Is this helpful for intonation and general improvement?

January 10, 2019, 7:04 PM · I’m an adult learner with a background in piano while my husband is an amateur intermediate/advanced player. Lately he has been listening to me practice and pointing out all the notes with bad intonation and then I spend all my practice time working on intonation.

That in and of itself is not a bad thing, but as a working mom, I have limited practice time. I’m thinking the average student (child or adult) does not have someone pointing out all their intonation flaws when they practice, but they are still able to improve over time. So do you think intonation is so foundational that I should spend all my time on this, or will I improve “on my own” over time without needing my husband to point out every bad note?

I do have a teacher and we do work on intonation but the focus is usually more musicality and bow technique. I don’t know if that’s because my intonation isn’t that bad or because she is going easy on me as an adult. (I don’t want her to go easy...I’m a perfectionist and want to improve as much as possible)

Btw I can tell when someone else is playing out of tune, and I can tell if I’m super out of tune, but for some reason I may not always be able to tell if I’m playing a note just slightly out of tune (although listening to a recording or someone else play I would definitely be able to tell).

Replies (20)

January 10, 2019, 7:34 PM · You will not magically improve if you do not spend time paying attention to your intonation.

As a beginner, you should be working consciously on developing a stable hand frame, with the ability to get your fingers to fall and rise in a consistent fashion, and to play first-position notes in tune. Your sense of pitch will get better over time, but you also need to learn to keep enough of your cognitive resources free so that you can constantly monitor your intonation in the back of your head, and eventually begin to instinctively correct it as soon as you put the finger down and hear that it's off.

You don't want to spend all your time on it, but the left and right hands need equal attention in practice.

January 11, 2019, 5:27 AM · With students, I often wait for the end of the piece. If, for example, all the 2nd-finger notes are too high, it is poor finger placement which has become a gestural and aural habit; if the problem is random, it is a lack of attentive practice; if the student's criteria are less demanding than mine, I grind my teeth, and seek an appropriate strategy..

However, constant interruption is exhausting for the recipient!

January 11, 2019, 6:37 AM · While my experience is limited with only just over 2.5 years of lessons/playing, I spend about 5 minutes at the beginning of each practice just working on intonation (scales) in 1st and 3rd position.
During lessons, my teacher (as Adrian does) waits until the end and then points out notes that were enough out of tune that need attention and highlight those in the music. Then we look at what was going on that may have 'distracted' me from getting my finger down on the correct spot. This seems to be working quite well for the what (out of tune) and also the why (is it out of tune).
January 11, 2019, 7:13 AM · This is the role of scales and studies -- and at the beginner to intermediate level I would emphasize studies -- in your daily practice. You find studies at your level that have scale-like passages in them and you practice those. Those will groove your intonation and your bow arm. The thing you have to understand about intonation is that your ability to hear the inaccuracies will improve just as your intonation itself improves. So don't beat yourself up too much because you can't tell if something is perfectly in tune or not. I had another thread on that recently. It would be most helpful if your partner would point out those notes that you miss consistently and not the one-off misses. The other thing he can do is show you how to make use of "ring tones" to calibrate yourself on the fly. This too is a skill that develops over time because initially you will need more time to tell if something is "ringing" or not. Be patient with yourself.
Edited: January 11, 2019, 7:59 AM · Btw, it is worth noting that quite a few of the world's top string players find it necessary to spend some of their practice time in "reminding" their fingers where they are supposed to be landing. The rest of us are no exception!

Yesterday evening in my chamber orchestra we were sight-reading Suk's "Serenade for Strings" - a beautiful work replete with enharmonic wonders. A first movement example in the second violin part is a succession of measures on the A-string alternating between D-sharp and E-flat. The conductor explained that it is important for us to clearly distinguish between the two notes in order that 3rds of the chords elsewhere in the orchestra will sound in tune. Fyi, in this context E-flat is very slightly flatter than D-sharp, by about 1mm on the string I guess.

