Bayla Keyes

The natural structure of our hands encourages us to take advantage of the springs which live in the sides of our fingers, and which operate best on an angle. The schools of beginning violin which teach a child to have their left fingernails facing them, even going so far as to paint little faces on the nails, are absolutely correct in their instruction. In recent years, however, I have noticed a decided trend away from this ideal position. Players with short upper arms or pinkies are being taught to bring the base of the fourth finger closer to the neck of the violin by twisting the entire forearm to the right, thus bringing the fingernails into an angle which is perpendicular to the string.

If the fingers are perpendicular to the string in lower positions, with the fingernails facing to the left of the violin, there will be several adverse effects:

  • The left arm itself will be torqued; much tension at the elbow will be induced, eventually manifesting in injury.
  • The sound will have a somewhat unattractive and pinched quality.
  • The thumb will squeeze.
  • The action of each finger will be felt as a hit instead of a bounce, resulting in tension building in the base knuckles.
  • The ability to stretch between the fingers, most needed in lower positions, will be limited.
  • The ability to shift rapidly to higher positions will be compromised.
  • The vibrato will be either narrow and unpleasant or wide and uncontrollable.
  • The physical sense of intervals will be obliterated, because the fingers cannot maintain spaces between them when moving up and down.

This is an illustration of the undesirable square posture:

 Pronation 3

To avoid these negative consequences, the fingers of the left hand in the first through fifth positions should be placed on an angle, with the fingernails facing in the same direction as the string and towards your face. I call this pronation of the left hand. It can truly be said that pronation of the fingers in lower positions to a great extent determines the comfort and success of the left hand.

These are illustrations of the desirable pronated posture:

Pronation 4

Steps for Ideal Left Arm and Hand Alignment

First Step: Without the violin, raise your left arm into playing position with the palm facing you.  Use your right arm to shake your left forearm so that it will be as loose as possible. Allow your hand to rest directly on top of the forearm; do not twist or cock the wrist. If your imaginary scroll faces a mirror, you will be able to see that your forearm runs in a straight line from the base of your middle finger all the way to your elbow and your fingers are at a right angle to the neck of the violin. This is the most natural position for your left arm, but of course your fingers are not able to reach the string.

Second Step: Relax all the knuckles of your left hand and use your right hand to melt the base of the fourth finger of your left hand closer to the imaginary neck of the violin. Relax your index finger and thumb, allowing them to fall back; you will notice your radius rotating to the left, and your thumb will feel loose and open. Do this several times. Remember that as the thumb and first finger drop back and the third and fourth fingers melt forward, the palm will face you and the wrist will remain directly above the forearm throughout. Do not twist or cock the wrist. Do not turn the forearm.

Third Step: With your violin in playing position, repeat the above steps. (If your neck gets tired, rest the scroll on a shelf.) Use your right hand to gently melt the base of the fourth finger of your left hand closer to the neck, allowing your fingers to straighten, until your knuckles no longer protrude and the top of your palm is entirely touching the side of the violin neck; hold for a few seconds and release – your hand should immediately return to its relaxed position perpendicular to the violin, with its heel farther away. I call this ironing the knuckles. Throughout this exercise the left forearm remains relaxed and passive; the turn is initiated by the right hand.

Fourth Step: After you have ironed your knuckles a few times, iron them forward one last time and release slightly, curving the fingers and placing them on the string. If your knuckles are loose enough, you should be able to place all four fingers on the string with your palm facing you and the wrist centered over the forearm, neither cocked nor twisted. You will notice that the hand itself has comfortably rounded in; the heel of the hand is close to the neck and the index finger has dropped back slightly towards the scroll.  You may also notice that your fingernails are not facing you.

Fifth Step: Hold the violin with your right hand and keep your left hand position stable. Starting with the fourth finger, slide each finger up a half-step; at the end of the movement, your finger should be leaning slightly on the inside, and your fingernails will be facing you. If your left hand fingers cannot do this at first, use the right hand to train the left. The muscles will become stronger quickly. Do not press!

Sixth Step: Lean on the left sides (the insides) of your fingers; feel the springiness. Cultivate your awareness of this springiness by doing the sliding exercise frequently. Place each finger on the side of the neck and practice sliding it up and down, leaning slightly into the neck as you perform the movement. This will help stretch open the tissue between your fingers.

