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The Three Principles:
Open Form (Alignment and Space)
Circularity (Fluid Movement, Soft Muscles, Marriage of Line & Circle)
Building Connection from the Ground Up – Legs:
Tension in the legs will be transmitted like a virus into everything above. When you are balanced, the alignment of your spine will hold you up with a minimum of muscle effort.
Stand on your bare feet. Imagine you are a baby again with soft, pliable pads – there are no bones in your feet yet. Feel the pad under the ball of the foot, the pad under the outer toes, and the pad on your heel contacting the ground with gentle springiness. Do all three points feel the same, and can you feel your weight dropping into them equally through both feet? Bounce happily on your feet without picking them up. Walk slowly and softly, pretending they are suction cups as you lift, and placing them on the ground delicately.
Stand easily on your baby feet. Notice the space at the front of your ankles. What happens to that space when you bend your knees? Push with your toes, bend and unbend your knees slightly, and sway lightly back and forth on your feet to find the place where your ankles feel soft and open in front. Notice how when you are out of balance the ankles, feet, and toes will tense. If you have a practice partner, take turns feeling each other’s ankles. Find a way of standing that will allow the least grabbing.
Experiment by straightening your knees and locking them. What happens to your neck and shoulders? Now release the backs of the knees. Notice how your hips and shoulders let go. Jiggle slightly, first with the knees bent and then with the knees locked; notice what changes. Also try this with air violin, holding an imaginary violin and moving your arms.
Stand with your feet soft, your ankles open and your knees slightly bent; your feet should be directly under your shoulders. Feel your weight evenly on both legs. Now shift weight to one leg. Let the other leg remain in contact with the ground and keep your hips level. Shift weight to the other leg. Shift side to side and then circle around forward and back, feeling the inside and outside of your feet; try a circle 8 as well.
Return to the center and allow your weight to drop right through the arches of both feet. Feel the space between your legs; imagine it connecting to the ground as if it were a third leg. Allow your bottom to melt down and forward, releasing the lower back. Relax and settle.
Building Connection from the Ground Up – Torso:
Weakness in the center of the body will cause it to fold in and collapse, diminishing sound, decreasing strength, and setting up the arms for injury. Rigidity in this area will cause thinness and harshness of tone, as it will communicate stiffness to all the joints of the arms and fingers. The ideal is space, balanced support, and freedom of motion in the back. Think of opening the front of the body and stabilizing and strengthening the back.
As your lower back drops, notice how your swayback diminishes and your hips come more directly under your shoulders. Exaggerate the swayback and play air violin; then allow the pelvis to tip forward and notice the difference in how your arms move and how your neck and shoulders feel. This posture is healthy for the arms and will give them the support they need, because the hips and shoulders are closely related. Throughout the day, jiggle occasionally to check the alignment and openness of your legs.
To counteract the weight of the violin pressing down, muscles in the midriff of the body need to engage and lift. Imagine your side ribs as folds of a fan and feel them stretching open and up. Do side bends to release and elongate the spaces between the ribs. Feel your spine, especially the area of the mid-back between your shoulder blades, stretching up toward heaven. Do the same with your occiput. Notice how reaching up from the back helps the fronts of your shoulders and collarbone open and relax.
Your shoulder blades, while located in your back, are actually the beginnings of your arms. Utilizing them properly will enhance your sound, free your bow, and prevent the stooped posture that is common in string players. Let your arms hang loosely at your sides. Imagine a giant puppeteer holding strings attached to the back of your elbows. When the strings are raised, your upper arms will rise, while your forearms and hands dangle. Now flip the left arm over into playing position and play air violin. Notice how weightless your arms feel; this is because they are being held up from the strong deep muscles of the back, the rhomboids, between the shoulder blades. Let your arms hang straight down again and then lift the hands directly up into playing position. Even if you are at the same height as before, your arms will feel much heavier. Notice especially what you sense in the area between your upper arms and the sides of your body. Try the puppeteer version again for contrast.
