How to secure intonation in a performance?

Edited: December 10, 2022, 6:44 PM · Hello all,

I have recently been watching my old performances of when I was practising and then comparing it to a live performance. I realised that the biggest difference between my practice performance and a live performance was that when I was doing the practice performance (without an audience) my intonation was really steady and secure however when I was watching my live performance, there were intonation mishaps that did not happen in my practice performance. I think of course it is due to nerves but I was wondering if there was any ways that I could fix this issue because when soloists perform on stage they don’t seem to have a lot of intonation issues even if they are nervous.

Jina (Jialin)

Replies (10)

Edited: December 10, 2022, 7:23 PM · Anything that decreases your mental bandwidth will sabotage your intonation because for most amateurs that's your most precarious skill. Sure, there are some people who get so nervous that they can't settle their bow on the string. But for normal mortals the "first thing to go" will be intonation. My advice on fixing the issue is threefold: (1) Find a way to settle your nerves a little better, and there have already been innumerable threads on that on this site; (2) over-prepare; (3) forgive yourself.
December 10, 2022, 7:31 PM · Greetings,
I think you already recognize the crucial issue which is not one of intonation per se , but how to effectively embrace nerves as your friend rather than something that works against you during a performance.
However, I would say it is worth considering the notion of practice itself. It is quite normal to use practice time as a kind of low key event when one is focused on ‘getting things right so that one can let the muse/passion go full throttle on stage.’. I think this approach is fundamentally flawed since one is essentially not doing the same thing in the same way.
There are a zillion different ways of tackling specific problems but most of the time one should play as though performing. So you could try taking a passage form a work and imagining you were playing it in a concert hall in front of 1000 people. I think Simon Fischer expresses this perfectly in his book ‘Practice ’:
‘ performing a short phrase over and over again is one of the very best ways of practising. Once you can already play something, repeating it many times as if in the full heat of performance is there a different level of practice begins. It is then that you gain real musical, and, polish and security.
Play a short phrase over and over again many times with the same inspiration, intensity, commitment, involvement, passion, drama and expression as if you were in the middle of a performance.’

There is a lot more he has to say on this, but just in case you were worried, he does recommend that you gradually increase the length of what you are working on in this manner until you reach the goal of the whole work , movement or whatever.

December 10, 2022, 11:27 PM ·
When you practice for intonation, do you replay just the part where the intonation needed improvement, or do you replay that part in context with what came before and after?

That is, if part "B" is out of tune, don't just play part "B" to improve intonation. Play parts "A" "B" and "C" together, where parts "A" and "C" came before and after (respectively) part "B".

I think that it's this style of practice that helps to secure intonation in a piece.

December 11, 2022, 11:28 AM · As a complement to the above posts,
"Two thirds of our technique lie before and between the notes." (Adrian Heath..) We must bare this in mind during our slow practice, be it for learning or for maintenance.
December 11, 2022, 11:58 AM · While I've only performed a solo violin piece as part of a recital, I spent a large part of my professional life speaking to people.

While I'm a "natural" speaker (no professional training or coaching) I do know what is necessary to maintain focus. Basically ignoring the audience. I was only interacting with my material and script. The audience was just there.

As an introvert I'm quite used to not interacting with other people, particularly in a crowded room. And when I'm "on stage" I'm giving my audience my best by keeping it internal, just me and the material. I'm not looking at the audience for signs of approval or disapproval.

Is it easy? I would guess for extroverts it's quite hard because extroverts require that give-and-take, back-and-forth,... Maybe the best preparation would be busking, standing outside playing away while people are walking up and down, sitting, chatting, largely ignoring you with some actually listening closely.

When you can be in a crowded room, not paying attention to anything but you and the music you are in total control. Will you make mistakes? Yes but they will not be due to your attempts to please the crowd.

December 11, 2022, 2:40 PM · it reminds me of a quote along the following lines: "an amateur practices until they can play it without flaws; a pro practices until they cannot play it with flaws".
Edited: December 11, 2022, 9:01 PM · I think Jean, your quote gets at the heart of the matter.

