Intonation!!!

February 11, 2019, 4:40 PM · Does anybody have suggestions about how to (continue to) improve intonation at a fairly high level of playing? (Conservatory grad student, hoping to take orchestra auditions or DMA auditions in the near future.)

I feel like intonation has always been the thing holding me back from greater success in competitions and auditions. I already know a lot of the tricks: practicing against a drone, very slow practice, recording myself during practice and then studying the video, checking against open strings, making sure you can replicate each shift precisely in tune 30 times, playing things in lower positions to compare how it should sound in higher positions, singing the thing you are struggling to play in tune, practicing with rhythms, slowly cranking up the metronome. After doing all these things, I still find that I struggle with intonation a lot. Is there something I am missing?

Replies (33)

Edited: February 11, 2019, 5:10 PM · Obviously the usual advice to play scales, arpeggios etc. To that I would add unaccompanied Bach because the chords and passagework are great for developing hand frame and a feel for intervals.

Ruggiero Ricci's book begins with a lot of exercises that involve using open string drones or other ways to check your intonation while you play.

And Ricci himself would advise people to play a lot of thirds -- scales, passages. Playing thirds in tune teaches you a lot.

Just for fun, put headphones on and do a lot of playing along with recordings. Listen to the passage played by a professional, then replay the recorded passage and play along and try to nail the intonation but also think about how your intonation fits with the other players.

At least in the context of chamber music but really for orchestral musicians as well, playing in tune in the abstract is less important than always adjusting intonation to sound good playing with your partners.

Play a lot of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven quartets because they demand perfect intonation and will expose you ruthlessly and force you to constantly adjust.

Finally, don't freak out about it. Struggling with intonation is something just about all musicians do their whole life. You will have days you feel pretty good about it and other days when nothing sounds in tune.

I think I was reading Arnold Steinhardt's book and he talked about early in his career he won a major competition -- (Naumberg, maybe?). And afterward George Szell, one of the judges, told Steinhardt that he could be a pretty good violinist but he needed to spend a lot more time practicing scales to improve his intonation. (Szell later hired Steinhardt to be assistant concertmaster in Cleveland, so he must have thought Steinhardt's intonation "problem" was something that could be overcome)

Perfection is hard to achieve. Once you hear intonation pretty well, your ear develops and you hear intonation more precisely -- and you're always ratcheting up your expectations for what playing in tune means. It's a moving target for most players. It's a lifetime quest -- just like playing the violin itself.

February 11, 2019, 5:21 PM · I will have to check out Ricci’s book. Thanks for the advice! I’m working on Dont 8 now to work on thirds...
February 11, 2019, 5:33 PM · Just two points that I don't often see mentioned.

- We must "nourish" our inner ear with much listening to fine playing.
- Simultaneous playing (drones, discs etc) is good, but do we really hear what we do? I add alternate listening and playing, i.e.imitating short fragments.

When something goes well, we must repeat it! And concentrate on the precise sensations between the notes (where lies two thirds of our technique!)

February 11, 2019, 6:31 PM · I was about to let my hubris take over and try and offer advice (which probably wouldn't be new to you), but I'm curious if there are certain contexts where you notice problems with your intonation

-

Double stops, passagework, places with complicated bowings, shifting and other musical contexts? Do you notice a difference between practice at home, at lessons, performing in lower-stakes contexts, performing in competitions? Do you notice differences in playing solo pieces vs. playing with certain instruments like piano / string quartets, where you may find that you are needing to adjust to your partners?

February 11, 2019, 7:09 PM · I am similarly wondering where you encounter the issues.

Is the problem consistency within a passage -- i.e. ensuring that the same pitch is absolutely identical each time within a particular harmonic context?

Is the problem having a difficult time "pre-hearing" the right pitches, especially in higher positions and/or chromatic weird passages?

Is the problem related to shifting? If so, big shifts, small shifts, or both? Up, down, or both?

