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Playing in-tune on a string instrument

This is one of the most difficult areas of music that I found in my experience as a teacher.  The information given below, is not only applicable to violinists or other string players, but to all musicians who play an instrument that requires them to play in tune.

Good intonation can be developed from the moment you start learning the violin, in fact it is much easier to develop good intonation from day 1 then to go back and correct/develop it at a later stage.

Good intonation comes from inside the player's head, how they "pitch" the sound. If the student is not pitching the notes in their mind as they play, then their intonation will not be secured, and they will not be able to make a good sound on their instrument. So hearing the notes in your head before you play them is the first step to developing good intonation.

Why is intonation so difficult?

It is difficult for many students to listen to the sound that they're making, especially young children. When we start to play, we tend to imagine the sound we want to make rather than focus on the actual sound that we're making.  As the years progress, this method of 'listening' becomes a habit, and our brain falls into imagining the sound we want to make all the time.  This is one of the first difficulties with intonation.  I will discuss more on how to train the brain into listening to the actual sound you produce with your instrument further below.

The second reason why intonation is difficult, and this mainly happens in the case of younger children, is that they focus on reading the notes in front of them and do not pay attention to things like the sound their making, whether their bows are straight, or whether their left hand is free and detached from the violin.  But because of this distraction, focusing on intonation is hard.

The last difficulty with intonation is that some people cannot hear when they play in or out of tune, and they cannot tell when someone else plays in or out of tune.  This is quite common in students of all ages, and is very common in adult beginners.  

So how do we deal with these difficulties?

There are few ways to overcome intonation difficulties.  The first method is to encourage the student to listen to their playing.  This may be difficult the first few times, especially if the student is hearing the sound they would like to be making (psychological). One of the easiest ways to help the student realise that their intonation is not as it should be is to record them playing a passage and play it back to them.  Ask the student what they thought of their playing before you play back the recording and them ask them the same question after they've listened to themselves play.

The second method is to encourage students to play each note of the passage slowly, listening to the sound of the note.  If the note is in tune, the instrument will generally let you know, as you'll be able to hear a strong resonance from the note.  Or if you are unsure, you can always check with a tuner.  Try Cleartune, only $5.99 from the App Store, and set the tuner in the settings to A441.

The final method is to spend time with the student doing aural and other intonation listening exercises during the lesson.

14 Tips for Improving Intonation

Here are some other tips suggested in an article by M.E. Martin (Jump Right In: The Instrumental Series—for Strings (GIA Publications, 2004)):

  1. Sing everything before you play. If you can sing in tune, it will be easier to mentally pitch the notes and intervals when you play. You can use the mental pitch as a guide to tune to.

  2. Relate all the other notes to the tonic (most notes will want to gravitate to this note).

  3. Hear the music in your head before playing.

  4. Find the notes by ear and correct your intonation on your own. String instruments will generally tell you when you are in the centre of the note through sympathetic vibrations.

  5. Avoid relying on tapes and dots (I generally don't use these with my students unless they're very young or just starting out). Correct intonation is developed by learning how the note should sound like. The tapes and dots are only a guide. If your strings are out of tune, even slightly, if you place your fingers on these dots or tapes, you will be out of tune.

  6. Play alone in the lesson.

  7. Learn both major and minor keys at the same time including their modes. This will help you develop a good sense of tonality.

  8. Develop a vocabulary of scales and tonal patterns that you can sing, play, and recognize. Learn where the semitones are for the key you are playing in, and where these are on your instrument.

  9. Develop a proper instrument position and a good, flexible left-hand position. If the left hand is not round and relax, it is very difficult to have independence between the fingers, making it more difficult to play in tune.

  10. Play music by ear rather than focusing on the notation. Sight reading is an important part of learning an instrument, but when you are focusing on intonation practice, it is good to play your piece or technical exercise by ear to help you focus on your intonation.

  11. Spend lesson time playing scales and pieces by ear.

  12. Play the same song in many different keys. This is ideal for more advanced students, who can transpose a song into different keys.

  13. Play the same song in different tonalities (major, minor, Dorian, Mixolydian, and so on) - for more advanced students.

  14. Improvise over chords. Again for more advanced students.

So there you have it. 14 ways to improve your intonation.

Thanks for reading!

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