically adjust my correct intonation to their incorrect intonation.
Unfortunately faulty intonation is a malady which many string players are afflicted with. I agree with Lydia that most important is being able to hear the note. In addition you should train yourself to play finger groups and positions. This also ties in to your practice of scales (in every key and mode). Heifetz told his students when they didn't quite hit a note spot on "No Compromises". He's actually correct because there is no almost or just about. The note is either in tune or out of tune. When you practice never allow yourself to continue playing when you hit a wrong note. You need to fix it immediately. This will train your ear to be so sensitive to pitch that it won't allow you to play a bad note. If you just gloss by the passage during your practice then you will be training your ear not to recognize when a note is out of tune. This is another good reason for slow practice to allow you to examine each note for trueness of pitch. Poor intonation will also affect your sound production because the overtones produced by the note itself will not match and the result is a difference in the tone. To learn a piece well you not only have to learn it in your head but your fingers need to learn as well. Most of the time notes are part of a scale or part of a chord which is why you need to look at groups. The way you set up your hand will result in how the fingers come down on the fingerboard. It is very rare when we just play individual fingers. I would suggest that you play without vibrato when first learning a piece because vibrato can hide faulty intonation. It's interesting that when Heifetz was asked about his perfection of playing he answered "It's not that I play more perfect than other violinists I just fix it faster." Who knows he may have been only joking or maybe he was telling the truth.
"The first G# should be in tune wth the piano." Yeah I didn't consider that because I haven't looked at the score yet. The not-so-subtle reminder to do so is warmly appreciated. :)
Trevor - wow, I just downloaded and printed the Chorales from IMSLP, these look fantastic! And they are short enough that I won't get lost (time-wise) in this type of tuning practice, and possibly headache-free.