Or is it something more refined -- for instance, finding the right compromise for the placement of pitches based on the harmony, need to use an open string in a chord, be in tune with a piano, etc.? i.e. artistic intonation?

February 11, 2019, 7:44 PM · A possible left hand frame issue, you should have your teacher paying close attention to your hand frame to spot any bad habit that leads to inconsistencies.
Edited: February 11, 2019, 9:35 PM · I really think Thomas Boyer nailed it. I like to practice trio and quartet music by playing along with recordings. I can't do the really fast or hard movements, but I find it really forces me to listen more carefully. And I think Adrian is right too about listening. I remember listening to Perlman playing the Franck Sonata in a recital. "Hmm ... his intonation was different from what I would have done there ..." Yeah. Guess what that means.
Edited: February 12, 2019, 4:01 AM · By the way Liz check out the book by Primrose "Technique is memory". Actually, you don't really need the book itself, as the idea is simple: It is basically just scales in any fixed position, in any key. The only change is that you always play all the notes starting from first finger on the G-string until fourth finger on the E-string. So you don't start on the tonic but just on the note that happens to lie under your first finger on the G-string. Similarly you stop (and go down again) at the note that happens to lie under your fourth finger on the E-string. But it is supposedly a very good way to ingrain the finger patterns and distances between fingers in the various (but fixed) positions. You are supposed to practice this at any tempo and any bowing you like, but being super super critical and stop at each intonation slip.
February 12, 2019, 5:23 AM · As my university professor's technical assistant, I can tell you that 90% of intonation problems I see in students come from unergonomic fingering and incorrect left hand frame relative to the passage (as Roger St-Pierre mentioned). Choosing a good fingering is an art in itself though, and comes from experience as well as observing what top players do.
February 12, 2019, 6:26 AM · I was terrified this was going to be another David Krakovich thread. Phew!
February 12, 2019, 6:30 PM · Are you thinking "intonation" means hitting the note perfectly, or landing very close and then adjusting fast enough to where no one notices?
February 12, 2019, 9:22 PM · James,
And what of the remaining 10%?
In my experience, I'd say it's a one or a combination of:
-Simply not hearing the problems. We have differing levels of perception.
-Hearing it but not bothering to fix it.
-Hearing it, trying to fix it, but not spending enough time to really fix it.
-Hearing it, trying very hard to fix it, but simply lacking the muscular precision.
-Chronic tension. Something that many won't admit they suffer from.
-Nerves.
-Poor shifting technique.
February 12, 2019, 11:05 PM · To be completely honest, OP, a simple video would clarify what level of intonation problems we're taking about here, and would probably also make the solution much more obvious to anyone trying to help.
February 13, 2019, 9:02 AM · I guess I'd always taken this for granted, but but listening to recordings (or live performances by quality players) is probably essential. The way music rings when an ensemble is perfectly in tune -- that sound is something you want to have in your memory. You get it by hearing professional performances. If you have the good fortune of being able to play chamber music with excellent players, you experience it that way. And if you don't play chamber music regularly (or if you do), make unaccompanied Bach part of your daily practice routine because it is almost like playing chamber music with yourself -- your intonation is constantly being tested and exposed.
February 13, 2019, 9:57 AM · ""practicing against a drone, very slow practice, recording myself during practice and then studying the video, checking against open strings, making sure you can replicate each shift precisely in tune 30 times, playing things in lower positions to compare how it should sound in higher positions, singing the thing you are struggling to play in tune, practicing with rhythms, slowly cranking up the metronome. ""


Most of this is bad advice. Beginners need a reference, but others not so much, or less is more. Our objective is to build confidence in our intonation, if you are excessively using some of these techniques to find a reference point, the opposite result happens.

How to learn intonation confidence:

- pick a note to work with
- turn on tuner
- place left hand at hip
- bring hand up and aim to play the note at 0 cents, repeat this hand to hip action 2-3 times only.
- now do the same hand action(hand at hips), but aim at -10 to -15 cents from 0. Repeat this hand action 2-3 times only
- then do the same hand action, but a +10 to +15 cents above 0 cents. Repeat this action 2-3 times.
- practice this with any note and any position.