Seventh Step: Make a whole step with two fingers on the string in their correctly angled, pronated position. Lift the higher finger, keeping the space between the fingers open and keeping the lifted finger slightly curled. The lifting finger moves like a little railway car on a straight, though angled, track. You should be able to clearly feel the amount of space between the fingers at all times. When the finger returns to the string, it returns to its angled position, landing on the inside of the finger. If you cannot do this at first, use the right hand to train the left; the muscles will become stronger quickly. This ability to raise the finger in an accurate and repeatable fashion, continually sensing the space between your fingers, will directly affect your intonation!

As your left hand becomes accustomed to its new pronated position, you will notice great improvement in your sound, vibrato, and shifting; you will have less feeling of strain; and you will be able to work on your intonation with lasting results, because you will be able to feel your whole steps and half steps more acutely, without squeezing.

The Slur and Stop Exercise

August 6th, 2019 | Posted by BaylaK in Goal 02: Intonation | Goal 04: Virtuosity | Left Side | Practicing - (Comments Off)


Bayla Keyes

This exercise will give you practice in maintaining the frame essential for fast playing so that you can land more accurately, training your ear to hear intonation across fast scales, and alternating finger pressure between fast and slow notes. This is possibly my favorite exercise!

Put your drone on the tonic. Go through your scale slowly, omitting the Galamian turns. Use a solid and clear tone so that you can hear overtones. Stop on every note which makes a perfect interval with the drone – i.e. the first, fourth and fifth degrees of the scale. Listen carefully to each perfect interval and adjust if necessary; then back up to a few notes before and try to land on the note exactly, without having to adjust.

Feel the center of your hand in your fourth finger, not on your first finger, for this exercise. Balancing on the fourth finger, keeping the hand open, and keeping the fingers directly above the string in the formation in which they are going to play when ascending, or on the string in formation when descending, will improve your speed and accuracy greatly.

Do not allow the placement of any finger to affect any other finger. Even the slightest rolling, sideways motion, or movement of the wrist or hand will greatly lessen your ability to feel the half-step and whole-step spaces between your fingers. Your fingers move up and down as if on little railway tracks. Keep them slightly curled even when lifting. 

Next, go through your scale again, slurring as much as possible, changing the bow as needed, and using rhythms in the following patterns:

Groups of Two:

LONG short LONG short

short LONG short LONG

Groups of Three:

LONG short short LONG short short

short LONG short short LONG short

short short LONG short short LONG

Groups of Four:

LONG short short short, LONG short short short

short LONG short short short LONG short short

short short LONG short short short LONG short

short short short LONG short short short LONG

Make the long notes very long and the short notes so fast that they are a complete blur. Remember that the long notes will have a deeper contact — you can vibrate them if you like — but the short ones will have so little finger pressure that they will almost feel faked.

When a long note is the first, fourth, or fifth degree of the scale, TUNE IT to the drone! If you don’t land on it exactly, back up at least one group and try again. You can also use this exercise to tune the third, sixth, and seventh degrees, using either equal-tempered or expressive intonation; in this case you would put your drone on the third degree of the scale. As you practice, you will begin to hear the relationships of these families across the scales (1-4-5 and 3-6-7) even when you are playing fast.

If you land incorrectly on a long note, figure out what your hand did or failed to do. There is always a reason for poor intonation. Did your hand crumple? Was your fourth finger too far away from the string? Did you feel and form the correct pattern before playing the fast notes? Did your upper fingers pull your first finger up? Did you adjust the contact point of your index finger for each string? Did you keep your hand open when shifting up and down? Did you remember the angle of the wrist for higher positions? Did you bring your thumb under the neck of the violin at an early enough point in the scale? Is your thumb relaxed and your wrist neutral, still, and loose?

Good intonation is not a game of guessing, rolling, or groping; it is the ability to feel and replicate precise measurements within your octave frame, combined with the kind of concentrated listening across groups of notes that this exercise will cultivate.                                         

Finger Patterns

August 4th, 2019 | Posted by BaylaK in Goal 02: Intonation | Left Side - (Comments Off)

Finger Patterns 1

Finger Patterns 2

Finger Patterns 3


The wonderful violinist and pedagogue May Lou Speaker Churchill, for many years Principal Second of the Boston Symphony, included in her student packet an abbreviated version of Gaylord Yost’s shifting exercises. I often assign this as a summer project, or when a violinist does not seem to know where he is on the violin. I have included charts so that you can conveniently check off the positions and keys which you have practiced — it is easy to forget which ones you have already done! I have the following suggestions:

Say the names of the positions, both the one in which you are starting and the one to which you are shifting.

