Why do teachers expect you to play more in tune if you go slower?

April 17, 2019, 7:58 AM · Here's a quick experience I've had with 2 different violin teachers I'd like to share. When practicing a piece in a lesson, or when you're learning something taught by your teacher, I've noticed that if I start to play some notes out of tune, they will say "play it slower", expecting me to be more in tune.

What? No, I can't do that. If I play slower, I'm gonna sound just as out of tune as before, but slower. Playing slower makes me control better the sync between bow and fingerings, but I won't play more in tune, I don't see the correlation between tempo and intonation.

I mean, yeah, there's a limit, if you go crazy on speed of course you will go out of tune, but I'm talking here about small changes. For example, I'm playing a 90 bpm piece, and since I'm a beginner I have not mastered intonation yet, so sometimes I will play slightly out of tune, noticeable. My teacher would say "play it slower, may be 60 bpm". What happens next is that I play it slower, but more or less just as out of tune as before, and I notice a frustration look from my teacher, expecting me to play... almost perfectly in tune now that I'm just at 60 bpm?

I don't get that.

Replies (27)

April 17, 2019, 8:30 AM · Your teacher may expect that you'll adjust (i.e. slide) each out-of-tune note at the slower tempo. It could be that either 60 bpm isn't slow enough for you to adjust the notes, or you're gripping the violin so tightly that you can't move your fingers at all once you've put them down.

Sliding into the note at a slow speed is controversial. My current teacher wants me to do that, but previous teachers preferred that I simply pick up the errant finger and try again to put it down in tune. The theory against "sliding" is that you'll learn to slide into the note rather than placing your finger in the right spot. I haven't yet found this to be a consequence.

Edited: April 17, 2019, 8:51 AM · It's because audiation is (or should be) a significant component of intonation. You "pre-hear" the note in your head before it goes down. Intonation is not really just a physical thing. You can de-tune the violin of a good violinist and they'll still play in tune, automatically adjusting where their fingers go.

Thus, playing more slowly gives you more time to "pre-hear" and aim your fingers.

Sliding is useful to learn for performance. For learning purposes, re-placing the fingers when working on a passage is preferable.

April 17, 2019, 9:09 AM · Doing any kind of complex physical activity slower should, in theory, result in greater accuracy. The same is true whether you're serving a tennis game, pitching a baseball, doing a gymnastics routine, or learning a passage on the piano.

It sounds like you are covering up intonation problems with speed, and that you lack the patience to slow down and listen. In the end, it's not so much about the tempo, but about listening and perceiving.

April 17, 2019, 9:21 AM · My teachers always suggested playing slower when my intonation was off. I never assumed that that would fix anything, rather that it would raise my chances to fix it. The slower you play the better you can hear every note, the more time you have to hear exactly what you are doing.

One of my teachers used playing slowly in an extreme fashion: She wanted us to play a piece slowly, no vibrato, no rhythm. Just play one note after another and tune it exactly before going on to the next. This exercise is time consuming but I think useful: It helps you "memorize" pitches which helps in playing the piece you are practicing. But I think it improves your intonation in general because such an exercise improves your facility to "hear a note in your head" as Lydia put it.

April 17, 2019, 9:42 AM · Slower pulse = the note lasts longer so more time to react and get to the correct place OR there is more time between notes to think about where the next finger is going.

When a student "makes a mistake", I need to know or find out, is it a matter of not even knowing it was wrong, or just not knowing how to correct it, or having knowledge of the error and the remedy but not doing it consistently because of unfamiliarity, going too fast, inattention, etc.? For beginners, I would say intonation is about half steps: knowing which fingers are close together on which string (and doing it). "Play it slower" may or may not be sufficient instruction, depending on the root cause.

What amuses me sometimes is when a student makes a face (knows it's wrong) and stays on the note (whether it's a LH or RH problem). If we are not specifically doing "practice performing" (keep going no matter what), I may have to say, if you don't like what you heard, do something about it; don't just stay there and suffer! I'm not concerned about occasional sliding but for example, if you do the same slide four times in a row, you clearly have the ability to self-adjust and now we will work on not going to the wrong place first.

April 17, 2019, 12:44 PM · I'm all open to face mistakes, indeed I do. I don't, or don't try to, cover my intonation mistakes by speeding things up. Not at all, or at least not consciously. If I play slower my aim for the note is pretty much the same, I guess. My point is, talking about accuracy and aiming: I don't know how to aim with a gun, I shoot more or lees to the target but I can't control my aiming really. Shooting slower/waiting more until I pull the trigger is something I don't find helpful, my problems is not the tempo or that I shoot too fast, my problem is, no matter how slow I perform, the intonation problems are there.