So keep in mind, the more you use the tuner in this exercise, the less you learn, and your confidence suffers.

General rule of thumb: once with a reference, 2-3 without it.

February 13, 2019, 10:08 AM · ""practicing against a drone, very slow practice, recording myself during practice and then studying the video, checking against open strings, making sure you can replicate each shift precisely in tune 30 times, playing things in lower positions to compare how it should sound in higher positions, singing the thing you are struggling to play in tune, practicing with rhythms, slowly cranking up the metronome. ""

Most of this is bad advice. Beginners need a reference, but others not so much, or less is more. Our objective is to build confidence in our intonation, if you are excessively using some of these techniques to find a reference point, the opposite result happens."

I would not agree that most of this is bad advice.

February 13, 2019, 1:17 PM · Tuning to open strings or drone tones is a good start, but only for the keys, the tonality of those tones. We are not just tuning the notes, but tuning the fingers, the intervals between each pair of notes, as a prelude to tuning double-stops. Practice scales and arpeggios in the flat keys, without the help of resonance. Playing 2nd violin in a serious string quartet is good advice. Multiple repetitions of anything only helps if you doing it correctly. Practice does Not make perfect, - it makes permanent. It is better to not practice at all, than practice wrong.
Edited: February 15, 2019, 4:36 PM · I would say that my intonation problems fall into two categories:

Chronically playing sharp (most noticeable in flat keys)
Over shifting, especially big shifts

I performed Chausson Poème last summer in a master class and the guest artist remarked that I was ‘riding high’ for a good amount of the piece. When I listened to the recording, I agreed that it was indeed sharp much of the time, but when I was performing, I hadn’t noticed that, simply that it was slightly ‘off the mark.’

Now I am working on Brahms Sonata in D minor and Prokofiev Concerto no. 2 in g minor and my professor has the same critique- chronically sharp, especially noticeable in the passages full ot flats. In the Brahms D minor Sonata, the large shifts are giving me problems. I feel that perhaps my timing in the shifts gets off because I become nervous in the moment (performing in studio class, for example,) second-guess myself as I’m about to play the shift, and then completely blow a big shift I have practiced many, many times in the practice room successfully.


Now that several people have brought to my attention my tendency to play sharp, I have become obsessed with recording myself and listening back and practicing flat key scales, as well as trying to think about a narrower L hand frame. It’s helping somewhat, but not yet as much as I would like.

February 15, 2019, 4:53 PM · I agree with Scott and disagree with Charles about the value of what you are already doing.

If you practice a shift successfully many times in the practice room and then blow it under stress, the problem is in your head, not your hands. I recommend reading "The Inner Game of Music" to learn better psychological performance strategies.

February 15, 2019, 5:18 PM · Chronically sharp in passages with a lot of flats also suggests that the issue is more in your head than in your hands, too. You are probably hearing the start of the passage too sharp, and because the flat key means no open-string resonance for reference, your intonation is relative to the initial drift. Think of it as having moved your relative tuning for A. And then if you hear more intervals as too wide, you continue to drift gradually sharper.

The fact that you're noticing it seems off is good -- but you need to have a reference pitch in your head that's stable so that you can re-attune your ear to it.

When you were playing these works, was it all unaccompanied? If you have the piano beneath you, do you automatically re-adjust your intonation because you have the piano for a reference, or do you still drift sharp?

February 15, 2019, 5:28 PM · Do you start sharp or does it get worse as it goes along? If it's a progressive thing, see if you can pinpoint the types of places where it happens - most people make their intervals going down too narrow, for instance.

Agree that missing shifts is a mental thing; pick something else to focus on at that moment - Weilerstein often suggests thinking about the space under your bow elbow, for example.

