Intonation and orchestral playing

May 2, 2023, 2:34 PM · Does orchestral playing "ruin" string players'/violinists' intonation? If yes: what is the mechanism? How does orchestral playing ruin intonation? If no: why is this a common belief? What erroneous observations and inferred causality underlie this belief?

Replies (29)

May 2, 2023, 2:59 PM · I don't personally feel that it has to be true. However, I have found that amateur orchestras do have intonation challenges due to the wide range of players' abilities. In those cases, it is difficult to know where the exact pitch should be at any moment, and one's sense of accurate pitch may suffer. But, playing with better players and practicing specifically to work on intonation tends to correct it. Admittedly, it is one reason I've worked hard to advance out of the amateur ranks and into better groups with better players - which then makes me want to work even harder and play better to stay "in the club" and have even more opportunities with even better players, etc. Endless loop! All that said, orchestra playing is loud, and hearing one's own instrument isn't always easy.
May 2, 2023, 3:04 PM · There are advantages to having the right instrument. Nicolo Gagliano, for example, was popular for a long time with professionals because his violins sounded good but also gave a really clear sound to the player. Other instruments will be dull or opaque under the ear, even if they are fantastic solo instruments.

Same with bows. I have retired at least one stick from orchestra work because it has too much emphasis on shimmering overtones and not enough focus on the fundamental.

In general, though, orchestra playing draws from skill at least as much as adding to it. Mischa Mischakoff used to practice scales for an hour or so after orchestral rehearsals.

Edited: May 2, 2023, 4:27 PM · In solo playing one might argue that intonation is most important - unless its a very well known piece the audience will generally not notice errors of rhythm or dynamics - indeed, you have a degree of freedom for expression (its also there for intonation a bit but you better master it before playing that game :) ).

IMO in orchestra its rhythm that is most important - you don't want to play out of turn since it will be an unwelcome solo that really stands out. One could argue that intonation is actually third, behind dynamics - again, its important to follow the volume of the section. Intonation can be critical - where the violin section is very prominent (and high) an out of tune violin may be noticed but more often the pitch of a single violin is masked by the rest of the section and the other instruments.

Note I have only played in amateur orchestras so will be interested if the pros agree.

I should add that yes, I think doing only orchestra playing does worsen your intonation for the priority issues above. The best way I have found to improve and maintain it is to practice for solo (w piano) recitals and record yourself so that you can hear what needs fixing. The amazing thing to me is that yes, you can fix it fairly easily once you know what is amiss. One reason you don't hear it when you are playing is that you simply get used to a note that is out.

May 2, 2023, 4:34 PM · I don’t think orchestra playing ruins intonation nearly as much as bad intonation ruins the sound of an orchestra.

In a professional orchestra, it is expected that everybody will play in tune.

May 2, 2023, 4:50 PM · I think amateur players who complain about intonation in orchestral playing may not be able to hear their instruments at times - and when they can, they find out they are playing out of tune.

I always try to use strings I can hear on my orchestral instruments and avoid orchestral playing on the instruments I cannot hear.

May 2, 2023, 5:18 PM · If everyone is perfectly in tune it will not be such a big sound!!!
May 2, 2023, 7:01 PM · Interesting question. One complaint I heard was from a singer in a baroque group. The group tuned to A-415. It was not a problem for her, but she said that the violinist standing next to her must have perfect pitch because he was having trouble playing in tune.
Edited: May 3, 2023, 10:05 AM · Orchestra playing does not ruin your technique. Not practicing, or a bad attitude about the program, gradually degrades the technique. If you are somewhere other than first stand in the section and cannot hear yourself you are probably playing in tune. Some players, especially when high on the E string, will unconsciously push the pitch sharp until they can hear themselves. This annoys the woodwinds. An orchestra with good intonation sounds louder.
May 2, 2023, 11:28 PM · I think there are multiple aspects to this question.

The first is simply that, especially in big orchestras, a string player cannot necessarily hear themselves well. That means that the automatic micro-adjustments we all make to be in tune don't occur. That can "train" the player to be careless in their placement of their fingers, since they aren't receiving the feedback they normally would.

