How to Learn a Piece

June 30th, 2013 | Posted by BaylaK in Goal 06: Learn Rapidly | Practicing - (Comments Off)

I. Getting Acquainted

A.   Read through several times at a medium tempo to get a musical feeling for the work. Play with feeling and with a gorgeous sound, getting as many of the details as you   reasonably can.

B.   Study the score (orchestra or piano part) to learn its texture and harmony.

C.   Purchase a recording and play it as background music in your room.

D.   Research the background of the composer and the piece.

E.   Sing the piece to get a feeling for the lines.

F.   Clap complicated rhythms and mark if necessary. Subdivide!

G.  Imagine who or what might be singing or playing different parts of the piece (e.g., opera singer, pianist, clown, monster, tank, etc.) What is the story line?

II. Phrasing, Fingerings and Bowings

A.   Play each section slowly, outlining phrase structures clearly in your mind.  Mark phrasing crescendos and diminuendos, high points, and low points.  If you already have a sense of a character for a section from studying the score, mark an adjective or word that will help you remember.

  1. Plan your bowings, with a clear understanding of bow distribution.  You may find it helpful to mark parts of bow at specific points. I also frequently use “MB” (more bow) or “SB” (save or slow bow).
  2. Put in fingerings that make sense with the phrase or the color that you think appropriate.  Balance musical fingerings with practicality.  Sometimes the “expensive” fingering isn’t worth it, and sometimes it is crucial!
  3. Plan vibrato intensity, which may or may not match bow intensity. It may be helpful to circle special notes where you want more or less (e.g., appoggiaturas, cadences, in piano dynamics, etc.)

III. Identifying Problem Areas

A. Without playing, go through your piece and mark passages that you expect will  need extra attention with a star in the margin.

B. Plan your practicing for the week, estimating the time it will take to work through a page or a movement.  Keep a log to see how well you estimated the difficulty and the time necessary to bring the passage to a reasonable level.

IV. Working

  1. Woodshed difficult passages slowly.  Do not play through the whole work at this point; analyze the difficulty of the passage and try to figure out a solution for each successive event.
  2. Analyze what each hand is doing separately. Left Hand: intonation, finger patterns, scales, shifts, vibrato, hidden double stops, finger placement.  Right Hand: sounding point, weight, speed, bow distribution and planning, tone colors.
  3. Build in releases: legs, pelvis, shoulders, neck, elbows, wrists, knuckles, fingers, breath.  Try to find the ideal way for your body to perform each skill required in a passage; memorize the feeling and remember which area of release is most important for each passage.
  4. To build left hand work: listen constantly and strive for absolutely perfect intonation; play legato for intonation practice; play everything possible in doublestops; keep fingers lightly on the string to block hand as much as possible; do not overpress; use dotted rhythms, tapping in a tempo for evenness, high lifts and drops, and necklace technique to build speed.
  5. To build right hand work: always use as beautiful and rich a sound as possible, even in soft dynamics; pay particular attention to releases; understand which part of your arm or hand is responsible for the action; practice fast passages with open strings; use “rhythm diet,” playing each note 4x, 3x, 2x, then 1x, starting down bow and then up bow for exact coordination of left and right hands.
  6. Daily metronome diet: start at least 2x slower; work gradually up to tempo and slightly beyond.  Start and stay at the level of perfection.
  7. Mental practice: feel, hear, see, and do—all in thought, with no physical movement.
  8. Memorize immediately, in small bits.  Work on a bar or even one part of a bar, turn away and practice the passage by memory, turn back to reinforce.  Do not allow yourself to grope for notes; play slowly and turn back before you make a mistake.  Memorize everything, including dynamics, bowings, terms, tempo changes, rests, and orchestra tuttis. Count rests aloud.

 V. Integration

A.  Continue to perfect difficult passages, with some daily woodshedding.

B.  Begin to play through larger sections of piece, e.g., begin shortly before each difficult passage and play slightly beyond. Do not forget your releases! Remind yourself before you enter the difficult stretch.

C.  Integrate improved sections into whole work.

D.  Notice stubborn problem areas and spend extra woodshedding time on these,  reducing or eliminating time spent on others.

E.  Record practice room runthroughs; listen and analyze remaining difficulties, if  any.

F.  Begin to let go of as many technical thoughts as possible while playing through, turning your attention to musical and expressive work.

VI. The Big Picture

A. Actively listen to recordings of the work, noting differences of character,  expression, tempo, stroke and articulation, etc. If applicable, find recordings of performers from different eras, and note stylistic changes.

B.  Listen to recordings of other works by the same composer.

C.  Research the era and country in which the composer lived.  Read literature and look at art from the composer’s time.

D. Think about what it is that you are doing to make the piece your own, while playing with an authenticity to reflect the composer’s wishes.  What is the larger message of your performance?

E. Find several opportunities to perform the work while it is at its present peak; then put it away and return to it occasionally, in order to keep it in your active  playing repertoire.

Practice Balancing

June 30th, 2013 | Posted by BaylaK in Goal 06: Learn Rapidly | Practicing - (Comments Off)

Types of Practicing

I find it very helpful to use four different types of practicing, and to purposely vary my mix from week to week.

I. Technique Development (1 – 1 ½ hours)

  1. Standard scales, arpeggios, and doublestops
  2. Left hand exercises: intonation, form, stretches, shifts, patterns, action
  3. Right hand exercises: tone, bow planning, releases, collee, springs
  4. Physical work: posture, breathing, relaxation, legs
  5. Etudes

II. Woodshedding (2 – 2 ½ hours)

Analysis and problem-solving are the heart of your work in learning a piece.  The pace at which you can learn will depend on how difficult the piece is in relation to your technical level.  If most of the piece is at the very top, or beyond, what you are easily able to do, you should expect to spend many hours of slow work before playing it up to tempo.  Take whatever time is necessary to work on each page of music. Slow is better; even though it feels at first as if you are making no progress, if you are really practicing with understanding, things will start to snowball, and you will not only sound better, you will have an unshakably solid technical foundation.

III. Playing Through (30 minutes – 1 hour)

Each day you should spend time playing through parts of your repertoire, especially those which you have not been woodshedding.  Play through at a steady tempo, and choose one which will give you maximum beauty and success. Try not to stop, but make mental notes of problem spots so that you can woodshed them tomorrow. Also notice what holds up and what does not. What needs more time? Can you tell which sections you practiced best? If something is coming along well, can you remember what you did in your practicing that is paying off now? Use that technique on similar passages in other works. If a section is not improving after several woodshedding sessions, ask your teacher for suggestions on how to practice it.