February 15, 2019, 5:50 PM · Hi,

In my professional experience, playing sharp can have multiple causes. Here is some ideas to diagnose to look at the situation and find what the cause may be:

1- Posture/setup tension: in this regard, the two most obvious ones are raising of the left shoulder, and pressing with the neck/jaw/chin in the chinrest. Both of these cause the muscle along the side of the neck to contract and is connected to the ear canal in a way that affects pitch perception. It causes us to "hear" flat, and therefore we "play" sharp." Or rather, we play sharp but think that we are playing in tune, when we are not. The solutions to this are to make sure that the left shoulder is sitting down, the chest is open and that the head/jaw/chin sits on the chinrest, but does not press into it.
2- Excessive bowing pressure: excess tension by pressing the fingers into the bow can cause the string to bend and distort the pitch causing it to raise. This happens more often with people who use the extended index finger technique. The answer to this one is to make sure that the fingers stay released. The easiest way to control this is to make sure that the thumb stays released, as without it pressing the rest of the hand can't either.
3- Balance: Sometimes, people tend to balance their weight on their heels, instead of the ball of the feet. This causes the knees to lock, but most causes the shoulders to raise in an effort to restore the balance and the chest to close. This will affect pitch in several ways, first by creating tension, but also, because it affects the breathing and heart-rate, magnified under stress, it can cause the pitch to be higher while we think we are playing "in tune." Making sure that the balance is good: weight on the ball of the feet, the knees relaxed, shoulders down and chest open is important.
4- Hearing in tune and correcting: Sometimes, we just don't hear in tune, or not correctly listen to resonance. And/or, people hear they are out of tune, but don't correct the out-of-tuneness to make in-tune. The remedy to this is practicing against open strings to train the ear to hear, and also to correct things that don't sound right and make them right. This skill is important when playing in concert on a violin that has gone out of tune, fixing every note so they sound in tune.
5- Hand position: while there are many schools of thought on hand positions, some that aren't balanced may affect intonation. One of the ones that often creates a "sharpening" effect is when vibrating that people rise the base of the first finger above the neck (or roll) especially on the third and fourth finger. Making sure that the height of the hand is stable and constant is helpful in this regard.

Of the other things...

-Shifting: the two questions are, do you use intermediate notes when planning/practicing shifts, is your finger on the string before you move and do you start from a consistent location every time (same note to note travel)? A lot of times, not planning a shift can lead to instability
-Swinging: In my humble experience, straight-line shifts following the string tend to be the most reliable. Swinging the elbow during a shift often results in landing sharp. So, keeping that movement stable during a shift can be helpful.
-Practicing slowly: although tempo acceleration is sometimes good, in general as one increases, so the precision falls. In essence, the playing should correlate from slow to fast without having to do this. If it isn't, then either there is something in the slow practice, the setup, or otherwise that is getting in the way and needs to be addressed.
- As for the mental preparation that Mary Ellen refers to, here is the biggest one that I found: the biggest obstacle to success is the fear of failure. You can't think of both. You can think of one or the other. If you are thinking of failure, then you will but mostly because you aren't thinking of how you are going to accomplish a task, so your body responding to your mind does what you want: it fails.
- Presence: Also known as mindfulness in some schools of thought, the idea is to be focused on what you are doing the moment you are doing it. Many of the people who struggle think ahead. The thing is that while the mind can travel from past to present to future, the body is only in the present. Having the mind disconnected temporally from the body creates mishaps because the body follows the mind. So, the best I find in this regard once again in my humble experience as a player or that I have observed in giving masterclasses is to actually have the mind at all times on the very note you are playing and feeling it physically. In other words the mind and body are totally in line at the same time. I remember one masterclass that I gave at a university where a student did this at my request and was so desperate that he did it totally, and incredibly his playing to the shock all those present not only sounded immeasurably better, it was literally unrecognizable from moments before.

Hope this helps...

Cheers!

