Learning Good Intonation: Transformation Is Always Possible

August 2, 2022, 12:35 PM · If a person appears to be "tone deaf" or "has no sense of pitch," can that person successfully learn to play the violin?

violin hand

I was thinking about this recently, while listening to a student play a shifting exercise perfectly in tune, hitting every ringing tone dead-on. I actually had to fight the urge to make her repeat the exercise, just so I could hear it again. So in-tune! I smiled - intonation bliss.

What made it even more blissful was the fact that this very same student, just a few years ago, played very out-of-tune, most of the the time. The transformation was remarkable.

While some students never need a primer in pitch, sometimes a student just doesn't seem to hear pitch at all. The student plays out of tune, without even noticing it. A teacher can stop and fix things, but ultimately the student must be able to do that for himself or herself. The violin requires incredible precision - there's just one "in tune" and countless ways to play "out of tune."

In this case, we worked on hearing ringing tones and took every possible opportunity to point out concepts of pitch. She was open to listening more closely, and that was a big key in helping her develop a more sophisticated sense of pitch over time.

Her improvement is just one more example that proves to me that transformation is always possible. One must not give up on a student, one must not give up on one's self. Patience and persistence win the day, whether one's "natural talent" looks obvious from the beginning or not.

Here are a few examples. Over the course of 30 years of teaching, I have I seen students with seemingly "no sense of pitch" develop a very precise sense of pitch. I've watched students fall in love with the tone of their instruments, transforming a scratchy sound to a rich and expressive voice. I've seen them work out rhythms issues that seemed impossible. One student said in exasperation, "I don't GET 6/8 time!" and yet the next week she had figured out a whole page of rhythms in 6/8.

With patience, work and persistence, skills that people identify as "talent" can and will emerge. There is only only thing that truly holds back progress: quitting!

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Replies

August 2, 2022 at 09:14 PM · All my adult life I've been a voracious reader trying to learn about many diverse subjects. And even earlier I was already a serious listener, buying 45s and LPs while still in elementary school, and attending many hundreds of concerts.

But it was only a little over 7 years ago when I decided to learn to play music, and although I "practiced" (or at least tried to play) most days since then, I feel like the many layers of learning music are still only beginning to be discovered and explored by me. Unlike the literal cognition of literary learning, music challenges me to coordinate the senses (hearing, sight, touch) and kinesthetics with a new and strange discipline of mind and time. Definitely a broader use of the brain, extended through the body, than reading history or science.

After over 7 years of it I still feel like a beginner, and compared to the masters of music around me, I AM just a beginner. And yet I am amazed at how far I've come, or maybe more like I appreciate how much was involved to have even come just this far.

I think that's what this article is really about. The layers of learning involved in becoming a musician.

From the article: "...there's just one "in tune" and countless ways to play 'out of tune'."

Not to get hung up on another discussion of tuning and temperaments, but I think when playing alone in my room there is more than one way to have "good intonation," although once in an ensemble we must usually agree on the exact pitch of all the notes, usually locked in by a keyboard or fretted or keyed instrument that doesn't vary like our fretless instruments do.

August 3, 2022 at 02:33 AM · Laurie, I really loved this article. I've always considered myself to have a reasonably good ear. But my intonation definitely improved when I started playing in string quartets and singing in choirs. I did both at an early age and was alway either playing second violin or singing alto. Somehow being one of the "inner voices" taught me that I needed to listen more and tune myself to those around me. I've never had the luxury of floating along on the melody and assuming others would tune to me. In retrospect, I'm grateful.

August 3, 2022 at 02:34 PM · My experience was more about calming a very busy brain. There are so many aspects to playing any instrument where the intonation is controlled by the musician. I'm trying to hold the instrument correctly, move the bow in the right spot, learn that wrist action to have the appropriate amount of hair on the string, read the music, hold the left hand and fingers in just the right place and attitude (Doflein term). Intonation requires that in addition to all of that you have to listen to your instrument and adjust/fine tune all of those elements.

Then one day, it came together - Ring Tones! To listen to the instrument and adjust then repeat, repeat, repeat,... till it becomes automatic.

I know how hard this is and I guide my handful of scholarship students through the process that, despite their previous ideas of what playing is all about, leads to solid intonation.

