Strad readers submit their problems and queries about string playing, teaching or making to our experts
In latest of the series, a string teacher asks how she can help a young student whose intonation isn’t improving – and who doesn’t seem to be aware of the problem. A range of teachers have contrasting experiences to share.
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The question I have a nine-year-old violin student who has just passed ABRSM Grade 2 with a reasonable mark. I think he has real talent – he has a great bow technique, always makes a clear sound, is interested in the mechanics of playing, and asks intelligent questions. However, his intonation lets him down. He is generally in the right ballpark, but tends to be slightly out – typically a little under the note. I have tried to get him to sing problem phrases back to me, but he is not a great singer and I suspect his intonation issues stem from a genuine inability to hear if the note is exactly in tune. How can I help him? JOYCE GREEN, BRANSHOLME, UK
MEREDITH ARKSEY I can clearly recall my teacher telling me that I was out of tune at that age. When she adjusted my fingers I thought, ‘I can’t really tell the difference.’ I can certainly tell the difference now, and I’m sure that your student will be able to soon. Many children are not tone-deaf but they do have trouble singing. To test him for tone-deafness, play pairs of notes and ask him to tell you if the second is the same or different, and higher or lower than the first. Can he sing a well-known song? If not, tell him to hum or whistle the pitches with you.
I’ve found that students with excellent intonation listen to their recordings daily and have parents who play piano along with them (banging on the out-of-tune notes). If that’s not a possibility, you can record a passage on the piano in the lesson and have him practise with your recording. Also, accessing YouTube videos via Google Chrome will allow him to watch and listen at half tempo. Playing along with a professional in slow motion really helps pitch.
Even young students can learn to hear the beats and find the sympathetic vibrations. For example, play an A on the D string in unison with the open A string and practise rolling the fingertip sharp or flat to hear the beats, then back to unison to get rid of them. Play any fingered G, D, A or E, and adjust the pitch until the open string vibrates sympathetically. (Stop the bow on the fingered string so that the open string’s sympathetic vibration can be heard clearly.)
Playing in tune is a combination of knowing what the correct finger placement is, and repeating it until the feel of the spacing becomes habit. Clip-on tuners such as the Snark are also very helpful. Dronetool.com is great for scales. My favourite is Intonia.com, which I use in lessons a lot – the student can play a passage, then go back and simultaneously watch and hear the pitches. I have an eight-year-old student who loves it and wants his mother to get it for him at home.
JOHN SHAYLER Let me tell you a story. When I was around twelve years old, my father bought a technological marvel – a reel-to-reel tape recorder. I wasted no time in putting it to use by recording what I believed to be my wonderful violin playing. When I played it back, however, I heard someone else’s playing altogether – it was reedy, thin and very out of tune. I recall complaining to my dad: ‘This tape recorder is useless!’
It was quite some time before I could be persuaded that the recording was in fact accurate and that my playing really did sound like that. It was a salutary lesson and I think that my very strong inner ear had simply overridden the reality of my poor intonation, and substituted the illusion of perfection. It is possible that this is your pupil’s problem.
If it’s not that, then take a close look at his left-hand position. If the hand is not in a good shape (straight wrist, fingers coming down on their tips, middle finger joint parallel with the fingerboard), intonation is bound to suffer. Or maybe his violin is the wrong size.
If neither of the above applies, and your pupil really does have a poor ear, please don’t despair; it will just need to be exercised regularly. There are some very good aural apps available these days, such as the ABRSM Aural Trainer, Auralia from Rising Software, and EarMaster (a pricier alternative). The exercises at musictheory.net are another useful resource. Other apps are available and more are appearing all the time.
He is nine years old and has time to develop his aural skills. He just needs to understand that there is an issue here, and that it can be addressed gradually.
WIM MEURIS This is an interesting question for all string teachers. Each of us knows that intonation is a real challenge for all players, and equally, that string players really do need their intonation to be good. In Suzuki teaching, we begin by putting the focus on listening. Young children will start by listening to recordings and then playing the pieces by ear. It is very important that they can hear what they are expected to play. Putting tape on the fingerboard can be useful in the initial stages – but remember that this can be more for the parents’ benefit than for the children.
Secondly, we will concentrate on the position of the left hand. When pupils grow up and reach Suzuki Book 2, we talk about ‘ringing notes’. In first position there are nine notes on the violin that resonate together with the open strings. (At that point we are playing mostly in G major, so all these notes are in that key.)
Shin’ichi Suzuki wrote a little piece in G major called Tonalization, which covers all nine of those ringing notes. Learning this piece and becoming familiar with the notes is a great help for intonation. Once G major is mastered, we can go on to other keys. In G minor, for instance, we try to keep our third finger on the ringing spot. We also ensure that students continue to listen to recordings.
Another point to remember is never to forget to change your strings as they get older. Newer strings will resonate so much better. You already mentioned the importance of singing. Pupils who can sing in tune will normally play in tune as well. The beauty of their voice will be less important than the correct intonation.
Meredith Arksey is associate professor of music (violin and viola) at Washington State University in Pullman, WA, US
John Shayler is a British violin teacher and chair of the European String Teachers Association
Wim Meuris is a Suzuki violin teacher and a teacher-trainer at the Royal Conservatoire Antwerp