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I'm an adult violin player who recently picked up the violin. One of my biggest struggle is learning to play in key. It seems that even if I get a note down perfectly one day, I may be slightly off the next.

What's the best/most efficient way to deliberate practice being in key for violin?

Thank you

  • How about playing along with a recording of a piano accompaniment, etc.? That way you can compare your intonation to the recording and make sure you are in tune. – user1044 May 2 '15 at 4:34
  • See if this question and answer is helpful to you or not music.stackexchange.com/questions/30115/… – Sazid Ahmad May 2 '15 at 14:20
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Learning intonation on violin is difficult a) because a new student doesn't necessarily have intonation in their ears so it is hard to judge accuracy and b) because even if the student does have relatively decent intonation it's not a trivial task to get the fine muscle control to execute an in-tune note. I'll lay down some basic suggestions and then get a bit more detailed.

The best way is to go to a teacher - it is invaluable to have outside feedback and pointers on things you may not notice you are doing. Secondly, make sure your instrument is in tune - this may seem obvious but it is a pitfall of many new violinists (or musicians in general). Third, you can get tape for the fingerboard that you can use to mark off proper positions for your fingers. You may know all of these already but I thought I'd put them out there...

Aside from the more obvious suggestions above, I'd say you should get a recording of scales that plays slowly, clearly, and with no vibrato and to play along with that. For each note try to match it so that what you play and what the recording is playing doesn't clash - make it as hard as possible to tell the difference between your instrument and the recording. Pay attention to what sounds sharp and what sounds flat. If you don't know then move your finger a bit and see if gets more in tune or less in tune. For example, if you moved your finger up and you got more in tune it means you were flat. When you make a correction pay a lot of attention to what the wrong note sounded like, if it was sharp or flat, and what it FELT like to play it - eventually you will be doing this by feel and making very quick subconscious adjustments. However, before this becomes second nature you have to do each little adjustment explicitly - for me it always helps to break my actions down to little atomic structures that I can build back and eventually connect fluidly.

Also don't worry about learning every scale out there. Starting with a few will make learning go quicker and will teach you to hear how a well-played scale is supposed to sound. Once you learn how the notes should sound RELATIVE to one another it will be much easier to learn a new scale.

Finally, to help get the intonation into your ears try singing along with the recording. This helps to develop your ear tremendously. I should stress that it doesn't matter if you sound 'good' or not but rather if you are in tune or not. Your voice can be an incredibly powerful tool in learning to play at all stages - if you can sing it then you can play it!

Hope that helped - sorry for inevitable typos but it's 2AM and I've been doing finals all week!

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You can put some thin tapes on the fingerboard to show you where to put your fingers.

Make sure you do a simple warm-up at the beginning every day, in which you are getting very comfortable with where each finger "belongs". For example, play the first half of a scale a few times, without worrying about rhythm, bowing, tone production, etc., just concentrating on finger placement, feeling the weight of your arm.

I hope you are tuning your instrument with an electronic gadget before starting your practice. If even one string is out of tune, that will throw your ear off and create confusion, and then your brain won't know which end is up.

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Ben Kushigan's suggestions are great for practicing intonation specifically. I've also got a few suggestions to help recognize when you are off while playing in general.

The single piece of advice that most improved my intonation was to not watch my left hand. Instead, look into the distance, or watch the bow.

Play against a drone tone. Set your computer to play a recording of the base note of whatever key you are in (so if you are playing in D, put a D in the background). You can download a midi of a single note, and put it on repeat, there is a album you can buy which is nothing but a cello playing a single note, or you can record your own (either you playing, or a more experienced player if you have one available.) This helps you by making it easier to hear when your intonation gets off, so you can fix it faster.

Check yourself against open strings. This takes some practice to do well, because the most effective way to do it is to play 2 notes at once (deliberately, not accidentally :-P ). But even if you aren't at that skill level yet, you can play the next string up or down, and get a reference pitch for where you should be. The third finger is the same note as the next string down, in a different octave, while the fourth finger is exactly the same note as next open string up. The first and second fingers aren't quite as easy to hear, but the sound of the correct interval is still easy to hear with a little practice.

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Playing the violin in key goes hand in hand with your aural skills. You need to be able to recognise the false notes and be able to correct them yourself.

A good idea is to maybe do the Sulfa system so can in your mind play the first note of a scale and know how all of the other notes in the scale sound.

You can also try to do scales with the piano if your are still struggling. Just make sure the piano is in tune.

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I used to have tapes on my violin when I was learning to play, but when you put a finger on the tape you cannot see where exactly it touches the string and likely you are going to be slightly off and even 0.5mm off can be a great difference in the purity of the sound.

The only way to play right is to develop the correct hearing. Listen to a few basic scales and sing them yourself so that you would remember them better. Search the harmony and the beauty in the sounds, that will make the scale more memorable. When playing, do not focus on your tapes, and where exactly you put your finger, put rather be very attentive to what you hear. Can you hear that harmony and beauty when you are playing? Practice playing until you can hear it!

Developing hearing is a gradual process, the more you try to play purely, the better hearing you develop. At the beginning of the practice it takes me several minutes of playing the basic scales to remind myself of the purity of the sound which I could get the last time.

Also developing a good hearing takes a great effort (but in any case it is worthy!). It takes a full concentration, and an empty mind. You are not going to get better just by doing more playing or listening. Maybe up to some basic stage, but not far. Hence make sure that all your mind and body are disposed to play from all your heart before you start playing. Only in that way you can discern every small nuance in a sound.

When I change the note, I approximately place a finger at the correct position, then start moving the bow and as I hear the sound in the first 0.1s I adjust my finger by up to 0.25mm by what I hear. I do all of this automatically. I can imagine for better violinists these distances are even smaller and the time is even smaller as well.

Edit: I just found out that if one plays the violin while hearing other instruments in key such as a piano or a guitar for example, then one can hear the right notes from others and consequently one learns how to produce good notes on the violin too.

  • So true, people who try to learn exactly where to put their fingers visually are just setting themselves up for failure. It has to be by ear. – Some_Guy Jul 23 '15 at 11:33
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You can play along with MIDI playback. MIDI is computer generated and have perfect rhythm and pitch. But you need to develop your ears also.

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While there are some very good answers here, I just want to add something else that might help.

Play tunes you know very very well. Doesn't matter what it is, or how easy it is, just play a melody that you know inside and out.

I'm talking nursery rhymes and folk songs here. Could even be a cheesy pop song's melody that you've known since you were a kid! If you don't have music for it, even better.

It can be amazing what working out "twinkle twinkle little start" etc. by ear can do for a violinists intonation, because the reference point is so concrete: as Ben Kushigian said in his answer, part of the difficultly is not just the physical, it's training your ear (this is often true for people who have been playing for years not just beginners). Having a piece of music where your reference isn't a piece of paper, but something you just "know" allows you to focus purely on pitch.

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