 IV.Rapid Learning (30 minutes – 1 hour)

It can be really fun to learn in a hurry. Put a timer on and give yourself X number of minutes to learn X number of pages of music.  This will often happen in real life, so get used to having this pressure!  See how fast you can solve problems and make it sound good. Remember that you may not be able to practice every note, so learn the hard parts first. Trust yourself to be able to read the easy stuff.

Time Distribution Between Pieces

When we are practicing a number of difficult works, we may not be able to woodshed every single bar of every single piece every single day. A chart can be helpful in establishing priorities and ensuring rotation, so that we don’t spend too much time on one piece.  List all movements of all pieces, and put a star or use a special color to denote the ones that are going to need the most attention. Then record what you have worked on each day. If you have a long movement, it may be two or more days before you can place a check on the chart. Difficult movements should get more checks (receive more practice sessions) than easy ones. In time you will be able to keep this chart mentally. You will develop a sense that it has been too long since you played through a particular section.  You will be able to hold all your pieces in your mind – you will notice that some of them will be calling to you more loudly than others!

I highly recommend two books by Burton Kaplan:  Practicing for Artistic Success and A Musician’s Practice Log.


Evaluating Practice Results

Remember that practicing should result in beautiful playing and a satisfied violinist.

If you and/or your teacher are not musically happy, what do you need to change? More woodshedding? More playing through and surrendering to the music? More fast learning? More creativity and imagination? More time on technique?

If you are not personally happy, what do you need to change? Do you need more or different pieces? Easier pieces? Harder pieces? A different ratio of woodshedding to playing through? More breaks? More physical stretches and exercise so that you are not too sore and tired?

You are the ultimate boss. You are in charge. If you are not getting the results you want, you need to change what you are doing.  The art of practicing lies in that delicate balance between the sweet pleasure of playing the violin and the exhilarating discipline of continually challenging yourself to do better.




Musical Building Blocks

June 17th, 2013 | Posted by BaylaK in Goal 08: Musical Understanding | Practicing | Score Study - (Comments Off)

I. Shapes/line/phrasing – Music is not a democracy!
A. Notice where each phrase begins and ends.
B. Look for the arc – the physical shape on the page.
C. Hierarchy: look for royalty vs. servants.
D. Group notes to belong together; group across the beat.
E. Point the phrase; allow the natural flow and settling.
F. Microphrase: slightly bring out the up and down of the line, and always lead to
your phrase notes.
E. Build sequences
1. Add length, dynamic, and/or bow.
2. Don’t keep hitting the same high or low point.
3. Treat a series of sforzandos in this way too.
F. Know the overall structure of the movement; see the large arcs of the sections, as well as the giant arc of the movement.

II. Harmony
A. Learn music theory.
B. Feel which chords have more or less tension.
C. Notice what is normal vs. abnormal:
1. Dissonance vs. consonance
2. On beat or off
3. Asymmetrical phrase lengths
D. Feel and support intervals – sing through them.
E. Energize the dot.

III. Texture/counterpoint
A. Notice the density of the orchestration.
B. Where are you in relation to other voices? Near or far? Will you have to fight to be heard?
C. Are you moving with or against other voices?
D. In solo Bach, what is the implied bass line?
E. In doublestops, bring out the string with the most important voice.

IV. Creating characters
A. Make a natural connection between your bow speed and the feeling of the music.
B. Choose your sounding point to reflect the ease, power, or struggle in the music.
C. Articulate with the bow as you would sing – do you sing “yah, yah, yah” or “tah, tah, tah?”
D. Shape phrases with vibrato; vary amount/speed/width
E. Just and equal-tempered intonation will be more serene; expressive intonation will intensify your mood and help you stand out.
F. Left hand articulation can be overdone in lyric passages, but it is often helpful in intense ones.
G. Rhythm can define character. Is the pulse strict? Free? Calming? Energectic?
H. Let your body language and performing “persona” tell a story.

V. Imagination
A. Sing.
B. Dance.
C. Tell a story about the music.
D. Who is telling/singing/dancing the story? What costume are they wearing?
E. What do you feel as you listen and play?
F. Say or write some descriptive adjectives.
G. What is the mood of each phrase or section? Does it change abruptly?
H. Hear the sound in your mind’s ear.

Joyous Practicing: Full Version

June 17th, 2013 | Posted by BaylaK in Goal 06: Learn Rapidly | Practicing - (Comments Off)


We all know that many hours of practicing are essential for becoming the players and musicians we want to be. Sometimes we may think of practicing as a burden to be accomplished begrudgingly, a necessary evil if we want to become great. However, practicing itself is an art which can be learned, and like any art, the pleasure increases commensurate with the skill of the artist. As we become skilled at practicing, not only will we progress more rapidly but we will also gain self-discipline, focus, and peace of mind. Good practicing is a form of moving meditation, during which we are concentrated, completely present and alive.

I find it helpful to remember that our work is not just to master our instrument, but also to befriend it; not just to transmit our will and personality, but also to be drawn into the music and the composer’s world; not just to create a structure of discipline, but also to find the joy in the music and in the process of the work itself. We find within ourselves our own inspirational and demanding teacher, but we never lose sight of ourselves as music’s eternal student.

The following steps will help you to find more joy in your practicing as you learn a new work.

First Step: Getting Acquainted – Making Friends with the Music

Look at the music and sing it either out loud or in your head. If you begin by playing you immediately limit your aural imagination to what you can already do. If you hear it in your head you have the possibility to become more than you are. Notice what you feel as you sing with your mind’s ear. Does it make you want to dance or move? If so, dance or move as you sing.

Then take your instrument and play through the movement, or even just a part of it, as slowly as necessary. Your goal is to sound as good as you can right away. Hear each phrase in your head before you play. Respect the music; don’t allow yourself to play poorly or sloppily at this early stage. Begin at the highest level you are capable of producing. You may notice that you sound really good already on many portions of the piece; make a mental note of parts that you think will need more attention. Let yourself truly enjoy the beauty of the sounds you are creating now.