Your armpits and indeed the whole area under your arms need to stay open, even when your bow arm is carving into the string. Imagine that you have small balloons in your armpits, and larger balloons around your waist and torso. Play air violin, carving down into the balloons with your elbows while simultaneously keeping the spaces of the balloons open. Notice the circularity of your elbow movements as you curve into those soft deep imaginary spaces under your arms.
Find the connection of your elbows all the way back into your shoulder blades. Stand with your hands in loose fists, held at chest height with palms down and knuckles touching; stabilize your legs, torso, and head so that they do not move; and move the triangle of your arms and elbows around the column of your spine, back and forth from left to right. Can you feel the shoulder blades moving in relation to your spine? Now take your arms into playing position, continuing to hold the traction between your elbows and shoulder blades as your stretch your elbows apart in space (I call this the starfish stretch). Let the blades go and feel how your shoulders collapse forward and up. Feel the slackness and emptiness in your elbows. The balloons are gone. Activate the shoulder blades again; squeeze them together and allow the elbows to be drawn away from your body. Notice how wide open your chest and underarms are when your shoulder blades stabilize your arms. Notice how symmetrical the spaces under your arms are, how light they feel, and how calm, alert and energetic you are. Notice how your breathing changes. Everything expands.
Building Connection from the Ground Up – Arms:
When the arms are unimpeded at the critical joints of the shoulders and elbows, nerve impulses are more efficient and a sense of ease and comfort will result.
Roll your shoulders gently back and around. Now add elbow circles. Do this slowly enough that you can feel your shoulder blades sliding across your back, towards and away from the spine.
With each hand, turn the opposite upper arm away from the body and towards the body. (This is a good exercise to do with a partner too.) Allow the forearms and hands to follow along passively. This gentle twisting motion will soften and open the tissues around the all-important juncture of your arm and body, through which many important blood vessels and nerves pass. Can you do both arms now, initiating the movement from your upper arms?
Play air violin while gently holding the front of your right armpit (the pectoralis) with your left hand. First play legato 16ths in the middle of the bow, leading with the hand, and notice the popping and jumping in the pectoralis; the right shoulder will also begin to rise as the pectoralis tightens. Now do the same but initiate the motion from the elbow (in effect, farther back in the upper arm). The forearm will still execute the motion but the circularity of the movement will prevent tension in the pec, making it much easier to keep the underarm soft and the right shoulder relaxed. Can you feel the circles in your right shoulder blade?
Play a downbow, allowing your arm to simply slide down and away from your body. See if you can find the gentle bounceback that will begin your upbow effortlessly. Now initiate the motion of the downbow from your hand; notice how you will automatically stop at the end of the bow and the upbow will necessitate a separate effort. Perform these two types of downbows again while holding your right bicep. Notice that a more circular motion will give you a fluid continuity from downbow to upbow, while the feeling of “straight across” produced by leading from the hand will immediately engender contractions in the bicep.
Contract your left bicep and execute an air shift. Can you feel the jerkiness and effort as you work against your own tension? Next do the same thing with a relaxed bicep. Finally, do the same thing but initiate the movement from underneath the arm, releasing the shoulder blade to allow the elbow to circle forward as you go into high position. Notice that the forearm and hand have the sensation of being carried.
Building Connection from the Ground Up – Neck and Shoulders:
When holding the violin we often draw our shoulders up and our head down, creating what I call the drawstring effect. This position cuts off circulation to our arms and brain. Your posture when playing the violin should be as near to an ordinary standing posture as is feasible.
Keep your shoulders as relaxed as possible; imagine them falling away from your head and neck. Soften the muscles around your collarbone; visualize your head as a boat rocking gently in the water of the collarbone.
Turn your head to the left, first by leading with your eyes and then by leading from the occiput, with your eyes trailing. Does your neck feel different? Is there a change in the range of motion?
Draw long bows in the air. Does your left side remain stable, or does it come towards the bow during an upbow? If you engage the shoulder blades it is easier to bow without collapsing the front of the armpits. Keep your head as close to vertical as possible; especially when drawing an upbow, avoid the tendency to crunch in and forward. (Is it easier or harder to move the bow in the air if you allow yourself to shift weight slightly, alternating left and right feet?)