I just performed the 1st violin part in a Mendelssohn quartet yesterday, and I'm thinking about how to practice parts better that worked in rehearsal, but sort of fell apart under performance pressure, as I'm going to play it again in about 6 weeks.

What I'm thinking for my own sake is a lot of overlearning parts; so essentially memorizing these passages, but also learning them at tempos that are a bit more challenging than performance tempo, so that whatever facility I lose under pressure, I still have something to spare, and then also going back and oscillating to slower than performance tempo and then right at performance tempo. Overlearning should probably also be applied only to the stuff that needs it most, so as not to deaden the entire performance.

I'm also trying to think about whether I can induce a little extra stress in my practice by practicing these passages sometimes as the first thing, before I'm warmed up at all, or maybe doing a bunch of jumping jacks to get my heart rate up and then going for it, but those are two of my wackier ideas. Maybe I can stand in an ant pile while I practice or let a tarantula sit on my head?

Specifically for intonation, some of this stuff may not make sense, but I recall reading something that Oistrakh would play through his pieces at 75% tempo and without vibrato to really focus on intonation. Flesch gives an exercise to do with Rode Caprices to sit on each note for multiple beats until you're sure it's in tune and tune the entire thing that way, but I might use that judiciously so as not to turn medicine into poison.

December 12, 2022, 8:32 AM · Adrenaline reduces hearing acuity. String players adjust their intonation in real time based on aural feedback.
December 13, 2022, 2:19 AM · Paul, I don’t really agree that for amateurs the intonation is the first thing to go. I rather think that most people have some weak spots that they tend to be afraid of. And these are the first to go. Actually, this is true for professionals, as well.
Some have intonation issues, some rhythmical issues, some find fast passages very hard, some shifts (I belong to those).
Often, the musical expression is reduced. Whatever is an issue- if the circumstances get harder, those issues will hit.

I would recommend to find out what the cause is for your intonation problems, because there are two major causes that are very different from each other:
Are you insecure to define the right pitch, can’t you really hear it?
Or are you aware of how everything should sound, but you cannot control your hand well enough?

I used to have a teacher who was convinced that intonation was completely a matter of your inner anticipation. If I hadn’t hit a note he told me I didn’t have a precise enough imagination of the pitch. I should sing the right pitch in my mind, in advance.This dove me crazy. Later, I learned by an other teacher, how poorly trained my muscles were, I was not able to control my fingers, all enough.

Anyway, whatever the reason, the solution will be fundamentally different.
You can work and improve on both! If it doesn’t work, I would guess you might be working on the wrong problem.

If you get your intonation better under control, then it might not be an issue of nerves, anymore.

Having said that, all previous replies about how to deal with nerves, are highly valuable, in any case!

Edited: December 14, 2022, 9:00 AM · The past 2 Sundays were my first and second time ever playing violin for an audience...each Sunday was a single (different) hymn, played along with the pipe organ and very small choir. The first week I played O Come Emmanuel and a few days ago Come O Long Awaited Savior. I had practiced both a lot for a few weeks at home, but felt the actual performances were rougher than I had them at home. My son (in the choir) and the organist and other singers were supportive and, seemingly to me, forgiving. I think I had some intonation problems worse in performance than in practice.

My teacher last night said nerves never really go away but a way to prepare is to practice in many different settings, not always in my room facing the same direction, because the changed setting of the performance can weaken all the associations I had around my good practice, so detaching that practice from any particular setting can help my mindfulness towards the music itself and no distractions.

I'll just add that these hymns are much simpler than the kinds of pieces I've been trying to learn for most of my 7.5 years on violin. The difference is that in my lonely room mistakes and bad tone and intonation were seemingly inconsequential but now for church I am focused on getting the sweetest tone and best intonation possible, aiming for zero mistakes of any kind. This has ended up being a new and every bit as challenging goal as my previous approach when playing in isolation.

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