Second Step: Nuts and Bolts – Playing In Tune

From the beginning we need to cultivate the habit of playing in tune. Poor intonation is a most obvious defect to even an untrained audience. I recommend doing intonation work as early as possible, so that we do not spoil our ears by playing “in the cracks.” This should be done completely without reference to the rhythm or bowing in the music; legato as much as possible is to be preferred, because it will encourage the left hand to relax. The addition of a mild but continuous vibrato early in the process will help the hand relax and develop the sensual relationship of the finger with the string.

First match every possible note to adjacent open strings, using the perfect intervals of octaves and fourths; find the sympathetic ring in your instrument and the resulting feeling of give in the string. Make sure to tune your instrument carefully, because with all intonation work you are looking for maximum resonance. You will discover that as you play more in tune your instrument will sound richer and fuller, and you will be able to play into the string more deeply. Notice how your bow arm and entire body can relax as you sink into the welcoming string. Notice how as your instrument opens up and resonates, you can sense the vibrations through your whole body. It not only sounds good, it feels good to play in tune. Always search for the ring!

Next, plan your finger patterns and fingertip placements. Where are the whole steps and half steps? Think of your left hand as a grid; all four fingers should be in patterns at all times in this stage of your work. Leave fingers down lightly, or have them already grouped in the air with whole steps and half steps ready to go. If a passage involves any string crossings whatsoever, set up doublestops or multiplestops – the left hand must anticipate the bow. This kind of thinking in finger grids is like a secret code – after a while, you will no longer see separate notes; you will see patterns, which are much easier to learn, and much more stable to execute. There is a lot of mental fun to be had in planning out your secret finger code. You will notice as you become proficient at this that you will not fear hard passages; they will look and feel easier.

This kind of grid work relies on the stability of the hand and the ability of the fingers to work independently from the hand and from each other. The sensations of whole and half steps between the fingers will be entirely disrupted if you allow your wrist to move as you put down or pick up a finger. Keep the wrist relaxed but stable, in a straight line with the forearm.

The goal of the finger grid is not only accuracy; it is also balance and comfort. The care in which you place your fingerpads, the alignment of your arm, hand, and wrist, and certainly the amount of pressure can greatly aid in the organic ease of your left hand. If your hand feels good it will naturally remember its positions and you will have repeatability.

Find as much physical ease and release possible in each action of your left hand and arm. Practice your shifts legato back and forth, slurring across each shift – remember that your highest notes are often your glory notes and most transcendent moments, so find the release and joy as you float up! That feeling of ease and comfort will hold up under pressure, too, so not only will the process of searching itself be pleasurable, but the resulting playing will be amazing.

Third Step: Nuts and Bolts – Playing In Time

From the beginning we need to cultivate the habit of playing in a steady rhythm. This does not mean that we will end by playing steadily; the music may require something else. But practicing with steady rhythm will mean that we gain absolute mastery of bow speed and distribution, instead of simply changing the bow whenever and wherever we happen to run out of bow or time! If you have naturally good rhythm you may not need to work much in this area. If you do not have good rhythm, this will be a very fruitful and important part of your practice.

First put yourself on a metronome diet. Begin at quite a slow tempo, putting a subdivided beat on the metronome, which should be clearly audible even while you produce a good solid tone. Play the exact bowing in the music; do not divide the bow. Practicing in this way will teach a slower bow speed; smooth out the muscles in your bow arm; guarantee that you understand complex rhythms; ensure evenness and control in your left hand; and help you learn to plan your bow. Play exactly with the metronome’s beat – no approximation! Place your fingers, string crossings, and bow changes exactly on or in relation to the beat. This may be harder than it sounds – record yourself to check that you are really lining up and hearing yourself accurately. Notch your tempo up bit by bit, concentrating and keeping your alignment with the metronome. For variety try putting the metronome on silently; start while watching it, turn away, play a bit, turn back and see if you are still in time. You can develop a tremendous inner pulse in this way. Walking around while you play also works wonders in helping you feel the pulse as a physical event in your body.

In fast movements you will eventually want to work beyond the ideal tempo, and you will notice that when you bring the tempo back down, it will actually feel calm.

Fourth Step: Understanding Dynamics, Structure and Phrasing

Next, notice dynamics and add them to your slow and steady work with the metronome. Crescendos must not speed up (although you may wish to plan your bow so that your bow speeds up!) and diminuendos should not slow down. Which part of the bow do you need to be in for each passage? Here is where you will begin to make musical decisions, as well as discovering essential technical ease in your bow arm. The correct part of the bow will not only sound better, it will feel better. When you have control of your bow speed you can arrive at just the right part of the bow for the next passage. Great soloists make everything look as if the music happens by magic, but what you are hearing and seeing is the ease that comes from planning – they continually set themselves up for success.

An important part of dynamics may not be written in the music at all; this is the microphrasing that occurs in almost all Western music written before 1950, and which is based on the ebb and flow of harmonic tension, often easily discernible in our melodic lines. For example, look for the obvious shapes of lines; if the line is going up, it will often benefit from a small crescendo, even where none is written. Music is not a democracy; look for the kings and queens of each phrase, and the subservient notes which lead into and away from them. Look for series of sforzandos or repeated note patterns; in such situations it is almost always a good idea to start a little less and allow the series to build. Even in the early stages of your work you can and should begin to decipher these hierarchical relations, which I call microphrasing, and practice them into your bow as you are doing with your written dynamics. This is exceptionally fun and creative work, and when you do it you will feel like you are beginning to own your piece, not just playing it as someone else tells you to play.

Just as there is a hierarchy and structure within each phrase unit, there is an overall structure to each piece. Here is where a knowledge of theory can come in handy, because you will have names to give the various sections, and you will instantly have a framework in which to place each phrase. As you are working on a piece, especially once your initial technical work is in hand, you must study the music in order to begin to see it as a whole. Smaller phrases combine to create larger phrases, which in turn create sections. Part of our job as performers is to parse the music into audible sentences. Once you know the structure, you can begin to understand where the composer is going, and whether things are expected or unexpected. Even the placement of material within a bar can be dislocated or normal. Notice everything. Especially notice irregularity and non-diatonic notes. Always ask why something happens; every piece is a mystery to be solved, every gesture is an actor in a play, and every event is a clue to what the composer wants. If you can see the underlying story, you will be able to shape your performance so that each small part contributes to an unmistakable whole, and you will feel yourself as part of something much bigger too. As in life, so it is in music too: every action feels different when it has meaning and purpose.

