Featured Articles

One Week to Better Intonation in 20 Minutes a Day
Journal of the American Viola Society: Vol.16, No.1, 2000
By Victoria Chiang

Playing in tune is a MUST! The surest way to be eliminated from any playing opportunity, professional or otherwise, is to play out of tune. Some violists are gifted with excellent ears and hands, or, in other words, with a natural propensity for playing in tune. Most violists, however, must think about intonation and work on it intensely before mastering it.

What does playing in tune mean? It means hitting the pitch directly, so that it literally rings true with the pitches surrounding it. The two primary keys to playing in tune consistently are (1) hearing well in tune and (2) having a left hand set-up that allows for consistent finger placement. Do you hear the pitch in tune, and if so, does your left hand set-up allow you to put your fingers down consistently where you hear the pitch?

Hearing in Tune
Hearing in tune is most critical. The driver who gets into his car without knowing where he is going has little chance of getting there. Likewise, if you donít hear the pitch precisely in tune before you place your fingers, you have very little chance of putting them where they need to go.

Hearing skills can be developed by aurally ìimagingî pitches in your head and allowing your voice to activate them.

Exercise 1.
Begin with perfect intervals because they are the easiest to hear clearly. On the piano play and hold a C. When you hear clearly in your head the G a P5th above it, sing that G. It is in tune when you hear the interval ringing. Practice this until you can sing the G precisely in tune without adjusting. Next play a D and sing P5th above. If you have to search for it, go back to the previous note. Practice playing and singing in this way, note-by-note, up a C major scale, until each pitch is directly in tune.

Remember that your goal is absolute accuracy. Ten minutes of slow, accurate singing is more effective than ten hours of singing almost in tune. In the first day you may only sing two notes. This is fine. By the end of the week you will be able to sing accurately more quickly, but never sacrifice accuracy for speed.

Left Hand Frame
Once you are hearing in tune, you need to be able to place your fingers consistently. The critical consideration in consistent finger placement is the left hand frame. With the left hand in a frame, any finger drops onto the fingerboard in the right place, and every other finger in the same position is also ready to be dropped. For example, if you are playing in the forth position, and holding down C, third finger on the D string, the fourth finger would be ready to drop down to pitch D. You would not need to change your hand position to drop your forth finger. Likewise, the second finger would be ready to simply drop to the pitch B; and the first finger would be ready to drop to the pitch A. Remember that each hand shape and size is slightly different. Also, shifting the balance of your hand to the forth finger side will help you drop 3 and 4 without reaching for 3 and 4.

You will want to keep this frame regardless of what string you are on or what position you are in (obviously, the frame will shrink as you go into higher positions). To retain the frame as you move from string to string, let your elbow move to get you to different string levels. Keep in mind that fingers always need to be relaxed.

Exercise 2.
An excellent way to solidify finger dropping skills is to practice arpeggios, both slow and fast.

Practice the three-octave arpeggio above until you can play it very well in tune, with one hand frame per position, dropping your fingers in the most relaxed way from the base knuckles. Make sure that you retain your hand frame as you shift, and that you know where each finger lies, whether you are dropping it or not. Note that the thumb should never be clenched.

Set the metronome at 60, and begin with one note per beat.

Next practice three notes per beat.

Continue with three notes to the beat and increase the metronome to 80, 100 and 120

It may be difficult to control all the elements at a faster tempo. When the tempo becomes faster than you can comfortably control intonation and hand position, practice in the following manner:

Step 1: play the arpeggio in groups of three notes, stopping for two beats between each group. Use the time to think about hand position and pitch for the next group of three notes.

Step 2: reduce the time between each group to one beat.

Step 3: play groups of six notes, stopping for two beats between each group.

Step 4: reduce the time between each group to one beat.

Step 5: play two groups of nine notes, stopping for two beats between each group.

Step 6: reduce the time between each group to one beat.

Step 7: play the entire arpeggio in one unbroken group.

Remember that the goal is quality, not quantity. Ten minutes per day of arpeggio practice is sufficient. Your improvement depends not on how many of these exercises you get through, but how accurately you perform them. In the beginning, after 10 minutes of practice, you may only be able to get trough half of the arpeggio very slowly. This is fine. The next day, start where you left off. By the end of the week you will be practicing the arpeggios faster. Remember, the point is not to get through the arpeggio series but rather to practice the finger-dropping concept at all tempi.

After the First Week
While you will certainly see some improvement within a week these exercises should become part of your daily practice routine. After you become proficient with singing a perfect pitch above the piano note:

Sing the perfect fifth both above and below the scale.

Then move to more difficult intervals, singing both above and below the scale: P4, M3, m3, M6, m6, M7, m7, M2, m2.

Continue with triads: in the same scalar fashion, sing one of the three tones while playing the other two.

Sing tonal melodies from repertoire that you are working on. Hear pitch before you sing it, and sing exactly that pitch without searching for it. Check yourself periodically, to make sure that your singing matches the piano pitch EXACTLY. Begin this exercise singing slowly, note-by-note, out of rhythm. Practice until you can sing the melody precisely in tune, and in rhythm.
Continue in the same way with atonal melodies. An excellent source for atonal melodies is Modus Novus (AB Nordiska Musikforlaget/ Edition Wilhelm Hansen, Stockholm).

Continue with the left-hand exercises using the Flesch arpeggio series (minor, major, VI, IV, iv, diminished 7, V7. Note that the last two should be played four notes to the beat).

Mastery of intonation is possible! By hearing the note you are about to play precisely in tune and by placing your fingers in the optimal way you will make significant progress toward accomplishing this monumental but necessary task. Practicing the exercises accurately and daily will help to ingrain both of these habits.

Back to more articles about Victoria Chiang