February 15, 2019, 6:26 PM · The performance anxiety aspect is definitely a factor. I notice an enormous difference when I take beta blockers vs without. My intonation is sometimes wild sans BB’s, moderately accurate with BB but not yet refined enough to win a major orchestra job.
February 15, 2019, 7:33 PM · Re: Christian V: I found your post very interesting. Regarding your question, “Shifting: the two questions are, do you use intermediate notes when planning/practicing shifts, is your finger on the string before you move and do you start from a consistent location every time (same note to note travel)? A lot of times, not planning a shift can lead to instability.”

Yes, I do practice shifts with an intermediate note. Recently I have been playing around with something I heard in one of Nathanial Cole’s videos- thinking about rhythmic subdivision during shifts to dial in the timing. I am also thinking about trying to leave earlier for shifts. I think I have a tendency to initiate the shift late, (by fractions of a second,) and therefore rush the shift and miss slightly. Does this make any sense?

Edited: February 16, 2019, 12:50 PM · Hi Liz,

I am glad you find the post interesting. With regards to your question and shifting (haven't seen Nate Cole's video), your point makes sense. One thing that I learnt for timing that I find particularly helpful is actually to time the shift to the bow speed, and not the other way around. My experience with situations of rushed shifts, is that we shift faster than the bow speed. So, feeling the two forearms moving at exactly the same speed during a shift, and that the left one is timed to the bow or right one, is helpful. I remember Sydney Harth mentioning in a masterclass once that Heifetz even used to often like doing big shifts on up-bows to have the forearms moving in the same direction which he thought added even more of a sense of feel and timing of speed. And like Heifetz once said, if one is faster than the other, or vice-versa, then it's not so good. Although it may have been meant as a joke, there is a lot of truth in it.

The other thing with shifts, for me, is to think of them in a practical sense. Namely, that you listen as you move and stop when you hear the note (in which case you focus on how you will succeed), rather than thinking whether or not you might miss the note on arrival (which is the fear failure thing that I was talking about which usually makes us miss simply we are not thinking of how we are going to accomplish something). In this sense, one thing I learned from Martin Beaver, and remember James Ehnes mentioning in a masterclass is that the note before the shift should be solid and grounded until the end.

Now with intermediate notes, I remember something about Szeryng saying (something that he got from Flesch) that the intermediate note (or slide starting note depending on the case) needs to be an actual note and "in tune" if not the shift will not be consistently in tune. Something that I find useful also.

I don't know if this answers your questions...

For the anxiety thing, I don't know much about beta blockers. I do know that diet plays a role in anxiety. But the big one that I found that can help physically is the shoulders. Having sitting shoulders and an open chest is really important. I remember listening to a lecture on the body's reaction to emotions, and the first physical reaction to fear is lifting of the shoulders. By keeping the shoulders down and chest open, no matter how you feel, sort of undoes the mechanism of fear and helps to keep things calmer.

Hope this helps also...

Cheers!

Edited: February 16, 2019, 7:40 AM · Resonance
- only directly helps certain notes;
- may not be in tune with the sames notes derived differently;
- may not be audible (or felt physically) when playing in ensembles.

So it is vital for ear training, but in actual performance, and in sharper and flatter keys, it must give way to aural and tactile memory.

For shifts I often imitate a "slow motion film" with an absolute minimum tension, and gradually speed up with just enough tonus to sound well, and not a gramme more. (I was going to say "ounce", but that's already 30g!)

Edited: February 16, 2019, 9:00 AM · Further to what Adrian said, how's your pressure control?

How much time do you spend "ghosting," and pulsing for frame and finger patterns, vibrato, and shifting? How are your trills (especially shorter trills terminating with grace notes) and finger independence? How consistent is your frame and curve of each finger above 5th position in frame, and extended (hand thrown forward; how consistent is your pivot shifting from 5th?), but also in flat keys in general; i.e. how familiar are you with extending/contracting, being in between positions.