Fifth Step: Creating Character with Visualization and Imagination

Now that you have created the firm undergirding for technical security, it is time to enter a particularly joyful part of your learning process. This is the time for you to find your most creative inner self. Music embodies and stirs powerful emotions. Sing your piece again. What does your piece feel like as you play it and sing it? Describe the various sections to yourself; try to make as much contrast between sections as you can. If you can’t come up with specific emotive adjectives (e.g. cheerful, sad, yearning, stern, angry, ecstatic, desolate) listen to some recordings and see if you can hear different characters in different recordings. As you listen, close your eyes and fantasize. If this were a ballet and people were dancing, what costumes would they be wearing? If someone were singing your part, what would they look like? Would they be male or female? Would they be wearing modern dress or a powdered wig? Would they be smiling or frowning? Would they be dancing, walking, holding still, or jumping up and down? Try singing while moving yourself in a way that seems to suit the phrase. What would this music look like if a good conductor were conducting it? Would the movement of his or her hands be angular or circular, hard or soft, tense or loving? Try conducting yourself as you sing and dance. This is your time to let go – let yourself feel the music and respond to it naturally.

Notes are almost never neutral. It is up to us to discover what their expression may be and amplify it so that the audience will be able to hear it unmistakably. You will be amazed at how much you have to exaggerate in order to project your piece’s characters. This is what artists do every day and it is every bit as necessary and important as our technical work. Without this creative process, we may become good players, but we will never be able to give people the deep emotions that they yearn to experience at concerts.

Sixth Step: Listening to Yourself

Now it is time to begin playing through the piece with every bit of musical feeling, combined with technical accuracy, which you can muster. Listen carefully as you play. Are you transmitting the nature of each part and phrase? Record yourself. You may find that what you intended to make beautiful and lyric is in fact marred by bumpy bow changes or lack of vibrato.

If one of your phrases strikes you as boring or neutral, think about what it needs. Sing it again; describe it again. Try to find the technique that will best express what you are doing when you sing. What consonants do you use? If you are singing “ta, ta, ta” you will want audible bow changes; if you are singing “da, da, da” you will want smoother changes; “ya, ya, ya,” perhaps the smoothest of all. Try to sense the energy of the music: does it flow easily or against resistance? You can mimic this in your bow speed. To increase intensity, depth of sound, bow speed, vibrato, microphrasing and even in some cases small variations in tempo can be added. Experiment, record, and listen again. You are the creator, and you are the judge!

Seventh Step: Performing

One of the most neglected aspects of practicing is the art of performing. The work of practicing itself involves listening, planning, and assessing in an endless cycle of improvement. If you continue this process in an actual performance you will be self-conscious and you will not be able to communicate the feelings of the music.

Instead, perform the piece in Carnegie Hall in your mind. Paint the scene – large hall, beautiful acoustics, expensive tickets, an audience longing to transcend their ordinary lives, you as the most extraordinary musician and artist ever. Throw yourself completely into fantasy and extroversion. You are Heifetz, you are Oistrach, you are Gil Shaham, you are Hilary Hahn all combined. Just as importantly, you are the embodiment of the spirit of Brahms, Bach, Mozart, Paganini, or whatever great composer you are performing; and you are the spiritual messenger for all humanity. All your hard work and preparation have been for this moment.

As you perform, imagine a little guy at the back of your brain. He is very small and efficient; you could call him your 2% guy. He is taking notes (NOT you!) that he will give you later if anything goes less than superbly. Once in a while he may notice that you need to make some tiny correction. He can dart in and remind you; then he retires to the back again. The idea is to keep your own primary focus on the music, and let the 2% guy handle the small stuff. Even if you miss a note, let him worry about it. It is not your job as a performer to look back at the road kill. With every fiber of your being, you are wholly occupied with feeling and communicating to the audience; you are the music, and you are in charge of what will happen next.

After you have performed, take out the 2% guy and have him give you a dispassionate report. You will be surprised what he can tell you about matters technical, physical, and emotional. Use his calm information in your next practice session. Remember that everything can be improved. Even if you haven’t reached perfection yet, you can get closer every time you practice, and great delight is to be had in the journey!


As in all areas of life, we need to keep in mind our end goals even as we concentrate on the myriad details which will go into our technical and musical work. Having joy in as many parts of our practicing as possible will encourage us to do the hours of work necessary to our success. Reminding ourselves of our musical and spiritual purpose will sustain us even when we are tired or discouraged. Our goal as musicians is to create beauty, so we must become our best possible selves in order to transmute notes on a page into the ethereal beauty that is a great piece of music. This is truly the reason why we practice, why we can always improve, and why we hope to find ever greater depths and heights of joyous performance in ourselves, our instruments, and our music.

Joyous Practicing

June 17th, 2013 | Posted by BaylaK in Goal 06: Learn Rapidly | Practicing - (Comments Off)

First Step – Make Friends
Make friends with your instrument and the music. First sing and dance the phrases out loud. Can you hear the ideal sounds in your mind’s ear? Play through as slowly as necessary, as beautifully as possible.

Second Step – Play in Tune
Cultivate good intonation from the beginning. Match open strings and find the sympathetic vibrations. Notice how the string welcomes you. Notice how your whole body feels good.

Plan your finger patterns. Think in violin code with all four fingers in a grid. Think doublestops/multiplestops at all times. Relax your left hand and make all actions, especially including shifts, released and comfortable. This is fun and will make everything easier.

Third Step – Play in Time
Play with the metronome (subdivided) in a slow tempo and notch up bit by bit. Use a steady, warm sound and do exactly the bowings that appear in the music. Decide where in the bow you need to play each passage, and plan your bow so that you end up just in the part of the bow you want. Notice how confident you feel when you are able to play in the part of the bow that suits the music.

Add dynamics to your work with the metronome, and make sure you don’t alter your rhythm when you crescendo or diminuendo. Also add phrasing. You are beginning to make this your own interpretation now.

Put the metronome on silently and see how well you can stay with it, even if you don’t watch it for a few beats. Walk around as you play to develop your inner pulse. Notice how calm and smooth your bow feels now as you play in time.

Fourth Step – See the Whole Story
Learn the structure of your piece. Parse it into phrases and larger sections. Try to understand the meaning and purpose of each event and musical gesture. Notice how groups of notes get easier when they are aiming towards an endpoint.