Take your left hand and make a fist. Relax the full weight of your head onto your hand, resting on the chin. Talk (if you can). Now move your fist two inches closer towards your left ear, rest your head upon it, and try to talk again; notice how your jaw feels. Once again move your hand closer towards your ear. Once you have passed the hinge of the jaw you will be able to rest the full weight of your head on your hand, talk freely, and relax your jaw. Incorrect head position is responsible for much jaw tension and can eventually lead to temporomandibular joint disorders.
Now let the violin rest upon the left shoulder. Balance your head upon the chinrest gently; find the balance point behind the hinge of the jaw, let the weight of your head relax, and do not add additional gripping. Remember that the left hand plays a key role in supporting the violin too.
A balanced, upright posture, open and flexible joints, and using muscles as naturally as possible will all contribute to joy, effortlessness and ultimate freedom of expression as we play our glorious instrument.
LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN!!!
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!
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.
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?
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.
The best sounds and the longest lines are produced when we can draw the bow in a line, usually quite parallel to the bridge, so that the sounding point remains steady. However our bow arms work best in circular motions: our shoulders are ball-and-socket joints, and our elbows are hinged to allow the rotation of the forearm. If we are concentrating only on the straight line of the bow, we may inhibit the natural circular motions needed to keep the arm functioning well, and our sound may become stiff and thin.
The first bone of the arm is the shoulder blade. When we move our elbows, our shoulder blades also move. The movable shoulder blade (and therefore elbow) are an important part of the sound; engaging this area is what it means to “play from the back muscles.” When this area is accessible, our sounds become fuller, warmer, deeper, and louder; chords are also easier, because we have the full weight of the large back muscles. There will be a circular movement of the upper arm, turning inside the ball-and-socket joint. The elbow will also make small circular motions. To encourage this movement, use your left hand to turn the upper portion of your right arm. Notice how the turning results in your right elbow circling down and up. Can you feel the motion of your right elbow all the way back into your right shoulderblade?
The second important area is the forearm itself. Try holding your ulna bone and rotating your radius. You’ll be startled to see the range of motion possible without ever having to move your elbow. The small circular motions of the forearm give smoother bow changes and a more liquid, creamy quality to the sound. They also help in string crossings, particularly in fast passages. To develop this range of motion, place your right arm on a stand, with your elbow resting just beyond the left side of the stand. Now play Kreutzer #13 in the middle of the bow. Your upper arm will remain still while you cross strings using the forearm motion. This is one of the most useful capacities to develop in your bow arm; it will help you with fast barriolage passages, spiccato, and détaché.
As the forearm rolls, there is a resulting change in the hand balance which we call supination and pronation. The give of the hand into the bow facilitates these tiny adjustments. If we grip the bow too hard or are unable to bend the thumb, little or no forearm rotation is possible. There will be holes at the bow changes. We will not have enough variety of color or dynamic.
On All Levels:
1. Tune your instrument to a tuner thusly:
E: tuner at A = 442
A: tuner at A = 441
D: tuner at A = 441
G: tuner at A = 440
To tune the violin in a way which will allow you the best of many possible worlds of intonation, purchase a tuner/drone which has a variable A and which sounds all tones. (I use a Sorinuri Digital Metronome/Tuner #MTR-33.) Tune your A and D strings with the tuner/drone note at A=441; match the A of the drone exactly, then turn the dial to D and match your open D string to the drone D exactly. Tune your G string with the tuner at A=440, but with the dial turned to sound the note G. Tune your E string with the tuner at A=442, but with the dial turned to sound the note E. (Note: If you don’t have a movable tuner, tune A to 440, tune D to A in a VERY TIGHT fifth, tune G to D in a SLIGHTLY TIGHT fifth, tune E to A in a SLIGHTLY TIGHT fifth.)
Note that this is a compromise tuning, neither totally equal-tempered nor completely open. Your instrument will ring but will not be too far from the piano pitches, which are completely equal-tempered, and you will be able to play in keys which need both G and E strings.
