On All Levels:
1. Tune your instrument to a tuner thusly:
E: tuner at A = 442
A: tuner at A = 441
D: tuner at A = 441
G: tuner at A = 440
To tune the violin in a way which will allow you the best of many possible worlds of intonation, purchase a tuner/drone which has a variable A and which sounds all tones. (I use a Sorinuri Digital Metronome/Tuner #MTR-33.) Tune your A and D strings with the tuner/drone note at A=441; match the A of the drone exactly, then turn the dial to D and match your open D string to the drone D exactly. Tune your G string with the tuner at A=440, but with the dial turned to sound the note G. Tune your E string with the tuner at A=442, but with the dial turned to sound the note E. (Note: If you don’t have a movable tuner, tune A to 440, tune D to A in a VERY TIGHT fifth, tune G to D in a SLIGHTLY TIGHT fifth, tune E to A in a SLIGHTLY TIGHT fifth.)
Note that this is a compromise tuning, neither totally equal-tempered nor completely open. Your instrument will ring but will not be too far from the piano pitches, which are completely equal-tempered, and you will be able to play in keys which need both G and E strings.
2. When working, use a clear, solid, and sustained tone, with as little variation in dynamic as possible. Do not skate. Do not allow lumps, swells, or holes in the sound.
3. When adjusting, it is permissible to roll the finger slightly above and below pitch, gradually centering in and listening. But, VERY IMPORTANT, once you find the spot, pick up the finger and replace it in the perfect middle of the note you want, with NO ROLLING. (Otherwise you are practicing constant adjustment – the Grope School of Intonation.) Repeat several times, landing exactly where you want, with no rocking or rolling. Your finger should descend in a line, as if it were on a little railroad track.
4. Be aware of your keys at all times, and the relations of the scale degrees. In a major scale, the 1st, 4th, and 5th degrees are one group, which I call the home family, and the 3rd, 6th, and 7th are another, which I call the traveling family. Families are audibly related. In G Major, all your Gs, Cs, and Ds must agree and make perfect fourths, fifths, and octaves; likewise, all your Es, F#s, and Bs must agree and make equally perfect intervals. Keeping these families in tune will take advantage of the acoustic properties of the violin.
First Level – Using Open Strings
Use your carefully tuned open strings as drones whenever possible. Check all combinations of perfect intervals with open strings (most notes can be found with some combination of octaves, fourths, and an open string), e.g., in 1st position, 3rd finger octaves G, D, A; 4th finger unisons D, A, E; 1st finger fourths A, E, B. There are ways of checking with open strings in almost every position, in almost every key, and you need to be merciless about checking yourself. When you are first learning a piece, you should be using adjacent open strings almost constantly. This will help you center your ear and play pitches consistently the same. Most bad intonation is at bottom a matter of carelessness and lack of concentration! —–Play the doublestop with the open string, LISTEN for the absence of beats which signals that you are in EXACTLY the right spot, and memorize where you are on the fingerboard. (Where is your thumb? Where is your finger? What is the track that leads to the note? Where are you in relation to the body of the violin, the nut, etc.?) This process should be as natural to you as breathing, and it should happen continuously as you practice—don’t just do it at the beginning of a session and then forget about it! If you do, you will be actively training your ear to hear pitches IN THE WRONG PLACE, you will gravitate to a higher or lower pitch area and play out of tune with your open strings, and later on it will be much harder to adjust when you play with the piano and other instruments.
Second Level – Building Families
1. Use a drone to tune scales and arpeggios. In G Major, put the drone on G and play the scale, tuning all Gs, Cs, and Ds; then put the drone on B and tune all Bs, Es, and F#s. Do this both slow and fast, stopping on the pitches you are checking with the drone. Listen to how the two families have their own identities.
2. Tune in fourths when possible, e.g., open G + octave G + C; open E + B + F#. Tune in fourths as you are playing your scales and passages as well, e.g. checking to make sure the B in G major agrees with the E on the next string. This will help build your frame and make your families agree. (Remember, fourths are perfect intervals; listen for the absence of beats when they are perfectly in tune.)
3. You should have a strict interval size in your ear for all intervals. Unisons, fourths, fifths, and octaves are non-negotiable, because they are perfect intervals, but even seconds, thirds, sixths, and sevenths have a specific sound and size which will make them work inside your scale and key. You should not have one major third wide, and the next narrow. In a G Major scale, the major third between G and B should be the same size as the one between D and F#, and the minor third between A and C should be the same as the one between E and G. In a diminished triad, all the minor thirds should be the same size; in an augmented triad, all the major thirds should be the same size; in a scale, the wholesteps should be equal. If you can regularize the size of your intervals, your families will agree. To work on this, first train your ear to hear intervals against open strings. Play G-A, or G-B, or G-C etc. several times; decide where you want the pitch in relation to the open string (having the drone on the pitch and matching it can help this process) and then REPEAT THAT PITCH EXACTLY. You will gradually be able to transfer this kind of listening and repeatability to playing intervals which do not involve open strings directly.
3. Third Level – Learning Expressive vs. Equal-Tempered Intonation
To train your ear to hear the difference between equal-tempered intonation and expressive intonation, you will need a tuner/drone which has a variable A and which sounds all tones. Tune your scales thusly:
- Put the drone on the tonic (first) note of your scale and play the scale, matching the first, fourth and fifth degrees of the scale to the drone (in G major, this means matching all Gs, Cs and Ds). Make perfect intervals with no beats. Remember these pitches well. These are your home family and WILL NOT MOVE.
- Put the drone on the third degree of your scale and play the scale, matching the third, sixth and seventh degrees of the scale to the drone (in G major, this means matching all Bs, Es and F#s). Make perfect intervals with no beats. Remember these pitches well. You have just learned your traveling family with equal-tempered pitches.
- Put the drone on the third degree of your major scale and put it up one click (if you are tuned to A=441, move it to A=442). Now play your major scale, matching the third, sixth and seventh degrees of the scale to the drone (in G, match Bs, Es, and F#s). Make perfect intervals with no beats. Remember these pitches well. You have just learned your traveling family with expressively raised pitches. DO NOT RAISE THE PITCHES OF THE HOME FAMILY.
- Tune a troublesome passage of music in the same way, first choosing the tonic note and putting the drone on that pitch; play through slowly, stopping on each note which forms a perfect interval with the drone and tuning carefully.
- Take the same passage and decide if you want equal-tempered or expressive intonation; then choose your drone note accordingly. If you want equal-tempered, leave the drone at A=441 and then turn it to the third scale degree (in G major, this would be B); if you want expressive, turn the drone to A=442 and then turn it to the third scale degree. Again, match all third, sixth and seventh degrees to the drone (in G major, this means matching all Bs, Es and F#s). Gradually you will be able to place your fingers in either spot at will.
- If you can’t decide which intonation you want, think about the character of the passage. Is it serene, peaceful, comforting; or turbulent, disturbing, feverish, show-off? If you want to heighten intensity, choose expressive intonation; otherwise, the equal-tempered system will be best. If you still can’t decide, listen to a recording and try to discern what the violinist is using.
Your ear will improve rapidly in learning these two systems of intonation. Also, as you play better in tune, tune in fourths and use expressive intonation you will be able to take more advantage of sympathetic vibrations with the open strings of your violin, resulting in a richer, fuller sound. Be calm, patient, and demanding in your work. Remember, intonation is the single most audible characteristic of violin playing.