Fifth Step – Imagining
Open yourself up to the music. Imagine what it looks like. Do you see a ballet, a play, an opera, colors? Dance it, sing it, visualize it, conduct it. What do you feel? Encourage yourself to respond naturally and fully. If you can’t feel it, your audience won’t either.

Sixth Step – Listening
Play through your piece expressively and fully. Record yourself and listen carefully. Are you surprised by what you thought you were doing? Compare yourself to recordings of famous artists. What are they doing that you are not? Do they all play the same? How can you add more expression?

Seventh Step – Performing
Perform your piece in Carnegie Hall in your mind. Imagine you are every great violinist rolled into one and that this is the most marvelous work of music ever created. Let yourself fully engage with the music and your imaginary audience. Don’t listen critically; let a small part of the back of your mind take notes for later, but allow yourself to be fully focused on the music as you perform. Your goal is to create sounds that will never be heard again, the most beautiful sounds you have ever made — the sounds your soul makes when it sings.

Your scales and arpeggios are the two most effective targeting tools you will have in building your technique. Be focused, be disciplined, and be creative. You need never be bored, and you should avoid being mindless. Concentrate on at least two of the following areas every day:

1. Intonation: using drone; with all possible doublestops; checking each note against open strings; ultimate listening; stop-and-go
2. Rhythm: using metronome; perfectly even left hand; at different tempos; necklace technique; using the acceleration exercise found on p. 5 of Ivan Galamian’s Contemporary Violin Technique Part I; using Galamian rhythms from Part II; in dotted rhythms
3. Evenness of tone: drawing bow with constant speed, especially at slow tempos; constant sound vs. changing pressure; smooth bow changes; no portatos; sounding point and bow angle
4. Beauty of tone: relaxation; breath; release points in feet, knees, hips, lower back, shoulder blades, neck, shoulders, elbows, right wrist and knuckles; warm vibrato; parallel to bridge; ideal sounding point; drawing the richest sound possible at all speeds; weight vs. pressure; melting and pouring
5. Shifts: release finger before going; wrist release; elbow release; thumb preparation; thumb relaxation; shift from patterned hand to (newly) patterned hand; going up, anticipate next 4th finger position; ghost finger exercise
6. Left hand: bouncing fingers; minimum thumb pressure; high lifts, gentle but quick drops for fast articulation; lighter to go faster; singing fingers for lyric expression; form and position; relaxed knuckles; movable elbow; vibrato through note changes; hand patterns; spacing in air; rapid blocking; balancing to 4th finger for fast balance, finger by finger for slow balance
7. Posture: checking in mirror; shoulders down and back; shoulder blades sliding down back; violin supported easily; alternating thumb and neck holds; head above neck and not forward; space at underarms; space between arms and torso; soft left arm; knees not locked; body balanced over pelvis, legs, and heels; leg base comfortably apart; shifting weight; vibrant body connected with the earth
8. Strokes: practice détaché, martelé, spiccato, up-bow staccato, etc. in different parts of bow, with different rhythms, in order to make them easier in your pieces

Play the 3 Octave Scales (Major, Melodic Minor and Harmonic Minor) without stopping. Speed: quarter note = 120, 140, and 160. Use Galamian turns at the beginning and ending. Start with G and go up chromatically. Finish with a G scale returning to low G string. One bow up, one bow down.
Play the 3 Octave Arpeggios (Flesch sequence). Speed: quarter note = 76, 100, and 120. One bow up, one bow down.
Play 3ds, 6ths, 8vs, and 10ths in 2 octaves scales, straight up and straight down. Speed: in eighth notes; quarter note = 60, 80, and 100. 8 notes per bow.

(The following sections have suggested practice times based on a daily working schedule of four to six hours. If you don’t have that much time, reduce the times accordingly.)

I. 3 OCTAVE SCALES – 30 minutes a day
A. Begin with Galamian, top fingerings first. Plan on learning three scales a week. Practice slowly at first; as the week continues, add the acceleration exercise printed at the beginning of the Galamian 3-octave scales. Memorize each scale fingering as you go. This will get easier as you acquire more scales. The first week you should be able to memorize all three G scales: G major, G melodic minor, and G harmonic minor. The second week you should be able to continue practicing the G scales and memorize the three Ab/G# scales. Continue in this way until you have worked through all scales. Make sure to review your earlier scales periodically, so that you don’t forget them. This program should take you twelve weeks.
B. After 12 weeks you will know all 36 scales. At least once a week, play through all 36 at a moderate tempo, using the Galamian order (i.e., begin with G, and go up by half-step, rather than using the Flesch circle of fifths). On the rest of the days, woodshed three scales (e.g., the three C scales). See suggestions above.

II. 1 Position Scales – 10 minutes a day, rotating block.
Use Galamian fingerings. Use the key signature of one of today’s 3-octave scales. Go up through at least 8th position. Pay particular attention to your left-hand alignment. Put the fingers down cleanly and clearly, without pulling the string sideways. Do not pull the string sideways with each successive finger. Relax your hand; practice slowly, with vibrato, at first, and later build your speed. Notice the finger patterns.

III. Scales on 1 String – 10 minutes a day, rotating block.
A. Use Flesch fingerings. Use the key signature of one of your current 3-octave scales. Make all shifts smooth and effortless. Keep intonation consistent.
B. Use Galamian fingerings. Use the key signature of one of your current 3-octave scales. Alternate fingerings on each day, but spend two days in a row on 1234-1234. As with your 3-octave scales, use the metronome for evenness. Make sure your thumb and 1st finger are never squeezing; release each finger before a shift; keep your wrist soft and relaxed. Let the fingers drop with elasticity and lift with electricity.

IV. 4-Octave Scales – to be added when 3-octave scales are fluent – 10 minutes a day, rotating block. Use Galamian fingerings. Pay particular attention to the beauty of your sound when you are up high; do not put too much arm weight into the string or you will overpower it. Play slow and fast. Work to keep the half-steps close. Keep the shifting curve smooth, and anticipate with your elbow as you go up.

V. Combination Slow-Fast Scales – 10 minutes a day, rotating block.
Without the Galamian turn, play through 3- and 4-octave scales using the rhythmic pattern of quarter, quarter, quarter, sextuplet. Vibrate the quarters. (You will need to play through the scale many times in order to arrive back at the beginning of the scale on the first quarter note again.) This is a good one to do with the metronome. You are working for absolute evenness and rhythmic precision; you are also working on slow vs. fast balance for your hand. If you have any bumpy shifts or poor form, this exercise will highlight them and help you fix them. Remember that in slow balance you balance the hand on each finger in turn; in fast balance (the sextuplet) you balance on the fourth finger.