2. When working, use a clear, solid, and sustained tone, with as little variation in dynamic as possible. Do not skate. Do not allow lumps, swells, or holes in the sound.
3. When adjusting, it is permissible to roll the finger slightly above and below pitch, gradually centering in and listening. But, VERY IMPORTANT, once you find the spot, pick up the finger and replace it in the perfect middle of the note you want, with NO ROLLING. (Otherwise you are practicing constant adjustment – the Grope School of Intonation.) Repeat several times, landing exactly where you want, with no rocking or rolling. Your finger should descend in a line, as if it were on a little railroad track.
4. Be aware of your keys at all times, and the relations of the scale degrees. In a major scale, the 1st, 4th, and 5th degrees are one group, which I call the home family, and the 3rd, 6th, and 7th are another, which I call the traveling family. Families are audibly related. In G Major, all your Gs, Cs, and Ds must agree and make perfect fourths, fifths, and octaves; likewise, all your Es, F#s, and Bs must agree and make equally perfect intervals. Keeping these families in tune will take advantage of the acoustic properties of the violin.
First Level – Using Open Strings
Use your carefully tuned open strings as drones whenever possible. Check all combinations of perfect intervals with open strings (most notes can be found with some combination of octaves, fourths, and an open string), e.g., in 1st position, 3rd finger octaves G, D, A; 4th finger unisons D, A, E; 1st finger fourths A, E, B. There are ways of checking with open strings in almost every position, in almost every key, and you need to be merciless about checking yourself. When you are first learning a piece, you should be using adjacent open strings almost constantly. This will help you center your ear and play pitches consistently the same. Most bad intonation is at bottom a matter of carelessness and lack of concentration! —–Play the doublestop with the open string, LISTEN for the absence of beats which signals that you are in EXACTLY the right spot, and memorize where you are on the fingerboard. (Where is your thumb? Where is your finger? What is the track that leads to the note? Where are you in relation to the body of the violin, the nut, etc.?) This process should be as natural to you as breathing, and it should happen continuously as you practice—don’t just do it at the beginning of a session and then forget about it! If you do, you will be actively training your ear to hear pitches IN THE WRONG PLACE, you will gravitate to a higher or lower pitch area and play out of tune with your open strings, and later on it will be much harder to adjust when you play with the piano and other instruments.
Second Level – Building Families
1. Use a drone to tune scales and arpeggios. In G Major, put the drone on G and play the scale, tuning all Gs, Cs, and Ds; then put the drone on B and tune all Bs, Es, and F#s. Do this both slow and fast, stopping on the pitches you are checking with the drone. Listen to how the two families have their own identities.
2. Tune in fourths when possible, e.g., open G + octave G + C; open E + B + F#. Tune in fourths as you are playing your scales and passages as well, e.g. checking to make sure the B in G major agrees with the E on the next string. This will help build your frame and make your families agree. (Remember, fourths are perfect intervals; listen for the absence of beats when they are perfectly in tune.)
3. You should have a strict interval size in your ear for all intervals. Unisons, fourths, fifths, and octaves are non-negotiable, because they are perfect intervals, but even seconds, thirds, sixths, and sevenths have a specific sound and size which will make them work inside your scale and key. You should not have one major third wide, and the next narrow. In a G Major scale, the major third between G and B should be the same size as the one between D and F#, and the minor third between A and C should be the same as the one between E and G. In a diminished triad, all the minor thirds should be the same size; in an augmented triad, all the major thirds should be the same size; in a scale, the wholesteps should be equal. If you can regularize the size of your intervals, your families will agree. To work on this, first train your ear to hear intervals against open strings. Play G-A, or G-B, or G-C etc. several times; decide where you want the pitch in relation to the open string (having the drone on the pitch and matching it can help this process) and then REPEAT THAT PITCH EXACTLY. You will gradually be able to transfer this kind of listening and repeatability to playing intervals which do not involve open strings directly.