Edited: January 11, 2019, 8:29 AM · "Cognitive resources", I like that. All musicians have to listen to what they do, but the reasons differ with the instrument. I found that with piano you listen to yourself in order to play well, i.e. the simplest, most obvious reason; with violin there's a subtler reason - your ears need practice to be able to hear what you are doing before you can learn to do it (that's what I found, anyway. YMMV)!
January 11, 2019, 9:10 AM · No, it does not sound helpful at all to be interrupted and criticized during your practice time! Hard to imagine anything worse. Learning good intonation is a long process, neverending for most. You can only make the steps you can make at a particular time- there's no way you can go from A to Z just from someone criticizing you. Most violinists have been and are going through this, so they are usually the most sympathetic that it's a struggle to learn all the different components that go into playing the instrument, and that they all take time. Intonation's just one of the skills you have to learn, and it will come with practice and more experience. It's good to focus on it for awhile each day, or fix things one at a time, but you have to go at your pace.

Most violinists have people who suffered through listening to them in the early's part of the sacrifice they make for your art! haha

Jeewon has posted a video by Michelle Charfen in another thread about "Mindset regarding Performance" that might be good for you and your husband to watch together. It's a great vid for violin, even though it's ostensibly about parenting.

January 11, 2019, 11:02 AM · It sounds like in a sense, he is doing you a favor, but it also sounds frustrating. I think people essentially play out of tune until they get sick of it and start doing the work you are describing, and it can take a really long time until people get to that point. But it's true that while working on intonation you may not be working as much on other aspects of your playing.

It can be "fun" to play through pieces for adults, as it makes it feel like you are actually doing something, but that also has limited use as practice, and playing through is probably a better option in building your piece up for performance once you have put all the technical elements together, including intonation.

But if with your limited time, you feel like you are giving certain aspects of your playing short shrift by focusing too much on intonation, then it may be better to set a boundary and say that "I appreciate your feedback, but during x time, I'm not taking feedback", and let yourself decide if x time is always, or just sometimes. Practicing the same thing over and over can become mindnumbing.

January 11, 2019, 11:39 AM · I can sympathize with limited time and attempting to get the best practice in you can. I use one of those small clip on tuners. I leave mine on while playing. This shows me all through the song if I'm in tune or not.When I'm off it usually isn't by much.There have been plenty of times I have been off and didn't realize it. Easy to do when playing alone if you happen to be sliding everything just a smidge it all sounds in tune because in relation to everything else it sometimes sounds ok when it isn't. I never liked the idea of tapes because it would spoil me when it comes time to remove them.For some odd reason I seem to be having trouble exactly hitting my F/F# on the E string.Yes I make that adjustment after the first note or two but it's annoying.

Another thing some players might miss is a string could be loosing tuning slightly while playing.I have had this happen and almost drove me crazy because I knew my finger was in the right place but my sound was a few cents off.
It would be interesting to track a pro player all through a song and see how often they drift slightly. I seriously doubt everyone is always perfectly in tune no matter how experienced they are.The better players can hear it and correct it faster.

January 11, 2019, 12:32 PM · In my case, after 17 years of this instrument since starting late in life, intonation is a constant battle. Besides the usual recommendations, the key is focused practicing to address the problem areas. Just doing scales for me is meaningless. I need to either record myself during practice, so I know to create my own exercises such as improving the sound ( quality and intonation) when string crossings from b(a string) to a(d string) , and then repeat for other strings. I do a lot of practice the hand frame that Lydia mentions. For intonation I do a lot of double stops where the note is played with the open string to the right. I listen for the beat frequency which exists with every note/interval. This works better for me than watching a meter. I can’t imagine any activity where you really spend at least 50% of the time on basics/exercises.
January 11, 2019, 12:40 PM · Why dont you ask yor teacher, if you are playing intume enough compared to the time you have spent playing the violin? Thats the easiest solution. Ive asked that multiple times from my daughters teacher whether she is playing in tune enough, because obviously I would expect her to play the pitch exactly. And every time I have been reassured that her intonation is just fine.

Because that sounds like a frustrating situation you are in with your huspand. You have to negotiate with him how much helping is too much. Otherwise you will surely quit because it just doesnt sound great fun with all the interruptions. Intonation is something that gets better the more you play. If you are really playing out of tune, why not put some tapes on the violin to help you play better in tune and alas hear the notes played in tune as you play

Edited: January 11, 2019, 2:35 PM · Trevor I agree that Suk serenade is a wonderful piece. Our chamber orchestra played that a couple of years ago.