Stay in one key and keep your finger patterns either hovering above the string or on the string, changing the pattern at the instant of the shift. For extra learning, say the names of the finger         patterns before you place them.

Use the key of your current concerto.

If you know you are insecure in a certain area such as fifth through tenth position, work this area first.

If you are having trouble with a shift in one of your pieces, do the exercise with that particular pair of positions and in that particular key. Say the names of the positions!



Yost 2 PNG

Yost 3

Yost Chart 1

Yost Chart 2

Yost Chart 3

Yost Chart 4

Yost Chart 5

Yost Chart 6

Yost Chart 7

Yost Chart 8

Yost Chart 9

Yost Chart 10

Yost Chart 11

Yost Chart 12

Yost Chart 13

Yost Chart 14


Remember that in shifting, releasing the finger you are leaving is as important as knowing the distance you are going to travel. If you are shifting from first finger to third finger, for example, the first finger should release to harmonic level, barely touching the top of the string, before you begin moving, and it should not squeeze down into the string again ever — even though it will arrive in the new position, it will not be pressing, because you are shifting to the third finger!

Bayla Keyes



Double and Multiple Stops

July 31st, 2019 | Posted by BaylaK in Goal 02: Intonation | Goal 05: Ease | Left Side - (Comments Off)

Left Hand Technique for Double and Multiple Stops

GOAL #1: Perfect Intonation for Maximum Ring

For ringing intonation, practice by checking every possible note with open strings. Play with a solid tone so that you can tell whether octaves and perfect intervals agree. Listen for the overtones. Eventually you should be able to feel the sympathetic vibrations when a note is in agreement with your open strings, even without checking directly.

Thirds and sixths will most often sound best using just intonation. If one of the notes agrees with an open string, tune that note to the open string and then adjust the other note to it.

Some intervals will be hard to negotiate – for example, a C major chord which uses notes that match both your open G and your open E has a built-in contradiction, because the C and G will either need to agree with the G string and therefore be too low to sound good with the E string, or the C and G will need to agree with the E string and therefore be too high to ring with the G string. Minimize the problem by tuning your fifths more tightly. Then choose the open string most important to your key.

GOAL #2: Voicing the Melody Note

For voicing in melodic double stops, align your left arm so that the melody note finger is supported. To find a perfect alignment, play the melody note by itself and adjust your elbow and wrist so that there is a straight line running down the back of your forearm from the middle of your hand to the middle of the elbow. The wrist should not be cocked. You will not always be able to attain this ideal position, but once you have this feeling of balance, you should be striving constantly to get as much of it as possible.

Practice slowly, playing all voices in the left hand but only bowing the main voice. If a note does not sound well, adjust your alignment until it does.

A simple exercise for getting a feel for your best alignment is to play the fourth finger on each string. Notice how the elbow swings forward and the hand rises slightly in order to support the fourth finger on the G string. Notice how the elbow swings under the violin and your hand lowers slightly when your fourth finger is on the E string. Facing your scroll toward a mirror, watch the line of your forearm as you play each string. Listen to the sound you make when you are aligned vs. when you are not.

GOAL #3: Comfort and Relaxation

Have loose first joints and relaxed, welcoming pads. Your fingers need to be able to slide across strings and between positions in an easy and legato manner. The square shape which results from playing on the bone or absolute fingertip is exactly wrong for doublestops!  Practice with a beautiful sound, encouraging the left hand to relax. You should always be able to feel the strings circulating under your fingers. (References: Dounis doublestops from Artist’s Technique, Fischer fingers leading shift from Basics)

Release each note and multiple stop, just as you release the bow.

Never press more than absolutely necessary. The main voice should have slightly more pressure than the accompaniment.

Learn fingertip placement so that half steps, tritones and minor sixths are never squeezed. (Reference: Fischer Widening from Basics)

Whenever possible, pronate your fingers (turn your fingernails towards your face, not to the left) to encourage the thumb to relax. (Reference: Fischer Thumb spa from Basics)

Divide and conquer – in the most difficult quadruple stop passages, practice two notes to two notes, playing legato.

Learn the different positions for easy vs. difficult chords:

In an “easy” chord, the bottom finger is on the bottom string – 5ths, 6ths, 7ths, 8ths, 9ths, and 10ths. Place the lower finger first and allow the left hand (left index contact point) to lower. The elbow will be slightly under the violin.