3. Third Level – Learning Expressive vs. Equal-Tempered Intonation
To train your ear to hear the difference between equal-tempered intonation and expressive intonation, you will need a tuner/drone which has a variable A and which sounds all tones. Tune your scales thusly:
- Put the drone on the tonic (first) note of your scale and play the scale, matching the first, fourth and fifth degrees of the scale to the drone (in G major, this means matching all Gs, Cs and Ds). Make perfect intervals with no beats. Remember these pitches well. These are your home family and WILL NOT MOVE.
- Put the drone on the third degree of your scale and play the scale, matching the third, sixth and seventh degrees of the scale to the drone (in G major, this means matching all Bs, Es and F#s). Make perfect intervals with no beats. Remember these pitches well. You have just learned your traveling family with equal-tempered pitches.
- Put the drone on the third degree of your major scale and put it up one click (if you are tuned to A=441, move it to A=442). Now play your major scale, matching the third, sixth and seventh degrees of the scale to the drone (in G, match Bs, Es, and F#s). Make perfect intervals with no beats. Remember these pitches well. You have just learned your traveling family with expressively raised pitches. DO NOT RAISE THE PITCHES OF THE HOME FAMILY.
- Tune a troublesome passage of music in the same way, first choosing the tonic note and putting the drone on that pitch; play through slowly, stopping on each note which forms a perfect interval with the drone and tuning carefully.
- Take the same passage and decide if you want equal-tempered or expressive intonation; then choose your drone note accordingly. If you want equal-tempered, leave the drone at A=441 and then turn it to the third scale degree (in G major, this would be B); if you want expressive, turn the drone to A=442 and then turn it to the third scale degree. Again, match all third, sixth and seventh degrees to the drone (in G major, this means matching all Bs, Es and F#s). Gradually you will be able to place your fingers in either spot at will.
- If you can’t decide which intonation you want, think about the character of the passage. Is it serene, peaceful, comforting; or turbulent, disturbing, feverish, show-off? If you want to heighten intensity, choose expressive intonation; otherwise, the equal-tempered system will be best. If you still can’t decide, listen to a recording and try to discern what the violinist is using.
Your ear will improve rapidly in learning these two systems of intonation. Also, as you play better in tune, tune in fourths and use expressive intonation you will be able to take more advantage of sympathetic vibrations with the open strings of your violin, resulting in a richer, fuller sound. Be calm, patient, and demanding in your work. Remember, intonation is the single most audible characteristic of violin playing.
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.
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
 I highly recommend Stuart Isacoff’s wonderful book, Temperament, for an in-depth history of the development of equal temperament.
Expressive intonation when used on the violin takes utmost advantage of the sympathetic vibrations of our open strings. We should as a matter of course tune 4ths, 5ths, and 8vs to our open strings whenever possible; this makes the violin ring beautifully, enriching our sounds and giving us a sense of ease as we play. However, in addition to checking constantly for agreement with open strings, we can go further and begin to hear the relationships between groups of notes. Basing these groups on 4ths and 5ths will make for consistency in intonation and a more expressive and powerful sound. It will also give us smaller half steps, wider major intervals, and smaller minor intervals; these are all hallmarks of expressive intonation, wherein we intensify and exaggerate functional harmony.
Perfect consonances such as 4ths and 5ths can be divided by their relationship to the open strings into two categories: Dark, building in 4ths up from the G string, and Bright, building in 4ths down from the E string.
G, C, F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, all flats
E, B, F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#, all sharps
You may have noticed that music in keys such as D, A, E, and G is often easier to make sound; this is because it is naturally using the ring of the open strings contained in the key. You may have conversely noticed more difficulty in works written in flat keys such as Eb, Ab, and Db. Not only do these keys contain fewer of our open strings, they also require us to relate in 4ths to the open G string – the “Dark Side” — which we might prefer to ignore. Even a movement in C Major such as the Bach C Major Fugue will be full of opportunities for mistuning C major chords with the G string, because we will try to tune them “up” to the E string. This is particularly difficult if we tune our fifths perfectly open.