When pros talk about how playing in orchestra wrecks their intonation, they're usually referring to the "I can't hear myself" phenomenon. Multiple folks in the BSO and other upper-end professional groups (including string principals) have told me that they practice a lot of scales daily after rehearsals specifically to try to reinforce precisely correct intonation after being unable to properly hear themselves.

The second is that bad ensemble intonation will throw your ear temporarily. You can lose track of what the correct pitch should be; i.e. "which of the three Cs that I am hearing from the other sections is the correct one?" (And then you have to think, "What is the implied chord that I'm tuning my own note to?" and hope you're not guessing wrong, which is much harder if you're not playing a solidly tonal work.) And if your own section's intonation is shaky, that's similarly going to throw your ear.

This is also a major problem in chamber music. For instance, if you're playing in a quartet and your cellist does not have rock-solid intonation (because you're generally taking the cello as the bass note of an implied chord), it will throw everyone off. One could argue that this is actually worse than the damage that orchestra playing does, because in a quartet or similar situation, you're much more attuned to the group intonation and if pushes you towards being wrong, it's harder to reset your ear afterwards.

Hearing ensemble intonation in the moment, in the midst of a group, is much more difficult, in my opinion. If you record an amateur group (whether orchestra or quartet), even a very good one, you will hear glaring intonation errors that you probably didn't hear in the moment. I remember playing in a quintet, years ago, that was made up almost purely of people who taught their instrument for a living (and held master's degrees in performance and so on), and we thought our intonation as a group was pretty solid (and we generally felt that individually, we were in tune), until we listened to a rehearsal recording, whereupon it became obvious that ensemble intonation was definitely not sterling.

Edited: May 3, 2023, 4:07 AM · String players in amateur orchestras of my acquaintance tend to be very slapdash in the initial tuning of their strings. This is understandable (if not excusable) since we get so little time to do it while half the section is blasting out the open strings trying to hear themselves. Meanwhile the other half is practising the first tricky section. And the oboe's A is usually flat. And tuning by perfect fifths tends to result in perceptibly flat C-strings but now we're getting perfectionist.
May 3, 2023, 6:40 AM · If you practice regularly (and mindfully, of course), your intonation will improve. If you don't practice enough, your intonation will deteriorate. The claim t(hat playing in an orchestra outside your practice sessions) would significantly degrade your overall intonation is something I find hard to believe?
May 3, 2023, 8:07 AM · To inject a little "folk violin" into the discussion, there is an opinion out there that playing Irish fiddle in session (which involves multiple musicians playing jigs and reels in unison, often at breakneck speed) is detrimental to learning Irish fiddle technique. I have to say that I have ignored such advice!
May 3, 2023, 10:44 AM · I don't think that it's too controversial that too much rehearsing and performing, without a good amount of practice in between, can introduce a little sloppiness into the playing. Orchestral players tend to keep fairly regular schedules, I believe, so I would think they would have worked out the balance.

I doubt that pros would be greatly affected, but it was really hard for me to make progress on the instrument when playing in an orchestra, so I quit in order to start putting in more concentrated time with a teacher, but I didn't have technique to spare

May 3, 2023, 10:57 AM · Thanks everyone! A little background for my question: my teacher is very ambivalent about my amateur community orchestra participation. I think they have two objections: they think the pitch of the amateur orchestra will not be stable. That is true enough. However, I am not persuaded that is enough to "ruin" one's intonation when playing apart from the ensemble. The second objection makes more sense to me: repeatedly playing something at a tempo faster than I can manage with good intonation (during rehearsals) "sets" the faulty intonation (i.e., practice makes permanent). Granted, this is a problem for students and amateurs, not professionals. I understand that the solution is to practice the music slowly BEFORE rehearsal until the intonation is right, and I do this to the extent I can with my limited practice time and limited skills.
May 3, 2023, 12:54 PM · Exactly what I meant Jocelyn. As long as you can practice enough on your own, there cannot be a problem. Moreover, being part of an orchestra is great fun, so, enjoy!
May 3, 2023, 2:04 PM · To add to why I quit. I had a lot of bad habits in my playing, and I was continually reinforcing them by playing difficult repertoire in orchestra. For me, quitting made sense, because I would have been working at cross-purposes with myself in my individual lessons and at orchestra. There's a reason that pro orchestral players get a pretty similar training to soloists, with the divergence occurring at later stages with learning different repertoire.

