Solo and group exercises from author and instructor Michael E. Martin
It’s inevitable: The first few times you put bow to string, it sounds like you’ve got an asthmatic cat yowling in your hands. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Good intonation is something you can work on almost from Day One. “Good intonation comes primarily from inside the player’s head,” says Michael E. Martin, who teaches in the elementary and middle schools of Havertown, Pennsylvania, and is a coauthor of Jump Right In: The Instrumental Series—for Strings (GIA Publications, 2004). “If the player isn’t hearing—the word we use is ‘audiating’—good intonation in their mind, it’s really not going to come out of the instrument.”
So, hearing the notes before you play is the first step toward good intonation. It’s part of a process that Michael Slechta, who teaches in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, schools, calls “getting [students] to take ownership of their sounds and pitches.”
Martin, who is also a clinician, has devised more than a dozen ways to develop good intonation in a beginning strings class. He’s incorporated the points into Jump Right In, and both he and Slechta vouch for their effectiveness after years of taking all manner of approaches.
Some of these things you can do on your own; for the rest, you’ll need to work closely with your teacher and other string students.
1. Sing everything before you play. Martin traces this idea back at least to 1920s methods books. “One of the instructions to teachers,” he points out, “is that students at any time should be able to stop playing and continue singing the melody; if they can’t do that, their attention is too much on the physical aspect of playing and not on the sound. If you can sing a passage and then play it, you’ll see immediate improvement in intonation.”
2. Audiate the harmonic context of the music (resting tone, bass line, and harmonic functions). “Every song has one special note that the music seems to gravitate toward,” says Martin. “That’s one of the foundations of where good intonation comes from. Intonation is based on relationships from one pitch to another, and everything is tuned to the resting tone.”
You should be able to stop playing at any time and sing the resting tone. “If you can’t do that,” says Martin, “chances are the intonation hasn’t been very good, because what are you tuning to?”
Here’s something Martin suggests when you’re playing in a class, if your teacher goes along with it: “I teach a bass line for every song, which is the roots of the harmonic progressions of the song. [Students] can begin to hear a line to fit with that song. If I can get them to sing in two parts and play in two parts, that does wonders for the intonation right away, because they’re beginning to internalize those harmonic functions. In the second or third lesson they’re playing the bass line while I play the melody, and they get an idea of how the two fit together.
“As the lessons go further, I take five minutes during each lesson to work on tonal patterns,” Martin continues. “The most important patterns for intonation are arpeggio patterns, beginning with tonic [do-mi-sol] and dominant patterns that make up the harmonic functions of most of our Western music. I begin these exercises by singing the patterns to the students and then having them sing the patterns back to me.”
3. Always audiate what you are going to perform before you perform it. You want to hear the music in your head before you play; until you get into the habit of audiating, sing the piece out loud.
4. Develop musical independence right from the start. It is your responsibility to play in tune. Work hard on finding the right notes by ear and correcting your own intonation errors, without waiting for your teacher to stop you. “When I hear [my students] hit a note and slide the finger into tune, I know what I’m doing is working because they’re listening to themselves,” says Slechta.
That process begins with the next point.
5. As much as possible, don’t rely on tapes or dots on the fingerboard. “Dots become a visual crutch that students depend on; they’re not listening to themselves, they’re just going visually,” says Martin.
6. Sing something alone and play something alone in each group lesson. Be ready for this; it’s the surest way to prove to your teacher and yourself that you really know what’s going on and can play on your own. “A student can hide in the group,” says Slechta. “It’s possible to hide behind other people and imitate them a split second later.”
“Many times,” notes Martin, “the orchestra as a whole can sound pretty good, but if you would ask each student to play their part independently, there might be only a few who could play well by themselves.”
7. Learn major and minor at the same time; don’t be afraid to learn Dorian and Mixolydian songs as well. It’s actually easier to figure out how music works and what the scales should sound like if you learn about major and minor at the same time. According to Martin, students can “understand major better and be able to perform major better in tune if they can compare the sound to minor. They can understand what major is by learning what it isn’t.”
You can add such Dorian songs as “Drunken Sailor,” and Mixolydian tunes, like “Old Joe Clark,” as you develop further physical skills.
8. Develop a vocabulary of scales and tonal patterns that you can sing, play, and recognize. This might be easier for you if your teacher, like Martin, labels notes with the solfege—do, re, mi—rather than identifying notes as A, B, and C. “So right from the beginning, you recognize that any open string can be ‘do,’ and if we put the first finger down we get the ‘re,’ and so forth,” he says. “So you can play ‘Hot Cross Buns’ on all four strings.
“And again, playing and singing arpeggio patterns, like do-mi-sol, instead of moving by scale step can be very valuable for developing intonation and independence of the fingers.”
9. Develop proper instrument position and a good, flexible left-hand position. “Those fingers have to be flexible, and have to be able to move,” Martin says. “Practice sliding the finger to see what that does to the intonation, then find the place that matches the right pitch.”
10. Spend the first three to six months playing by ear, before worrying too much about music notation. “The only thing notation can do is remind us of something we can already audiate,” Martin says. “If we don’t have a vocabulary of sounds we can audiate, we can’t read notation; it’s just a puzzle of figuring out what finger to put down, and counting, and figuring out letter names. Reading notation should be looking at the notes and hearing the sound pop off the page in your head.”
Reading the notes seems easier if you already have the sounds in your head. “Start reading songs you’ve already learned to play by ear,” says Slechta. “It seems that because you are so used to hearing the notes, the reading is easier.”
11. Even after you’ve learned notation, see if your teacher will let you spend the first half of every lesson or rehearsal playing by ear. “The groups stay together very well, because they’re listening to each other, and I hardly have to conduct when we’re reading a piece from notation because their ears are trained to listen to each other,” says Martin. “I find myself doing less drill and less rehearsing than I ever did before, because the students have developed that independence to be able to play well.”
12. Play the same song in many different keys. “Just take the same fingerings and put them on a different string,” Martin advises. Remember some basic points, he says, such as “the third finger on violin can be ‘do.’ Then the next open string will be ‘re,’ first finger will be ‘mi,’ and so on. It’s good for intonation because [you] have to produce the same relative sounds starting with a different finger.”
13. Play the same song in different tonalities (major, minor, Dorian, Mixolydian, and so on). Get your teacher or someone else who knows about music to challenge you, as Martin challenges his students. “I play a song to them and have them identify whether it’s major or minor,” he says, “or take a song they know in major and put it into minor, and pretty soon students begin figuring out how to do this themselves.”
14. Improvise. You can do this on your own, but it’s good if your teacher also tries to keep you on your toes. “We begin by improvising with tonal and rhythmic patterns,” Martin says. “I say, instead of singing the tonic pattern I sing, I want you to sing a different tonic pattern, and then [I have them] play their own tonic patterns. They adjust their fingers for the right intonation, and the intonation gets better and better. Or I give them a tonic and they give me a dominant. Then they create their own harmonies for songs, using any tonic note for the tonic function, any dominant note for the dominant function. Then we begin adding rhythms, any rhythmic patterns they want, and as long as we’re playing tonic and dominant at the right time, it’ll fit. Intonation gets better and better the more they do this.”
Throughout, both Martin and Slechta stress that good intonation isn’t something you fix later; it’s inextricably linked with melody, harmony, and rhythm from the moment those sounds first knock around in your head.