Here is the tuning I recommend instead:
Keyes Compromise Tuning
E: Tuner at A=442
A: Tuner at A=441
D: Tuner at A=441
G: Tuner at A=440
This results in:
G, C, F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db: Tuner at A=440
E, B, F#, C#, G#, D#, A#: Tuner at A=442
All flats are lowered and all sharps are raised, leading to narrow half steps and widened whole steps in both major and minor scales. In major scales, the 3rd, 6th and 7th steps are high. In harmonic minor scales, the 3rd and 6th steps are low; the 7th is high. The distance from C to C# is greater than that from C to Db. These narrow half steps greatly intensify our emotional expression.
- Opening up the hand – invite, encourage, do not insist!
- Play all stretching and widening exercises pp at first, to release and melt the webbing between the fingers.
- Keyes sliding: hold one finger, slide other fingers up one at a time, do not allow held finger to buckle or move. Keep wrist in relaxed but straight line.
- Kourgouf sliding: place all four fingers on string, slide each finger up one half-step, beginning with fourth finger; do not allow hand, wrist or other fingers to move; then slide back down beginning with first finger.
- Dounis Daily Dozen #3 – sliding.
- Stretching: 3 fingers in third position on E string, first finger on A string, slide first finger back to first position, do not allow other fingers to move or buckle. Continue with successive fingers.
- Dounis stretching: Artist’s Technique of Violin Playing, pp. 24-29. 1-2 minutes maximum, no finger pressure whatsoever. Be very careful of this one!
- Simon Fischer Basics: “Widening at the Base Joints”
- Simon Fischer Basics: “Minimum Finger Pressure”
- Simon Fischer Basics: Thumb Spa, Thumb Counterpressure
- Dounis Daily Dozen # 2 – holding and releasing.
- Framing the hand – all the world is a quadruplestop!
- The fourth finger is king, and the hand is balanced and energized between third and fourth fingers, while releasing and reaxing in thumb, index and second fingers.
- The wrist is relaxed but straight.
- The hand is melted and released to bring the third and fourth fingers closer to the neck/fingerboard.
- Think finger patterns at all times – on string and in the air.
- Keyes finger patterns on one string – chromatic and diatonic.
- Galamian one-position scales. Hold fourth finger down continuously.
- Doublestop for string crossings.
- Sevcik Opus 1 Part IV # 2 – holding and releasing.
- Kourguof – holding and releasing.
- Schradieck “The School of Violin Techniques” Vol. 1 pp. 2-4 – air patterning and releasing.
- Kreutzer #9 – air patterning and releasing. Use second finger to fourth as much as possible.
- Sitt 50 Daily Finger Exercises.
Imagination, Visualization, Emotion:
Your sound is your soul. Expose yourself to wonderful violinists so that you may learn what is possible; but — your sound must be uniquely your own voice. What do you hear in your mind’s ear?
All sounds will be a mix of bow speed and weight/pressure. Choose your sounding points:
Nearer the bridge = more tension/resistance = more weight = slower bow speed
Farther from the bridge = less resistance = less weight = faster bow speed
The angle of wood to hair also affects clarity and warmth. Although at the frog the hair should be slightly angled, experiment with flatter hair from the middle of the bow to the tip, especially in concertos.
Find strings that suit your violin.
Think of your hand, arm and entire body as a set of springs. If anything is locked the sound will be stopped, as water by a dam. Keep all joints open. Avoid strain or forcing.
Carve, caress, slide, pour, sink, curve – never hit or strike the violin!
Execute the bow smile. Land in a flattening curve, never with an abrupt vertical descent. (Airplane exercise)
Flexibility in the bow hand and wrist, facilitated by the proper relaxation of the thumb in combination with the proper hand shape, is essential for beauty.
The relation of the fingers of the left hand to the string can affect the sound greatly. Make sure your tips have a feeling of cushion; in lyric playing, play on the pads, not on the bone. The first joint should flex easily. Do not overpress with the fingers or clench with the thumb. The softness in the tips and first joints will especially help sound and intonation in multiple stops.
Vibrato is a key component to your sound and will help loosen your joints.
The arch shape of the fingers can give clarity and focus to your sound. Flattened fingers are fuzzier and warmer.