With that said, community orchestra is a great place, and ultimately the point is to make music. So I wouldn't want to discourage you from playing in the orchestra, but I really do believe that without a robust technique to start with, a lot of rehearsing and performing can block progress on the instrument, even though many skills get developed precisely through rehearsal and performance. There are seasons...

Edited: May 3, 2023, 11:25 PM · I'm solidly of the belief that adult amateurs should do what gives them joy in music. That's not always consonant with what brings progress. I am, for instance, aware that to maximize my own personal capabilities, I'd take all the time that I'm putting into rehearsals (orchestra, chamber music, etc.) and for prep thereof, and for all performances working on repertoire that doesn't stretch my technical capabilities... and put that all into pedagogical study.

I don't do that because ultimately my technique serves my ability to participate in the things which give me joy -- and that's playing with other people in orchestra and chamber music. I accept that I play imperfectly, but that's one of the things about being an amateur -- it's okay to be imperfect. (Indeed, there was a charming Washington Post review of a Friday Morning Music Club concert some time back that emphasized that a balanced musical diet should involved hearing the enthusiastic efforts of those who aren't perfect.)

I don't think that amateurs rehearse enough for anything done in a rehearsal to become a 'habit'. Most amateurs will rehearse for two or three hours in a community orchestra, once a week (and maybe two-thirds of that time will involve actual playing). Assuming that the player is practicing outside of rehearsals, and does reasonable intonation-related work during that practice (not necessarily on the orchestra music), that shouldn't involve pitch destabilization.

If need be, you should be able to "reset" your ear post-rehearsal by listening to Mozart or a similar highly tonal composer on the commute home. Five minutes with the violin and either scales or a highly tonal work (the exposition of one of the Haydn concertos or Mozart concertos, for instance), after a rehearsal, should recenter everything.

Edited: May 3, 2023, 4:14 PM · I agree Lydia.

The calculus for me just happened to point me in the direction of focusing on building my technique, since I was getting frustrated at the limits of my playing, which I was starting to see more clearly.

Intonation wasn't the particular area I would think would be most affected. For me, it was bad bowing habits and a lot of left hand tension. Everyone's mileage may vary, but I mostly wanted to point out that in my experience there was an actual tradeoff to playing in community orchestra.

May 3, 2023, 3:17 PM · @Lydia makes an important point: having fun is what it is all about. Especially for us amateurs. Given my age (72), I could probably marginally improve my technique and intonation by spending all my time doing scales and etudes. However, at my age, I would much rather spend the time playing with my string quartet and community orchestra. Neither activity demands that I have excellent technique and intonation. But both are lots of fun. So, my choice is clear. I do some scales and etudes but spend most of my time playing the music that gives me the most pleasure.
May 4, 2023, 1:38 PM · As another happy amateur I find I don't have too much problem with intonation when playing in our community orchestra. (That's the horns' problem...) Where I have to work on intonation is when I set the viola aside and go play fiddle in bluegrass jams. It takes me 10 or 15 minutes to recalibrate my fingers to the different spacing of the notes when switching either way. But after that adaptation period, all is well again. It's one more reason to make scales a part of my warmup exercises.
Edited: May 5, 2023, 9:12 AM · I agree with Lydia. When it becomes frustrating is when one has so many rehearsals and performances and such that one can't even prepare one's parts for those properly! That's when you have to back off your commitments.

I'm genuinely surprised to learn that pro orchestral players can't "hear themselves" either. I would have thought (hoped, for my own sake?) that the ability to extract your own sound from the ensemble would be something that is learned over time. In amateur orchestras the "I can't hear myself play" phenomenon can result in an orchestra that is entirely unable to play softly enough to stay underneath an equally amateur soloist who does not have an antique Italian cannon of an instrument and also lacks pro-level tone-production skills.