Didn't you have to practice scales to improve intonation?
I don't know, I understand how you can build up speed and sync between the arms and fingers, but the intonation topic is something I don't know how violinist learn to master, it seems so random to me.

Yeah, you can re-adjust your finger, or slide up/down, to tune to the actual note, but the thing is you have to play the right note in the first place.

:)

April 17, 2019, 1:06 PM · Adjusting the finger is a step toward getting the note right the first time. Much of learning to play music is learning to listen to oneself accurately. If you aren't listening to your own playing at a slow speed, then you likely won't play more in tune when you slow down, but it's a skill that comes with time.

Like was mentioned above, you start to pre-hear the note in your mind's ear before you play it, and when you play it wrong, the stronger your need to recognize that it was wrong and to correct it, the more you will pay attention to your intonation, and the more you will build that skill. Really, when you practice, it can reap big rewards to check every note and have it clearly defined before trying it at any speed, because it's easy to hand-wave intonation issues for years.

A lot of this will either sound like tautology, or nonsense, or abstract or something to someone early in their journey, but eventually, if you want to play in tune, you hit a point where you realize you have to not be satisfied with what you thought was good enough, and that's when you may start doing the fine-grain work (listening to yourself) that is required for consistent intonation. It's really true of any aspect of playing (vibrato, tone, phrasing etc)

April 17, 2019, 1:07 PM · You have more time to slide around and find the correct pitch, so naturally they should expect you to have better intonation overall.
April 17, 2019, 1:18 PM · You sound frustrated, Paul. I believe there are very few violinists who have never been frustrated by intonation problems. So keep at it, use the tips you are getting and be patient!
April 17, 2019, 1:51 PM · Slower tempo allows you to hear the intonation problems. But in real time, adjusting the pitch by sliding is not practical. Either there isn't enough time, or the audience will hear you bending the notes. The real challenge of playing in tune is teaching your fingers to land on the right spot every time, with a margin of error of about 10% (1 mm !) in first position. Vibrato saves all of us. It is not cheating.
April 17, 2019, 2:21 PM · "Yeah, you can re-adjust your finger, or slide up/down, to tune to the actual note, but the thing is you have to play the right note in the first place."

Ah, but when you're learning the instrument, making those physical adjustments gives you information that will help you place your finger more accurately the next time you play that note.

April 17, 2019, 4:32 PM · I don't consider 60 bpm to be slow. I expect my students to play much more slowly than that when they are first learning a piece. Some do, some don't. The ones who do play better in tune.

Playing something slowly allows you to think about where you are placing your fingers before they go down. It also gives you time to listen and fix intonation issues, thus improving your accuracy the next time.

April 17, 2019, 7:34 PM · Mary, the piece I was talking about is played at about 110 bpm. I practice it at 90 bpm to control it and learn it solidly, and reducing it to 60 bpm is a lot of reduction. You can't know if 60 bpm is a lot or not if you don't know the original tempo of the piece, and more important, if there are mostly quavers, or semi-quavers... I might play it even slower, I'm not 100% sure it's 60 bpm, but I guessed.

So, what are scales good for then? I thought it was mainly for intonation purposes. Thank you all.

Edited: April 17, 2019, 8:58 PM · It's pretty common for me to practice something at 1/3 (or so) of the tempo to make sure intonation, string crossings, chords and any tricky rhythms are correct and as clean as I can get them. For me 90 would be way too fast for careful practice if the tempo is 110. If the piece is quarter note equals 110, I might work at eighth note equals 80 for a while.
Edited: April 17, 2019, 9:52 PM · When I ask my students to practice something slowly, especially when they are first learning the piece, I mean something well under half tempo. 60 bpm on a piece with a performance tempo of 110 is too fast for effective slow practice.

Here's an example from my past: anyone who has taken professional orchestra auditions knows about the Schumann Scherzo; it's on every violin list, and it goes very fast--nonstop sixteenth notes at 144 (some recommend 138). When I was preparing to audition for my current job (spoiler alert: I won the audition), I started preparing the list about six weeks in advance. Even though I already knew the Schumann Scherzo and had played it at previous auditions, I started over as if it were new and played it through very slowly, under the slowest mark on the metronome, holding each note until it was in tune.

