Developing Good Intonation – 2

In one of his articles published in Strad a couple of years ago, great bassist and teacher Gary Carr was talking about the “memory” of our fingertips (my own way of putting it here, not sure if he actually worded it like that), that is, the fact that our fingertips actually “feel” and “remember” the vibrations of the string, and if one could just relax and trust them, they would actually hit the right places with higher accuracy than usual, provided we have done some amount of scale, arpeggio and etude practice in our lives.  His research had involved playing music (on the bass) for children with impaired hearing and after being quite impressed at how the vibrations passed through the floor made them actually “hear” the music and enjoy it, he went on to adjust sensors to his fingers, and the final conclusion was that our fingertips “hear” the sound and react to adjust it before our ear does it.

The article was an eye-opener for me, and in a very relaxing and pleasant environment of a summer music camp (as a teacher), I tried to “trust” my fingers rather than guiding them with my ear.  Well, the results were pretty impressive, except only when my fingers, wrist and arm were completely relaxed.  This was yet one more reminder about how important it is to stay relaxed when you are playing.  Mentally connecting this article to some writings of Julie Lieberman, a well-known American violinist, improviser and teacher, and a book I was browsing, called the “Inner Game of Tennis,” I concluded that Gary Carr is absolutely correct, only if we can mentally “quiet down” our anxious consciousness, that’s trying to direct our every single move, and instead concentrate on breathing and relaxation.  (“Breath out!” says Paul Katz in one of his youtube videos).  This way, with minimal finger pressure on the string, we can teach our fingertips to remember those frequencies and reproduce them accurately later, we can teach them to measure the distances between the notes correctly.  I have to repeat myself here again (and I promise to write this phrase again and again in my future blogs): Observe, don’t judge.  Use only as much pressure on the strings as necessary for a good quality sound, remember to breath out, keep your shoulders relaxed and wrists supple, and your intonation can improve dramatically.

Have a good one;



Developing Good Intonation – 1

Intonation, or rather a poor one, is one of the core problems of most aspiring violinists, and even most seasoned professionals and established soloists have to deal with correcting it constantly.  In this first segment of my blog, addressing the intonation, I would like to discuss one specific approach/principle that, in my opinion, is the most essential concept to understand if one is trying to develop consistently good intonation.   It is rather a simple concept but in my many years of studies I have rarely seen it articulated properly, and I can’t really complain about my teachers who were all first rate violinists and pedagogues.

To “grab the bull from its horns” (a literal translation of a Russian proverb that means to state the problem directly, without much hesitation), here is the core idea: It is not the NOTE that is out of tune, it is the DISTANCE between that note and the previous one that is being MISCALCULATED.

And this is pretty much it!  If I ask an average college sophomore violinist to play an “F#” on A string with his third finger in the third position, the chances are, I will get from him an “F#” that is more or less in tune.  (If I don’t, that sophomore really needs to think about a different career).  However, if that same note has to be played after a knuckle-breaker passage in double stops that ends with a high, screaming G on E string, somewhere past the fingerboard and in the territory of the bow soundpoints, the landing back to the aforementioned F# may not be so smooth.  Hope this makes sense.

Having spent countless hours teaching and practicing, I have noticed how much time we (myself included) waste by trying to correct mistakes and really just deepening the problem by inefficient repetition.  In fact, we often practice our mistakes and rather solidify them as a result.  So, to avoid this in the realm of His Majesty INTONATION, here is what I suggest:

When hearing an out-of-tune note, always go back at least one note to fix it.  Sometimes 2, 3, 4 and more notes if needed.  Never just adjust that particular note but rather learn how to play it in connection to the previous one.  This is especially true when it comes to the shifts, but that’s a different conversation and I will address it in a different post more thoroughly.  Make sure the previous one, in its turn is also in tune, and your hand and finger are relaxed as much as possible during the process of connecting these notes.  Always connect, always compare and do it without haste or anger.  Observe, don’t judge.  Otherwise, correcting the faulty note alone doesn’t put it in the perspective of the whole piece or the segment of it that you are working on.

To bring an analogy, here is how I look at it:  Think of an archer who shoots an arrow that doesn’t hit the target.  His/her reaction?  Bring the arrow back (or get a new one) and try again, from the same distance.  Would an archer ever consider it useful (unless cheating is the purpose) to walk to the target, pull out the arrow that missed the target and manually stick it in the bull’s eye?  This is what you are doing when you adjust the intonation of the single out-of-tune note rather than connecting it with the previous one, in order to calculate the “shooting” distance more accurately.  Of course, you can cheat, but if in the case of a desperate archer something of a sort may somehow, in some circumstances, bring an undeserved praise, in a case of a string player, you are merely cheating to yourself.

Have a good one!