May 5, 2023, 3:56 PM · I had the experience of not being able to hear myself in my university orchestra many years ago, but it's not a big issue now. I like Lydia's point: "a balanced musical diet should involved hearing the enthusiastic efforts of those who aren't perfect." I'll just think of my intonation errors as "enthusiastic" from here on out...
May 5, 2023, 4:34 PM · @Jocelyn - as Beethoven reportedly said in essence (as reported by his student, Ferdinand Ries): "To play a wrong note is insignificant. To play without passion is inexcusable."
Edited: May 5, 2023, 5:06 PM · Greetings,
agree with most of the above. I think the question s a litlte misleading by using the word 'ruin.' In a top (and lower) pro orchestra one plays in tune. In general one is listening to the overall sound and becoming part of it.Playing programs of very modern 'non fixed pttch' type of music can disoreintate the ear a little at times. The intonatio is not ruined because a minimal amount of work checking on simple stuf f will imeddiately bring it back. Its pretty much a non issue. Far more problematic are the les s obvious long term effects of tension build up caused by overuse and or tiredness, hence the massive problem (elephant in the room) of injuries in the profession. Playing in an amateur orchestra may well undo work being done in the practice room because in the heat of the moment old habits will return and be reinforced, so its a personal decision whether to participate or not.
Life is short so do what makes you happy!
Warmest regards,
Edited: May 5, 2023, 7:45 PM · As others have noted, in my experience it depends on the orchestra. I haven't played in a professional orchestra. But, having started late, I've played in the full range of community orchestras, from casual community orchestras where the best players are maybe Suzuki Book 4-5 level, all the way up to my current one where well over half of members have music degrees and a substantial portion make their living teaching their instrument. At one point I was simultaneously a section player in my current high-level community orchestra, and principal violist of another orchestra where no more than eight string players in the orchestra were above Suzuki Book 5 level. I noticed my intonation could get thrown off much more easily in the latter orchestra, because of poor ensemble intonation making it hard to tell where I should be. Still, those intonation problems disappeared as soon as I wasn't playing with the group; if I played something during break or immediately after rehearsal, the intonation would be fine.

The "I can't hear myself" phenomenon is not strictly about being totally unable to hear yourself; I can almost always hear and identify the sound of my own viola when it's under my ear, but it's still harder to hear whether I'm entirely in tune because I'm also hearing other people's overtones. It's more problematic in highly chromatic passages. One thing that's helped me orchestral intonation immensely in the last year or two is using my phone to excerpts from rehearsal, and listening to the recording afterward. It's much easier to identify intonation problems when not trying to adjust in the moment.

May 5, 2023, 8:33 PM · Greetings,
At the end of the day, intonation is simply a lifetime’s work. When I was doing a serious piano trio we had many rehearsals or parts of rehearsals where we spent quite some time getting absolutely perfect unisons between violin, piano and cello. It was tiring and stressful at times but when it came to actually playing and adjusting for musical reasons our hearing had become so ‘clean’ we could enjoy marvelous flexibility and expression and yep, sound a heck of a lot better. This is also fundamental practice in quartets and other ensembles.
Warmest regards,
May 9, 2023, 9:36 AM · The belief that orchestra playing ruins intonation is most likely based off of the fact that hearing yourself is difficult in a large orchestra. I think whether intonation is hindered or helped is based on environment. If you are playing with a group that is beginner, yes, intonation may be negatively impacted since the players may not be aware musically or structurally where the fingers are going.
However, if you are playing with experienced musicians and you have some years under your belt, hearing others can actually help you with the intonation if you use a well trained ear to mesh with the others. I conclude it is really a case by case basis.
Edited: May 9, 2023, 10:45 AM · "What erroneous observations...underlie this belief?"

Observations isn't the right word. There's clearly an assumption that string players' intonation is good before they go into an orchestra.
Is that even true to begin with?

And does the original "observation" come from someone of the calibre of Heifetz, and does it apply to lesser mortals?

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