Strad readers submit their problems and queries about string playing, teaching or making to our experts
In the 15th of the series, a reader asks what can be done to help young students trust their ears and develop their inner sense of tuning? Three teachers give their views.
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The dilemma I have two students who are struggling with learning ABRSM Grade 6 and 7 scales. Both are attempting to commit all the sharps and flats to memory as ‘high’ and ‘low’ finger positions rather than trusting their ears to hear the scale pattern – be it harmonic or melodic minor, dominant or diminished 7th – and place their fingers accordingly. This seems to be part of a wider problem for both students, who try to place their fingers in a mathemati cal way, rather than allowing their ears to listen for intonation issues and adjust their fingers to compensate. How do I get them to trust their innate sense of tuning, and is there an easy system for learning scale patterns?
SYED MANZOOR, DOHA, QATAR
CECILY MENDELSSOHN I agree that it would be beneficial to your students if you could help them play their scales by ear. It will mean you can also put away the scale book for the next term!
First of all, can you get them to sing? They may be reluctant as young teenagers if they’re not used to doing so, in which case you could try teaching them together. This would also be more fun for them and for you.
Here are some ideas to build up their aural skills progressively, with scales in mind. Start on the first finger for each of the following exercises:
*Play the first half of a major scale. Ask your pupils to play it back to you. You can vary the rhythm to make it more interesting, and you can start anywhere on the instrument as they improve – some sliding around to find the notes is quite acceptable! Then show them how the finger pattern of the first half matches that of the second half – it’s just on the next string.
*When your pupils are ready, repeat with the first half of a minor scale. In time, you can repeat this idea with the second half of the minor scales, one at a time – but be prepared for this to take longer because the finger pattern is different.
Your students may not quite realise that they only have three scale tunes to learn! They should soon be ready to sing and play a whole octave of any of the three (still starting on the first finger each time), anywhere on the violin.
The next stage is to start on a specific note, playing each octave separately, and only joining up the second or third octave when each one is known thoroughly. The same applies when it comes to adding slurs. Although starting each octave on a first finger is a simple pattern to learn, it may not be the most useful one for scales; and it can be hard to pitch the notes on the way down. Also, starting on a first finger is no use at all for diminished 7ths, so once the tune of the first octave is sung and played, it will be helpful to have a finger chart to memorise. However, the good news is that starting on a first finger works very well for major and minor arpeggios and dominant 7ths, so when you next see your students, perhaps that’s where you could begin!
YVONNE FRYE Any string player must be able to imagine the note they’re about to play before putting their bow on the string. A good way to improve one’s abilities in this regard is to sing the notes with the help of sol fa notation: before students start to play a note, see if they can sing it out loud.
Begin by giving them one-octave scales at a singable pitch. Then extend the range to three octaves, letting the students sing an octave higher or lower depending on their natural voice. You should find that their fingers will start to follow the ear and not the eye.
To help with intonation, you could let the students play the whole scale with just one finger. This prevents them from thinking in terms of finger patterns, and forces them to follow the sound they’re making instead. In addition, while your students play a scale, you can support the intonation by playing your own instrument an octave lower at the same time.
At a later stage, you could ask the student to play one note of the scale and sing the next one before moving on. Continue in this way through the whole scale. This exercise is not as easy as the others, but it is very helpful when it comes to ear-training. If the student sings the next note out of tune, the teacher can sing the correct one for them as a guide.
‘Inner hearing’ skills should be taught from the very beginning. A great method that provides this in a unique way is Colourstrings, for which there are many books to help beginner violinists develop their inner hearing skills in addition to improving their technique.
TERI EINFELDT There are three steps to this answer. The first is to make sure the student truly understands intervals, whole tones, semitones and ringing tones. The second is for the student to understand how each scale is constructed in terms of whole tones, semitones and/or augmented 2nds. The third is for the student to be able to sing or hum each of the aforementioned tones and intervals. If they can think of the distance between each note of the scale (humming it beforehand) and know which notes of the scale will ring if they are in tune, they will be successful. As with all new tasks, many repetitions are required before it becomes a natural part of the process.
When putting together three octaves, always repeat the tonic note. This gives the ear a chance to hear the scale from the beginning note, showing that the first time the tonic is played, it is the last note of the first octave; and the second time, it serves as the first note of the next octave. Once the second octave is secure, add the third. When all three octaves are secure, remove the repeated tonic notes. You can ask the student to stop before the last note of the octave, then have them hum the pitch and after that play the tonic as the first note of the next octave.
I know too well how easy it is for my students to rely on their ear alone to play their scales. It is my job to ensure they understand what they are playing as they utilise all the advantages of their well-trained hearing. If there is a combination of intellectual and aural understanding, it will be much easier to apply this knowledge to all other repertoire they will encounter on their musical journey.
After a varied career of tutoring and playing, Cecily Mendelssohn teaches privately and helps to run Stringwise children’s courses in the UK
Yvonne Frye has taught at the East Helsinki Music Institute since 2007, and teaches violin pedagogy at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, Finland
Teri Einfeldt is chair of the Suzuki department at the Hartt School Community Division of the University of Hartford in Connecticut, US