Are you aware of your secondary contact points: side-of-first-finger, thumb (underneath neck, crook of neck at upper bout) palm on lower-plate/rib/upper-plate? For instance, do you have a consistent relationship between thumb and frame when going into flat keys?

Edited: February 16, 2019, 9:35 AM · Speaking of measuring shifts, try the following exercise:

Set mm quarter=60

Vibrate fully on lower note for 1 beat.

Precisely on beat 2, stop vibrato and release pressure to harmonic pressure (check finger shape for pattern in lower position, and in your mind prepare for the shape of finger in target position) and simultaneously, immediately begin a ghosted slide with harmonic pressure for 7 counts, so that you arrive at your target note on the count of the next beat 1, vibrating fully, immediately upon arrival for 1 beat and shift back down. Precision in timing is crucial to this exercise, for training: release, reversibility, inhibition, coordination. (See The Skill of Relaxation and Parasitic Movements)

As you repeat this exercise, cycle your attention on:
-freedom of vibrato, and suddeness of release to harmonic pressure
-shape of finger within frame, upon release of vibrato
-quality of slide (smooth and continuous with no sticking points)
-secondary contact points
-timing of slide
-the feeling of arrival in new position, especially secondary contacts, shape of finger in frame and pattern (or if pivoting for final note, be aware of position from which you will launch the pivot, a "guide position")
-breathing
-other postural, alignment concerns

Then rhythmically accelerate: shift over 6 beats, 4, 3, 2, 1, triplet and dotted long/short and short/long, even eighths, triplet eighth and dotted eighth long/short and short/long, sixteenths, keeping in mind your checklist as you accelerate.

If you have good coordination and release in your hand you'll feel your joints giving to the action of shifting and vibrato and placing fingers, from which you must be able to find precise posture (frame, finger shapes, finger patterns.) For example:

-vibrate fully and stop; upon stopping play the finger, then the finger pattern to check pitch; during full vibrato (balanced on the vibrating finger) imagine the finger pattern so that your hand 'snaps' into frame after stopping vibrato
-during shifts, if your joints are released, there will be some 'give', so that shifting up, your fingers curl slightly, the wrist extends slightly, shifting down, your fingers extend slightly, the wrist flexes slightly; during the shift, practice imagining the posture of the hand at the new position so that your hand can 'snap' into frame upon arrival

For big shifts, it's useful to aim for the semitone below the target (makes you listen for it more actively) with the arm and the hand, and finishing the final semitone shift with finger extension (kinda like sliding into base,) after which, you snap into position. Be aware of whether you need to be in position (need to use your 4th in the new position) or whether you can remain in extended position, and know where your secondary contacts need to be.

In general rhythmic acceleration with added rhythms, using only pitch taken from a passage, is more useful for sorting out technical, evenness, flow and timing problems. Increasing tempo is better for when you have no technical problems.

February 16, 2019, 9:33 AM · "...making sure you can replicate each shift precisely in tune 30 times..."

Have you tried doing 3 reps in 10 sets, prescision increasing with each set?

Benefits of Interleaved Practice

If you are doing 30 repetitions at once, how you do ensure quality of each repetition, and accuracy of perception?

February 16, 2019, 11:55 AM · Need a fresh outlook? The great American comedian Jack Benny has stated that he tunes flat because he plays sharp.
February 18, 2019, 4:26 AM · I recommend trying 3 times, then choosing the best one to repeat 3 times, and so on.
February 18, 2019, 10:07 AM · Personally I don't think large numbers of repetition are very effective. I think one is better off doing something just a few times, with time in between. I also think if you want to practice 1 hour a day, you're better off practicing 30" in the am and 30" in the pm. Same principle.
February 19, 2019, 5:12 PM · Erin Sabrini- your Jack Benny quote cracked me up! Thank you everyone for all these very thoughtful, helpful ideas. I am going to take some time to really mull over and try out all of these suggestions. Thanks!

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