When I was satisfied that I had played every individual sixteenth note exactly in tune, I set the metronome at 42 and practiced at that tempo until I was satisfied that every individual sixteenth was exactly in tune.

Then I moved the metronome up...to 44...and did the same thing.

Then 46. And so on, notch by notch, not skipping a single one, not moving the tempo ahead until I was playing it perfectly in tune at the previous tempo.

I am talking about one page (the first page) of sixteenth notes, and the entire process took over a month before I got back up to 144, and I was also practicing the other pieces on the list as well. It was excruciating. But at the audition, I absolutely nailed the Schumann Scherzo.

Slow practice works. The slower you can stand it and the more thoughtfully you work at those slow tempos, the better it works.

April 17, 2019, 10:36 PM · I haven't read previous replies, but just a quick thought based on my teaching:

I always tell my students "playing slow doesn't mean slow motion.". All the slowness occurs *in between* each note.

Try this: Play the first note. Now stop. Breathe. Now, place your finger for the next note, and adjust it based on both how it feels and how it looks. Then, bow the note and see if it was correct.

Repeat this for every note.

April 17, 2019, 10:59 PM · There are also different types of "playing slowly" - such as slower overall tempo (bpm) vs. stopping between each note or groups of notes (basically, it's practicing a passage with different rhythms). The piece can be going by slowly but you prepare your finger and/or bow quickly. The sync between bow and fingerings is really that the finger arrives (or leaves) a split micro second before the bow draws the sound.
April 18, 2019, 12:29 AM · "So, what are scales good for then? I thought it was mainly for intonation purposes."

The practice of scales is to learn the keys. Pianists play scales - is it so that they can play more in tune?

"You hit the ball, you catch the ball..". The violin version is you know the pitch, you play the pitch - the two separate things you have to do play in tune. Odds are that you don't know the target pitch (well enough) so you need to learn that using some reference, and once you do, to play it, including hearing the errors and correcting them, which is what slowing down facilitates. As does double-bowing for some reason - maybe hearing the transient?

April 18, 2019, 4:26 AM · Thanks for your help! :)
April 18, 2019, 10:16 AM · Mary Ellen - it's wonderful to read that a seasoned pro approaches their work in this way (just as you/others teach students to work up a piece to speed)! I'm doing this with a piece whose performance tempo ranges from 110bpm-130bpm (depending on the interpretation one is referencing), I'm aiming for 110bpm to start. Following the same methodology as Mary Ellen: starting with 40bpm per EIGHTH note (which is like 20bpm/quarter note - talk about slow...), I'm now up to just past the halfway mark at 138bpm per whole note - which feels torturously (needlessly?) slow in terms of learning curve. I made some interesting discoveries along the way with this (right and left hand stuff) so it has been worth it to put the work in beyond the intonation benefits.

I'm told frustration with intonation is a lifelong malady - I've come to accept it, kind of like my allergies.

April 18, 2019, 10:24 AM · continued,- Slow practice also gives you time to plan prepared fingerings, decide when to leave fingers down, and when to lift them. Most of our technical problems happen between the notes. Another possibly apocryphal Heifetz story; He would practice a piece at exactly 1/2 tempo.
April 18, 2019, 10:34 AM · Yes...Heifetz could practice at half tempo. The rest of us mortals need to go more slowly. :-)
April 18, 2019, 7:12 PM · Practicing slowly gives you time to anticipate the pitch, but you have to actually practice the act of.... 'anticipating'. This requires even much slower practice than you ever thought. The inner ear needs to be trained to hear the notes in a micro second before it is played, and that takes very slow practice. Scales, arpeggios, and intervals are utilized in this initial training. The exercise is simply to hear the note before it is played, and if the note is not played in tune no adjusting is permitted, one must begin again until you can 'hear' it....hear it in tune, play it in tune, repeat. That can take years until one can play all notes in-tune with or without micro adjustments. Because it is what you hear is what you play.
Edited: April 18, 2019, 10:29 PM · There is a wonderful video on slow practicing for intonation by Sassmannshaus at violinmasterclass.com. He shows you exactly how to do it, with demonstration by a student.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R5y1uR5txww

April 18, 2019, 10:46 PM · Let's put it this way: I start at half tempo if I have limited time to learn the piece. Otherwise, much more slowly.
April 19, 2019, 2:16 AM · Here is a video which demonstrates what I was trying to describe at the basic level of learning intonation.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kJO_00_ixr4

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