Improving String Intonation

In our experience as music educators, guest conductors and performers, there are few musical problems more recurrent than faulty string intonation.  Pure intonation is the sine qua non of good string tone, and it is the foundation upon which to build all other musical elements.  One of the challenges for those of us who work regularly with string instrumentalists in churches and schools is to present a consistent expectation of good intonation in every lesson, rehearsal and performance.

Expectations of good intonation begin with the first lesson or rehearsal.  From a practical standpoint all first year and many second year string students should have tapes or dots marking the correct finger placement on the fingerboard.  This helps each student to develop a visual as well as an aural and kinesthetic response to good intonation.  (This also prevents teacher/conductor burn-out from listening to out-of-tune students with no tapes for years on end!)  These temporary “frets” can be cut from automobile pin striping tape readily available in a wide variety of colors to suit a player’s personality.

The next important step towards good intonation is tune the open strings — objectively and with care.  Students should begin tuning their own strings no later than the third year of instruction.  Until then the instruments should be tuned prior to the rehearsal by an adult musician or a qualified older student helper.  No amount of instruction on finger placement can overcome faulty tuning of open strings.  When working with young groups, teach students how to hear the “beats” between pitches that are not in tune.  Have students sing open string pitches on a neutral syllable (“la”) to help them hear the correct open string pitches.  Have the entire group sing lightly on pitch and signal half of the group to slide flat or sharp to illustrate beats.  Have the students play the same exercise on their instruments and then explain that they are hearing increased resonance when everyone plays exactly in tune.  For intermediate and advanced groups the director should establish a system of tuning for every rehearsal.  After tuning symphony winds, brass and percussion instruments following the standard procedures of a professional orchestra, an A-440 should be played for the cellos and basses.  This allows bassists to clearly hear the pitch and check harmonics before the upper string sections begin tuning.  Bassists need take special care to be sure that their section, the foundation of the string choir, is in tune. Players should allow the tuning pitch to sound for several seconds before beginning to match it bowing softly, at a pianissimo level.  Another A-440 should be sounded for the violins and violas, again with silence preceding the matching of pitch and tuning taking place at pianissimo.  For improving a string group’s intonation, tuning open strings is the most important event of the rehearsal.  Until groups can do this quickly and accurately, the director should take time to hear the entire group play each open string in unison.

String players should think pitches, and “mentalize” the location on the fingerboard and the sound to be produced before a finger touches a string.  Let it be known that in your group string players are allowed, even encouraged, to adjust pitches by sliding the finger forward or backward on the fingerboard to compensate for pitches that sound flat or sharp.  To help individuals without embarrassing them, have them play as a quartet or as stand partners to monitor their own “in-tuneness.”

One of the most subtle steps for improving the level of intonation in a group is teaching students to listen and adjust for specific scale degrees and intervalic relationships.  This expressive intonation” is one of the marks of the group that is moving beyond merely “playing the right notes.”  It is quite possible to hear expressive intonation at the middle school level, but it is imperative that high school, college and church groups understand this concept.   Begin with teaching the scale degrees, emphasizing the tonic, the dominant, the leading tone and the mediant.  Explain the basics of chord structure.  Then, for example, the director may say, “Violas, you have the third of that D Major chord.  Remember that sharped thirds need to sound high.  Bring out the F# and push the second finger higher on the D string.  It is the most important pitch in the orchestra right there…”  “Violins, that G# is the seventh step in our key of A Minor, the seventh step of an A Minor scale.  It will sound more in tune to all of us if you stretch your third finger on the D string and play it higher…” If possible demonstrate or have students demonstrate on string instruments rather than the piano.  The fixed pitches of the piano do not allow for the expressive intonation that should be expected of string students.

Pinner’s Practical Pointers for Preventing Prickly Problems with Penurious Pinkies:

•     Have string players “test” pitches with the open string above or below the offending pitch.  Let them slide gently until the pitch resonates in tune.  This reinforces interval studies and helps teach double stops.

•     Physically check intonation of individual pitches with a tuner that shows how many cents sharp or flat a pitch actually sounds.  Many players become convinced of sloppy intonation only after they see it on a meter!

•     Record a student or a group.  Listen critically to the playback together, discussing and marking the music where intonation problems occur and what can be done to solve them.

•     Have a student listen to recordings of great artists or play along with a recording.

•     Have a student play chamber music with you or other students.

•     When working with groups build chords slowly from bottom to top, helping students adjust pitches as a section.  Have the section leaders play out (in tune!) at a dynamic of mezzo forte and allow the section to tune to that sound at piano.

The quest for a high standard of string intonation is not mysterious nor nebulous.  It requires that music educators set the standard and maintain a consistent expectation that students will play in tune.  Assume that “If my group plays out of tune it is my fault as the director.”  If sloppy intonation is allowed in our groups, players become satisfied with mediocrity.  Like an unfeeling conscience that becomes seared to truth, players cannot hear the beauty of pure intonation that should always be there.

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This article used by permission.  It first appeared in Lines and Spaces, the newsletter of David E. Smith Publications, 1999.  It appeared also in the August, 2000, issue of The Instrumentalist Magazine.

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Jay-Martin Pinner 
runs Pinner Studios, an in-home private string studio with over 40 violin, viola, cello, and double bass students in Greenville, SC. He served as head of the String Department at Bob Jones University for 25 years and is the founding director of the Bob Jones Academy and Junior High Orchestras.