|Ask The Teacher
From a violin major in Michigan:
"Help me play in tune!!"
Dr. David Hays
Missouri State University
Playing in tune is one of the great challenges of the violin. Sometimes intonation difficulties are caused by something physical and sometimes by not hearing or not knowing what to listen for. Without knowing your level, I still have some suggestions that might help.
Have you made the leap from good â€œbeginnerâ€ intonation to good â€œadvancedâ€ intonation? Teachers emphasize the closeness of half-step fingers to each other at the beginning of study. If pupils never sensed distinct differences between the â€œhighâ€ and â€œlowâ€ positions of second finger, for example, they might always tend to place it in â€œno manâ€™s landâ€ in between. Even as students reach the intermediate level, they might need to be prodded to exaggerate a â€œhighâ€ 3 or â€œlowâ€ 1 to get them in tune.
At a certain point, advancing players realize that the very close half steps we sometimes use are not perfect for every occasion. Perhaps youâ€™ve played four ascending half steps in a row and realized that you came up flat.
To fully realize the choices we make regarding good intonation, itâ€™s helpful to practice tuning scale pitches against a drone. (If you donâ€™t have a tuner or app that will play a steady drone, you can buy the Cello Drones CD, for example). Start on the drone pitch and tune each note of the scale against the drone until the resulting sound is as smooth, or consonant, as possible. If youâ€™re not sure whether the pitch is too high or too low, simply change it a bit and observe whether the sound is rougher (worse) or smoother (better).
Consistently practicing this way is a great way to familiarize oneself with tuning in â€œjustâ€, or â€œpureâ€ intonation. Sometimes when playing melodic lines, we still choose to raise the seventh scale degree, or lower the minor third, more than we would when tuning against a drone. This is commonly called â€œexpressive intonation.â€
Listening to oneself better is a process that takes time to develop. The goal is to hear very clearly in your mindâ€™s ear your intended pitch and sound ahead of time and to be able to make minute adjustments when the actual pitch varies from your goal. To practice getting there, sing it first, then play it. (If you cannot find your starting pitch vocally, play it first on a piano.) Last, donâ€™t forget to record yourself and listen back. Youâ€™ll hear yourself better live the next time.