A. 3 Octave Arpeggios – 15 minutes a day
LEVEL A. Use Flesch, and pick the key that corresponds to your scale of the week. Memorize each arpeggio fingering as you go. Practice slowly at first. Make sure that each and every shift is accurate, smooth, easy and inaudible. Practice the finger patterns using as many doublestops as possible, so that you are practicing many notes at once, rather than one finger at a time. By the end of the week you should be able to play through the entire Flesch sequence for your key. Continue in this way until you have worked through and memorized all arpeggios. This program should take you twelve weeks.
LEVEL B. Use Galamian, starting with top fingerings. (Notice that the sequence is quite different from Flesch.) Memorize as you go. Use different legato bowings each day, slurred and separate. Begin to speed up the arpeggios. Keep the shifts as light as possible, with no tension in the first finger or thumb. Watch your left-hand alignment in the mirror: does your arm come around smoothly? Are there any sudden jerks or interruptions in the flow? Does your left hand look uniform throughout, or does it collapse or change shape at certain points?
LEVEL C. Learn the Galamian bottom fingerings. Memorize and then try to run both Galamian fingerings. Work with rhythms to increase your speed. Use the metronome to ensure that you are even. Try running the arpeggios without allowing your thumb to touch the neck (you may want to prop the violin scroll securely).
LEVEL D. Play through all arpeggios daily. Alternate days between Flesch and the two Galamian sequences. Begin to incorporate spiccato and mixed bowings. Pay particular attention to the arpeggios for the dominant seventh and fully diminished seventh chords.
LEVEL E. Use the acceleration exercise found in Simon Fischer’s Practice, p. 147; use the metronome and work your speed up gradually, making the shifts as smooth and light as possible and all notes even.

B. 2 Octave / 1 Position Arpeggios – 10 minutes a day, rotating block
Use Sevcik Opus 1, Parts I and II, or simply use the Flesch progressions. G starts with open G, Ab and A start with 1st finger, Bb and all others start with 2nd finger. Go up through 8th position. Play as many doublestops as you can so that your fingers learn the patterns. Be careful not to pull the strings sideways (this means you must put the fingers down from a certain angle, especially in the upper positions). Pick up and put down the fingers with speed and clarity; cross strings with equal clarity. Anticipate going around the instrument by bringing your thumb under well in advance of the shift. Watch your left-hand alignment in the mirror. Does your hand contort and shift positions? Notice how this will affect your accuracy and speed.

C. 1 Octave / 1 String Arpeggios – 5 minutes a day, rotating block.
Use Flesch. These are big shifts and must be smooth; do not squeeze with the thumb and 1st finger. Make sure your intonation is consistent.

D. 2 Octave / 1 String Arpeggios – 10 minutes a day, rotating block.
For the advanced player. Use Dounis. Keep your left arm very relaxed so that you will not experience tension in these very high positions. Feel the weight of your whole hand in the upper positions as it falls through your finger into the fingerboard. Try to stretch all your fingers out in advance of the pattern. Pay particular attention to the smoothness of the motion you use getting from low to high positions; release going down and up. Remember to pick up and drop the fingers with speed and clarity.

My Goals as Your Teacher

June 14th, 2013 | Posted by BaylaK in Practicing | Teaching - (Comments Off)


Hear – listen to yourself – if you can’t hear it you can’t fix it!

Take criticism well – if you shrink from the truth, you won’t be able to grow as quickly

Do not fear mistakes. There are none. – Miles Davis

Identify technical problems and fix them– I can give you tools

Develop musical ideas – study scores – analyze and create appropriate characters

Practice regularly and joyfully – tone your willpower – remember, this is FOR YOU

Strategize – set up specific goals – knock them down one by one

Identify strengths and weaknesses – form programs featuring both

Stay in harmony with your body – learn when to take breaks, when not to push

Set your own goals – demanding yet not overwhelming

Tap the wellsprings of your creativity

Teach and inspire yourself in all the years to come



Practice regularly, 4-6 hours a day

Listen to yourself with absolute concentration

Record practicing, lessons, and concerts

Demand the highest possible standard in your playing

We are what we repeatedly do.

            Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit. –Aristotle

Recognize and appreciate your own progress

Study more advanced violinists with openness and curiosity

Care for your body and nurture your soul

Take responsibility for your own progress and musical development

Immerse yourself in music and the violin for this very short time we have together

Find the joy in every aspect of your life!



Orchestra musician? Chamber musician? Soloist? Freelance musician? College teacher? High school teacher? Private studio teacher? Rock ‘n’ roll star? Country fiddler? Studio musician? Composer of violin etudes? Writer of articles about violin? Competition winner? Competition judge? Violin shop? Conductor? Chamber music coach? Panelist? Start a music school? Start a band? Start an orchestra? Start a magazine? Become a manager? Become an accountant? Write cadenzas? Start a festival? Tour? …..

The world is your oyster, and you have no idea what you are going to do! What you can be certain of is that the practice and exploration you do now will set you up for your entry into the world of music. The more solid your technical foundation, the easier it will be to obtain a standard job. The more solid your musical foundation, the more likely it is you will rise to the top of your profession.  The more initiative you develop, the more flexible you will be in finding and creating your own opportunities in life.

A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be

 ultimately at peace with himself. What one can be, one must be.

