Best method to train my ears?

January 21, 2019, 5:22 AM · Hi,

I'm a returnee at about Grade 8 RCM level and don't have a teacher now. I decided to take my playing to the next level by improving my intonation.

I have all Simon Fisher's books and using his methods to improve my intonation. One of the biggest hurdles I have is that I don't have a crystal clear mental picture of a note.

When I try to hear a note before I play, it is very 'blurry', maybe 80% clear.

Is there a sure way to improve the mental clarity of a note? Should I practice singing with a piano?

Replies (12)

Edited: January 21, 2019, 7:52 AM · "80% clear" is already better than a lot of folk!

Singing with the piano? Yes, but also alternating played and sung notes, to hold the played note in the mind just before singing it.

Start by finding an easy note to sing, then work outwards from there?

I also find it helps to double the piano note an octave lower or higher (or both) when playing with the voice.

Edited: January 21, 2019, 6:44 AM · I liked to sing scales in thirds and sixths (and seconds and fourths if you'd like). I'd play one voice on the violin and vocalize the other at the same time.
I also did regular old ear training exercises and listened to a whole lot of complex music, which does help.
January 21, 2019, 7:55 AM · I would listen to a lot of very clear, transparent music where one can concentrate on individual notes...

I think Cotton's suggestions are a later step.

Edited: January 21, 2019, 8:25 AM · January must be the season for intonation threads. Wouldn't it be wonderful if some standout professional would record scales for us to listen to? Think how many copies Hilary Hahn would sell of an album of Flesch scales. Or lower-level studies like Kayser or Mazas.
January 21, 2019, 8:29 AM · And they would make scales sound so beautiful!
Edited: January 21, 2019, 10:09 AM · I've heard a set of scale recordings for little kids that add funky drumbeats and stuff to the pure scale for a more "fun" sound. I don't know what the recording was, but the pitches were properly chosen. Perhaps someone here knows.

Rachel Barton has been doing etude videos, starting with Wohlfahrt.

Edited: January 21, 2019, 10:21 AM · I think singing is fine, but it tends to improve one's voice more than one's intonation on the violin.

Some guidelines for improving intonation:
1. The most important intervals are the perfect ones: 4, 5, and 8. Constantly check those for purity, especially against an open string.

I'm always reminding students to check pitch against open strings. More than one string if possible. Make it a habit.

2. Make your half steps closer. Most students don't make them close enough.
3. When tuning a note related to an open string, go for best resonance. Pitch is based on resonance and mix of overtones. This is really what you need to hear. Not simple intervals, not a preconceived pitch in your head.

Yes, you DO need to hear the pitch to some extent, especially for the more difficult intervals such as diminished or augmented. But at the same instant, you have to be able to feel them with your hand as well.
And then judge whether you achieved the proper amount of resonance.

This is difficult to do without a teacher. It would be like teaching yourself how to drive without someone to explain the roadsigns. You drive along by yourself trying your best to figure out what the signs might be telling you...

January 21, 2019, 2:25 PM · Bernard Chevalier has a whole bunch of Kayser, Mazas, Wohlfahrt, Tartini, Rode, and Kreutzer etudes on his Youtube channel. Didn't know who he was before stumbling upon them, but his personal website states that he is (was?) a first violin in the San Francisco Symphony.

Edited: January 22, 2019, 12:02 PM · Scott,I agree with all the advice on resonance, and not everyone with a good ear can sing in tune.. But once the basic intervals are established and "in the fingers" we often have to transpose them into sharp or flat keys, and then imagined/remembered intervals must take over.

Semitone B to C. To take an example from Kurt Sassmanhaus (which I discovered all by myself, being older than him..) I find two 1st finger B's, a low one which resonates in the G & D strings, and a higher one which resonates with the E. They are about 3 mm apart (wider than my usual vibrato) and represent the syntonic comma. I get my students to use the higher B for scale building, but to sometimes shift to the lower B for harmony. High B to C is a "tight" semitone, low B to C is a "loose" one.

My point is that larger semitones definitely have their place. For example open A to Bb, if I tune the Bb by resonance with the open D, it will higher than if I use a "remembered" tight semitone.

January 22, 2019, 5:27 PM · Play with other people. I find myself listening very carefully to other instruments, as well as myself, and negotiating intonation. After a few weekly sessions, it is interesting how I found myself uncomfortable on the instrument, until I had adjusted and settled my intonation (continuing to listen, of course).

Second, make use of new technology. Korg make at least two tuners that have "soundback" function, and almost immediately after you play your note, the tuner plays the nearest "correct note", and you can listen and adjust. Now, of course I understand that this has many shortcomings: but it also offers advantages, and used methodically, in short bursts, and with all the other tricks of keeping your tuning by listening to your own instrument, this tool offers a significant benefit.
Work with "sound back" to improve your intonation, then wean your self off it.

January 22, 2019, 10:31 PM · Yes, I agree, sing, sing sing - by yourself, with chords, with the radio or whatever. I also highly recommend the TUNABLE app - you can see your history and tendencies, play chords, and record yourself and listen to it in slow motion or with the tuner going. Often it's possible to hear things on playback that it's hard to get in real time. For me, I've learned that I have tendencies - like I hear c's quite high and f's low. Certain keys are fishier than others of course as well. I use open strings to tune to as well, since they are always readily available. Sometimes playing notes out of order (every other) or backwards helps refine the ear. The ear develops over a life time. There is also an interesting app called In Tune that is supposed to help train pitch to a very refined level - it's about differentiating tones, and is a fun way to work on the ear.
January 24, 2019, 5:03 AM · Thanks for all the suggestions. They are all helpful. I have some followup questions:

Open String tuning with resonating notes: I started doing this recently from Simon Fischer's book which is really nice. The only problem is that sometimes I become overly dependent on the resonance to tell if a note is intune or not. If the resonance is taken away (i.e. overlapping finger on D string and try to play D notes elsewhere), I have trouble telling if the note is intune. How to fix this?

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