Not everyone gets there. I've had my share of busy minds that are constantly distracted and those who cannot comprehend that mastery of the violin requires many hours alone with the instrument for one minute of performance.

FWIW: Some of my sports minded friends tell me that being successful at a sport requires the same quieting of the mind and focus on the minute details.

August 3, 2022 at 03:18 PM · Thank you, loved this article.

August 4, 2022 at 11:17 PM · My intonation and ability to listen and make small adjustments improved significantly when my teacher showed me how to practice scales in thirds, and chromatic scales.

PS whose thumb is that? :)

August 6, 2022 at 07:22 PM · This subject always interests me. As a kid beginner in violin, coming from an elementary piano background, I had a strong sense of pitch, something my teachers confirmed.

After my first 2 years of lessons, my first teacher moved to another city. My second teacher asked me to play something for her at the start of our first lesson. Even though I'd already been doing position-playing and shifting by then, I chose Franz Wohlfahrt's Op. 45, No. 1, an etude I had learned about 6 months into lessons with the first teacher. At the end, the new teacher said: "All right. First off, intonation very good."

While the piece is all in 1st position, it's actually quite exacting. Case in point: the ascending/descending scale passage on the E string at mm. 5-6: F-G-A-B-A-G-F, where you have to place all fingers a whole step apart. Then you have the C Major arpeggios at mm. 10 and 12. Any misplaced fingers or faulty hand shape will show up right away in poor intonation.

One part of early training that helped me with technical challenges like these was my teachers' emphasis on keeping the fingers down as long as possible. This aids not just fast up-and-down scales. It helps intonation, too, provided that you have good initial finger placement.

I find that really paying attention to what I'm doing at the moment, hearing the correct pitches in my mind before sounding them, helps a lot. Like any other player, I'm fallible and will drift flat or sharp here and there. But at least I can tell right away when I'm off. It happens typically at moments of inattention or fatigue, e.g., when I've been practicing too long and get past a peak of concentration.

Extending the subject a bit: I know from personal experience that bridge height, bow hair condition, and string age can compromise pitch. Back in 2020, one of my fiddles had a bridge that was too high. Before I remedied that situation, it was hard to keep steady pitch on the G string in high positions - above 5th. The bow I was using in these sessions needed re-hairing - too many hairs gone, the remaining hairs past their prime. So traction wasn't great, and pitch was sometimes erratic.

Recording and playback also help. In the crude digital audio recordings I've done so far, I've had only my Android phone's onboard microphone, which doesn't lie about pitch, even if it delivers only substandard audio. I will remedy this situation, too, but that's for another discussion.

August 8, 2022 at 11:46 AM · Oh, where were you guys when I couldn't hear directionality short of a major third and didn't know what "in tune" meant?

I was repeatedly thrown out of choir all through primary school and my mum (who came from a musical family) put me down continuously for having no sense of pitch and ignored all requests to learn strings, eventually letting me have piano lessons on the grounds that tuning wasn't involved.

It was only as an adult after a couple of years in a very generous but mostly skilled community choir (I taught them to read music; they taught me to sing) that I started to be able to hear what was meant by in tune. Several choirs and two failed attempts at violin later, it suddenly all made sense. I think the invention of cheap digital tuners helped, cause it has be SO hard to tell if it was me or the strings off - at that point I still couldn't hear which way to go once it got less than a semitone.

Why am I telling you this? Cause one of the kids in my string group was me - the 12 year old desperate to learn violin. And she got to do exactly that. She became the go-to peer teacher for new kids, teaching them instrument holding and open string rhythms, thus taking herself back to the beginner group several times over. And 18 months (not 30 years like me) later, she had started playing in tune. The very next concert she was proud as punch to have a line of her own with just the notes she could reliably play with good intonation - best teaching affirmation ever!

So yes, thanks Laurie for reminding people it's achievable.

I'm still working on the perfection Laurie describes, but years of choir singing have taught me to blend whenever I'm in a group - viola in the middle of an orchestra is brilliant for that (seconding Diana's comment about inner parts). Now if only I can find the end of that lovely cycle where the better you listen, the more critical your ear becomes and the more you need to keep practicing intonation!

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