–        Abraham Maslow

Woodshedding: Technical Perfection

June 14th, 2013 | Posted by BaylaK in Goal 06: Learn Rapidly | Practicing - (Comments Off)


Left Hand:
Intonation first
Practice slowly and legato. Match open strings. Find fourths and octaves. Listen for the ring. Use the drone for difficult keys (such as those with flats in them).
Plan your finger patterns. If the passage is fast, “hover” when ascending and have fingers already waiting when descending (even though this will not be perfectly comfortable at slow tempos). Always work in the grid.
Anticipate string crossings – left hand arrives before right; sound the doublestop.
Slur across shifts; play the note before the shift, slur to the note after the shift, repeat that note and slur as you return to the beginning note. Release before you move. Also practice hitting high notes from nowhere. Is your left elbow in the proper alignment? Where does your thumb need to be?
If you are playing moving notes under a slur, practice high lifts and drops; then play through with electricity in the fingers, but keep the fingers close.
If you are playing separate bows, you do not need as much action in the finger; be gentle. The rule is: for the start of the bow or on a string crossing, the action is in the bow, and the left hand relaxes; when the left fingers articulate under a slur, the bow is quiet and the left hand is active. You can reduce much tension in the left hand this way.
Remember that fast playing is light playing on the fingertips; slow playing transfers weight from the arm (just a bit) and feels deeper, and vibrato helps enormously to keep things loose. Do you have a footie?
For high notes, find the balance and the C shape; alternate popping the finger and releasing to the open string.
Play scales releasing to open strings or harmonics to reduce tension and gain speed.
Practice the necklace technique – play one beat plus one note really fast; repeat; play the next beat plus one note really fast; repeat; then string the two beats together. This is particularly helpful for coordinating bow and left hand in fast passages.
Practice in rhythms – long, short short short long, etc. Keep the bow arm relaxed.
Practice with the metronome and line up the left hand exactly. A good technique is an even technique!
Right Hand:
Sounding Point and Relaxation

Watch your sounding point, especially on bow changes. (A mirror can be useful for this – watch the shape between the bow and the bridge.) In general, keep a steady sounding point.
Practice in the part of the bow you will be using. Mark it if necessary (LH for lower half, eg.). Try to use the same amount of bow as well. Use the correct part of your arm.
Keep a steady sounding point when working on technical passages. Make as beautiful a sound as you can. In general keep a steady bow speed; keep your arm smooth and avoid jerks or lunges.
When working on a melody, consider bow angles needed to avoid false accents. Mark FA (frog away) or FI (frog in) if you notice a blemish in your line.

Put yourself on a metronome diet; practice with subdivisions, marking them if necessary.
The necklace technique is also helpful for the bow.

Accent string crossings for slurred passages, but do this with speed, not tension. Practice legato doublestops, pivoting smoothly, for lyric melodies.
The character of the passage will ultimately determine whether you want clear bow changes or smooth, but usually when learning a technical passage, clear is better.

Write in dynamic shapes (microphrasing), especially in Bach. Even adjectives describing character will help.
Make the phrase first with just the bow, then with just the vibrato, then with both.
Mark difficult passages with a star in the margin. When you have five minutes just do the stars!
Analysis and problem-solving are the heart of your work in learning a piece. The pace at which you can learn will depend on how difficult the piece is in relation to your technical level. If most of the piece is at the very top, or beyond, what you are easily able to sightread, you should expect to spend many hours of slow work before playing it up to tempo. Take whatever time is necessary to work on each page of music. Slow is better; even though it feels at first as if you are making no progress, if you are really practicing with understanding, things will start to snowball, and you will not only sound better, you will have an unshakably solid technical foundation.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.


4. Conclusion

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.

Three Systems of Intonation

June 11th, 2013 | Posted by BaylaK in Goal 01: Sounds | Goal 02: Intonation | Practicing - (Comments Off)


This article is a brief summary of the three primary intonation systems used by violinists today, and a suggestion for an ideal compromise tuning for the violin which will facilitate tuning doublestops as well as tuning to other instruments.

Good intonation is both an acoustic reality, with notes “agreeing” (i.e., creating overtones or undertones) with other notes being sounded simultaneously, and a kind of societal compromise, with musicians and audiences growing accustomed to and agreeing upon a certain delineation of pitches. Professional musicians must have finely tuned ears and accurate fingers, so that they can adapt to the intonation system being used by the players with whom they are playing; but true artists must understand functional harmony as well, at times choosing to shade a note up or down to create a certain tension or relaxation.

In my job at Boston University, I therefore find it helpful to teach three of the most used and useful intonation systems: expressive, equal-tempered, and just. My students learn to hear the clear changes in interval sizes and emotional moods when these different systems are employed.

I begin with descriptions of the two older systems still relevant for violinists today.


I. Historical systems of tuning

There are two important sets of musical relationships, both based on the overtone series, which are particularly relevant for the modern violinist.  The first, discovered by the Greek mathematician Pythagoras in around 530 B.C.E., was that certain perfect harmonies were formed by mathematical ratios of frequencies:  the octave, whose ratio is 2:1, the fifth, which is 3:2, and the fourth, which is 4:3. These ratios, and the beautiful pure sonorities which are the audible proof of their perfection, are the basis for typical violin tuning, with “open” fifths, which ring so deliciously.  However, a scale built solely upon these fifths results in some intervals, particularly thirds and sixths, which sound less than pleasing. In 1482 the Spanish theorist Bartolomeo Ramos de Pareja introduced just intonation, a system in which the major third is calculated by the ratio of 5:4, and other intervals are arrived at by using the Pythagorean ratios of the octave, fifth and fourth.  Tuned in this system, 3rds and 6ths will have a “third tone,” an acoustic phenomenon which greatly enhances the pleasure of the listener and the player. Present-day intonation takes advantage of parts of both of these historical tuning systems.[1]

To use either of these systems, listen for the tones beyond or underneath the tones you are playing. Perfect consonances (8ves, 4ths, and 5ths) which are perfectly in tune have no beats; listen for the “wow-wow-wow-wow,” which will change as you approach perfection, and cease when you reach it. 3rds and 6ths which are tuned in just intonation will produce an audible “third tone;” a minor third, for example, will produce the fifth below the top note (C#-E will give an A); a major third will produce its lower note an octave lower (C-E will yield a lower C). Likewise, a major sixth will give a note a fifth below its lower note (E-C# will give an A), and a minor sixth will give a bass note an octave below its top note (E-C will give a lower C).  Learning to play in tune means accessing the overtone series.

Problems: In both of these early systems, intervals do not add up over distance or are not consistently sized. In the Pythagorean system, a high C will not be the same note as a low C, and playing pieces in different keys will be impossible.  Even tuning your violin with perfect open fifths, as most of us were taught to do, will result in a G which is quite flat to your open E.  Playing a C major chord using G-G-C-E will be some kind of disaster, as you will be forced to choose between playing Cs and Gs which do not ring and agree with your G string, OR living with a C which is intolerably too low to make a nice-sounding major third with your E string. As medieval musicians discovered, some compromise must be found.


II. The system most in use today: Equal Temperament – the Ultimate Compromise!

Definition: This system divides the octave into twelve equal half-steps, ideal for keyboards, modulation, and even atonal music.  In fact, the development of this system in the sixteenth century made Western classical music possible.