At the beginner level, however, I would not get too caught up in D# vs Eb. I would be practicing 2-octave scales and scale-like etudes in first position in simple keys, listening to the ring tones, calibrating to those, and then just listening for the characteristic narrow half-steps and wide whole-steps of the diatonic scale for one key at a time.

If you're going to use fingerboard tapes, get a professional violinist/teacher to help you put them on.

One thing I've learned is to avoid making recommendations about what other people should do in their marriage unless it's specifically asked for, and even then only very reluctantly and conservatively, because you NEVER have the whole picture as an outsider.

January 11, 2019, 3:34 PM · While it's useful to keep the violin in tune, one of the core skills of intonation is that if string is somewhat (or even extremely) out of tune, you can automatically adjust without thinking about it. Finger placement is relative and not absolute.
Edited: January 12, 2019, 8:54 AM · Thanks everyone. As some of you caught on, this was just as much a marriage question as a practicing question...haha! I like the idea of getting feedback at the end of the piece rather than being stopped every measure. I also did discuss this with my teacher, and we agreed to focus more on the basics this year. I think she was trying to keep things interesting for me as an adult learner, but we were able to establish that I’m not “just playing for fun” and that I’m willing to put in the time on scales, etudes and other focus areas in order to improve. Now I just need to find more practice time!
January 12, 2019, 11:13 AM · It is annoying being stopped every measure, every note, even (as I was during Thursday's lesson), but if you can grit your teeth and bear it, it is useful. 3 or 4 or more things have to be kept in mind at any one time, and this type of interference can train your mind to think about all those different things when it wasn't on the lookout for them.
January 12, 2019, 11:19 AM · "No, it does not sound helpful at all to be interrupted and criticized during your practice time!"
It's probably helpful for a very specific passage. Could get old for someone to point out every single note though.

Here's an idea: certain times in my life, I've had to practice under circumstances where I knew people with good ears would be noticing. For example, when I was working at the Aspen Music Festival and my apartment was right over the path that everyone used to get to the bus stop from Marolt Ranch, which were dorms. In a case like that, I really felt I had to be more critical of myself and not let poor intonation go by.

So sometimes, if I think it will help, here's what I tell my students:
When you're practicing at home, pretend I'm outside your window with a clipboard, critiquing your intonation/rhythm/etc. Not sure if anyone has tried this. Maybe the idea of my presence would be too disturbing to them...

But just knowing someone is listening can make you practice in a much more focused and deliberate manner.

January 19, 2019, 6:33 AM · Instead of fixing all your intonation at once, you can take the approach of fixing one note at a time.

Every week, have a "Note of the week " that you want to get the perfect intonation on no matter where it is played on the instrument.

For example, the note of the week could be D. You can practice everything as normal but when it comes to the note D, anywhere in the fingerboard, you have to absolutely make it perfect with no exception.

There are only ABCDEFG plus accidentals. You can easily go through the entire list in few months. If you do this, you will improve your intonation on a consistent manner.

January 19, 2019, 1:35 PM · Scott Cole, that problem is always solved when you live in an apartment building, haha. Sometimes I wish for privacy just so I could screw up freely! But I have a great mute ..
Edited: January 19, 2019, 4:08 PM · Your husband is being a backseat driver. Your practice time is yours, he is not your second teacher, and even if he were (and that's something you participate in deciding) you need your practice time for yourself, to contend on your own with your process. If hubby wants to feel good about helping you then you can mutually decide on times in which he will give you feedback.
Edited: January 20, 2019, 11:39 PM · "Btw I can tell when someone else is playing out of tune, and I can tell if I’m super out of tune, but for some reason I may not always be able to tell if I’m playing a note just slightly out of tune (although listening to a recording or someone else play I would definitely be able to tell)."

You've almost answered your own question with this. It's a malady which strikes all of us -- it's easier to hear someone else's intonation problems than your own, and it gets easier to hear others intonation problems as your own sensitivity increases. It's also a problem you can't afford to ignore - it won't get better by itself; what could happen however is that you would get used to playing out of tune, and then that would sound in tune to you. You have to use references at time, until you get a better sense of the desired pitch, and until then, you need to work towards that - by learning the desired pitch using a reference and then trying to internalize that.

Having someone around to help you do that - and to perhaps accompany you on piano or another instrument to provide reference harmony or unison should be seen as a boon. Of course nobody likes to hear that they're wrong.

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