In a “difficult” chord, the bottom finger is on the top string – tritones, 4ths, 3rds, 2nds, and unisons. Place the lower finger first and allow the left index contact point to rise. The elbow will be slightly forward, to the right of violin.

In fugues you will often find chords that are a marriage of easy and difficult. Organize the bottom finger of the difficult doublestop first whenever possible — this is not intuitive,  but it really works!

Work on your independence of fingers with stretching and doublestop exercises. (References: Śevĉík Opus 1 Part 4, Dounis Artist’s Technique and Daily Dozen, Kourguof, Fischer Widening)

The more difficult the chord, the more you must find a way to enjoy it and make friends with it. Ideally works such as Bach Fugues, Paganini Caprices, and Ysaÿe Solo Sonatas should feel and sound wonderful all the way through!

                                            Bayla Keyes © 2018              

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.

Developing the Left Hand Frame

June 14th, 2013 | Posted by BaylaK in Goal 02: Intonation | Goal 04: Virtuosity | Left Side - (Comments Off)

Position and Alignment

Keep your hand directly above your forearm; do not twist or cock the wrist. Imagine a line runs through your second finger, across the back of your hand and into your forearm; make that line straight.

Relax the heel of your hand to bring the third and fourth fingers closer to the neck. Your fingernails should face you as much as possible; try not to torque the forearm, as this will introduce tension into the forearm..

Find the ideal arch shape (the “C”) for your fingers. The first joint should be below the second. The faster the passage, the more you play on the tips.

For all fast passages and when training the frame, balance your hand on the third and fourth fingers – NOT the first and second! Start by placing the fourth finger on the string; place the others behind it. You should be able to keep all four fingers on the string in the various finger patterns.


Finger Patterns

Most frequently used:

Whole Step, Whole Step, Half Step

Whole, Half, Whole

Half, Whole, Whole

Whole, Whole, Whole

Half, Augmented Second, Half

Practice chromatically and diatonically. Group fingers in the air.


Move from the base knuckle. Visualize each finger moving as if on a little railroad track. Move backward to a specific point in space.

For clear finger work in slurred passages, practice with high lifts and drops. Then when playing, keep the fingers hovering close to the string as you ascend; have each finger in place before lifting the previous one as you descend. Anticipate string crossings by forming double or multiple stops in advance.

Each finger must be able to lift and drop without affecting other fingers. The hand and wrist must be quiet and still, not tense, but in neutral. No wobbling!

The faster we play, the lighter the fingers should feel. The action is quick but not heavy.


Independence of Fingers

Doublestop exercises are ideal for training the frame. Some examples are Sevcik Opus 1 Part 4, Kourgeouf, and Dounis.

Left hand pizzicato exercises are ideal for training the muscles of the finger in lifting and dropping.

The Movable Elbow: Left Arm Alignment

June 14th, 2013 | Posted by BaylaK in Body | Goal 02: Intonation | Goal 05: Ease | Left Side - (Comments Off)

Connecting to the Shoulder Blade:

Put your left arm up in playing position. Reach back with your elbow, stretching out from the armpit. Can you feel the connection of your elbow into your shoulder blade? Now scoop around and forward as you shift to a high note. Notice how the space under your arm is maintained. What is the track of your thumb? Can you feel how you are initiating the movement from the back?

Keeping Openness:

As you shift, do not crunch your upper arm into your side and do not squeeze your bicep; instead try to find open spaces. Even as you shift up try to come around an invisible balloon in your elbow, so that it doesn’t squeeze shut. Imagine that your entire arm is making a giant “C” shape.

Finding the Balance in High Positions:

When you are in high positions, try to find the “C” shape; if your fingers are elongated they will be weak and unable to press the string down with its additional tension nearer the bridge, so make sure that your elbow has come around the violin as much as is necessary to allow the hand and fingers to find a good balance. An arch shape will be stronger than a flattened one. Check your base knuckles – they should be relaxed and springy, never hard. (Exercises: Tapping to the Left of the Fingerboard, Pancake Hand)

Moving for Chords:

Keeping your wrist directly above your forearm, place your fourth finger on each string in turn. In order to keep the alignment, the elbow must move as you change strings. Experiment with the best position of the elbow and notice how when you have the proper alignment it is much easier to vibrate and feel the finger relax into the string.
This elbow support has enormous consequences when playing multiple stops. In solo Bach, correct placement of the elbow will give the advantage to the finger (voice) you wish to bring out. Even the pressure of the fingers should not be equal; you should be able to feel to melody finger more deeply.

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.