To use equal temperament, tune your violin using a tuner/drone which can sound all tones.  Tune your open strings directly to the corresponding notes on the tuner.

Problems: This system does not take advantage of the acoustical properties of our instrument. The violin will not ring. The sound will be bland; intervals will seem indistinguishable and lack personality. Sharps will seem low, flats will seem high, and in general intervals will not be expressive enough.  Half-steps will seem lazy, especially at fast tempos. Fifths and fourths will be slightly too small to ring. Major thirds and minor sixths will be slightly too wide to get a third tone, minor thirds and major sixths slightly too narrow. Only the octaves will be pure, and you will most definitely match the piano.


III. Expressive or solo intonation – the String Player’s Secret Weapon!

Definition: This system, which is used primarily by string soloists (especially violinists), takes advantage of the string instrument’s ability to play in the cracks between equal tempered notes. Sharps are raised and flats are lowered to give the maximum expression for each interval.  An expressive half-step will have much more tension than its equal-tempered counterpart. Leading tones will truly and unmistakably lead: in G major, an expressively high F# will be dying to reach its G; in Bb major, an expressively low Bb will be quite close to the open A, resulting in an A which is dying to get to its Bb. Use of this intonation will raise the emotional temperature of music, exaggerating yearning, tension, sadness, etc. It will also heighten the profile of the player, helping him or her to come out of the texture. (This can be why students and even some soloists often end up playing generally sharp, by the way—they are trying to raise sharps, which will help them stand out from the orchestra, but stray into raising everything.) A side benefit is that this particular intonation will more often result in perfect intonation with open strings (for example, a B on the A-string will tune UP to the E string, not down to the D string), giving a generally richer and fuller sonority to the instrument as the sympathetic vibrations of open strings are activated.

To use expressive intonation, slightly raise the third and seventh tones in major scales (often the sixth as well); lower the third tones in minor scales. Slightly exaggerate all accidentals– put sharps higher and flats lower. Tune all notes possible to open strings using pure octaves and fourths and when necessary, combinations of these intervals, i.e., B on A string should be tuned to open E, G to G string, C to G to G string, etc.  Half-steps will be noticeably smaller and whole steps fractionally wider than in equal temperament. This will be particularly helpful in fast passagework, where the ear perceives half-steps differently.

Problems: this system should be used only for solo lines, not when tuning within a vertical or chordal structure. Also, the player must get used to hearing and tuning 3rds and 6ths NOT using just intonation; major 3rds will sound wide and minor 3rds narrow, in comparison to those tuned with the just intonation system. Lastly, the player will not blend as easily in an orchestral section, or even with other players who have been trained using equal temperament.  Expressive intonation is a powerful tool, so use it deliberately and only with discretion!


IV. Bayla Keyes’s Compromise Violin Tuning – recommended for all situations

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 G with tuner/drone at A=440, but with the dial turned to sound the note G. Tune E with tuner/drone 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.) Your goal is to squeeze your beautiful open fifths a little, but not as much as an equal-tempered piano would.  Note that your open strings will create fifths which are smaller than perfectly open fifths, but in the case of G-D and A-E, wider than those of the equal-tempered piano.


Open Fifths (Pythagorean)     Compromise Tuning (Keyes)  Equal Temperament (Piano)

E: tuner at A = 443                    E: tuner at A = 442                           E: tuner at A = 441

A: tuner at A = 441                   A: tuner at A = 441                            A: tuner at A = 441

D: tuner at A = 440-439         D: tuner at A = 441                            D: tuner at A = 441

G: tuner at A = 439-438         G: tuner at A = 440                           G: tuner at A = 441


Tuned using Open Fifths, the violin’s acoustical properties will be fully apparent; the instrument will ring gloriously. However, the G string (and possibly the D) will be noticeably flat to the piano, and the E will be noticeably sharp; the violinist will be likely to play flat on the bottom of the instrument, and sharp on the top. Furthermore, in C Major, a chord using open G and open E (i.e. G-G-C-E) will sound nasty, because the distances will be too wide. With the cello C string the problem is exacerbated.

Tuned using Equal Temperament, the violin’s open strings will match the piano perfectly, and playing in tune should be considerably easier, all over the instrument. However, the violin’s acoustical properties will be rendered mute; the instrument will sound like a cigar box. It will actually feel harder to produce a sound, because there will be no sympathetic vibrations from your fifths.

With Compromise Tuning, the violin will be able to have some ring from its outer fifths, while preventing the wide and disconcerting spread between G and E; furthermore it will be close enough to the piano pitches corresponding to its open strings to prevent discord when playing with piano. The G string will be SLIGHTLY flat to the piano and the E SLIGHTLY sharp, but not enough to trouble the listener. When playing with cello, the violin E will not be so disconcertingly high to the cello C string.


V. Remembering pitches vs. relating to a pitch environment

A player with consistent intonation can remember pitches, so that an A is an A no matter where on the instrument it is played. Working with a tuner/drone can help you become more exact in your pitch memory by toning the ear as if it were a muscle; if you use the tuner and experiment with both equal temperament and expressive intonation you will find your ear developing greater ability to distinguish ever finer degrees of pitch. From the point of view of reliability, it does not matter which system of intonation you prefer, as long as you are consistent and intentional. Your goal when practicing is to establish steadfast relationships in your own intervals and with your own instrument.

But intonation must always be relative as well.  In rehearsal and performance, when you are playing with other instruments, you MUST listen and adjust. Using equal temperament is advisable in many situations, e.g. orchestral playing, matching the piano or in combination with winds.  However you can expect to be using Pythagorean intervals as well, in order to make perfect ringing fourths and fifths with other musicians. You may find that you have to play certain notes “OUT” of tune, in order to be IN tune with another player. Strive to establish consistent intervals with others, listening to intervals in order to access the extra sonorities available to you through the sympathetic vibrations of perfect octaves, fourths, and fifths, or even the third tones to thirds and sixths created between you and another player. In your own practice, relational tuning by matching perfect intervals with a tuner/drone, as well as whenever you have an applicable open string, will help develop your ear quickly; in rehearsal and performance, you will be matching others instead.  In all cases, your ear is your constant guide and your first responder!


© 2010 Bayla Keyes

[1]  I highly recommend Stuart Isacoff’s wonderful book, Temperament, for an in-depth history of the development of equal temperament.