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I'm a parent who is teaching my child how to play the violin. Unfortunately, my child is not consistent about the placement of his left-hand fingers on the fingerboard. For example, when my child presses his 3rd finger down on the A string to play the D note, it is sometimes too sharp, and other times it is too flat.

Are there any exercises that I can use to help him to get the right intonation? Our violin teacher had uses stickers on the fingerboard, but recommended that we remove them since he was getting older. If I recall correctly, the teacher recommends not worrying about intonation for the time being, but letting the problem fix itself when he grows older and his ear becomes more discerning.

Response to question in comment

Question: Is he so far off it sounds like a different note, or just enough to bother a good ear? If he stops to think, can he tell you whether he was sharp or flat, or is he completely unaware?

Answer: That's a great question.

For the first question, the maximum error is about half note off, i.e. if he is trying to play D, he may play D♯ or D♭. But sometimes, he is able to play D perfectly for the entire song of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star".

For the second question, I have never asked him if he was sharp or flat. Now that you mention it, I should definitely ask him whether he is able to discern whether he is sharp or flat. If he is not able to tell, then I should work on interval training.

  • I would suggest you to record exercises for him with MIDI playback for him to play along. You can get some sheet music editor or learn abc musical notation language and record the exercises, then export to .mid format. – Iacchus Oct 3 '15 at 11:59
  • Is he so far off it sounds like a different note, or just enough to bother a good ear? If he stops to think, can he tell you whether he was sharp or flat, or is he completely unaware? – Karen Oct 4 '15 at 18:25
  • @Karen That's a great question. See my response in the edited question. – I Like to Code Oct 5 '15 at 2:27
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Since his teacher recommended taking the stickers off, I'm going to assume your son is in the ballpark of the right note, and that if he takes the time, he can tell whether he is sharp or flat. Once a player can get reasonably close by ear, marking tapes won't help get the exact note, and can distract from learning to listen, and on the violin, you get the best intonation by listening to what you're playing.

  1. Play scales at different speeds, and in different rhythms. For at least one scale a day, have your son focus on intonation until he sounds better than he did when he wasn't focusing on it. If your son finds them too boring, look for easy tunes that include runs of 3-5 notes (or more), and play them in keys he knows the scales of. Go through the scales or tunes slowly enough that he has time to think about how he needs to correct when he's out of tune.

  2. Have him try playing a scale with his eyes shut, so that the only way if he knows he's right is by listening.

  3. Have him listen for ringing tones, where the note you are playing is the same as an open string. The D on the A string is one example. It will make the D string ring audibly when it is perfectly in tune. Do this on any exercise, or any piece.

  4. Play with a drone tone in the background. So if you are playing an exercise in D, have a recording of a D note in the background. This makes it painfully obvious when you are playing out of tune. You can find free MIDI notes online, or you can buy a recording of 10 minutes Cello drones of each note on amazon or itunes.

  5. If your son can play on 2 strings at once, play scales by fingering the notes, and at the same time playing the open string below. This is the same effect as the drone tone, but takes more skill to execute.

Good intonation is a constantly moving target. Your son might have good intonation for his age and experience, but still sound bad to a better trained ear. You get famous concert violinists who are playing perfectly in tune to an average person's ear who can still hear where they were a hair off on certain notes.

  • You are spot on about good intonation being a moving target. I found that my son can discern when the note is quite far off target, and self correct in those cases. I would expect that as he plays more violin and his ear becomes better attuned to differences in pitch, he will self-correct and get closer to the perfect pitches. – I Like to Code Oct 7 '15 at 2:40
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Usually you wouldn't want to remove the stickers until he is beginning to become more accurate on his own. Removing them only helps if they are inhibiting his ability to learn the correct placements — so if he is all over the map, then he needs more experience learning the exact positions and not less!

His ear is also more likely to develop properly by becoming familiar with the correct notes. If any note he plays can be sharp or flat and he doesn't hear the difference, it's just going to reinforce bad habits. As the saying goes, practice doesn't make perfect — it makes permanent. You have to practice it correctly in order to ingrain it correctly.

One great exercise to help with intonation is interval training, which is essentially hearing two notes played and identifying the interval between them. It will help intonation by allowing him to recognize when a note does not form a valid interval with a previously-played note, and thus that the fingering or tuning needs correction.

Another trick is to have him take his left hand off the violin, close his eyes, and then attempt to play a note. Then have him open his eyes and compare visually to the sticker to see how far he's off. Repeat until he's getting that one accurately, then try a few more. Come back the next day and try again. Eventually the sense of distance should be much improved. You can also have him play one note with eyes open, then move up/down to play another with eyes closed to ensure that the physical sense of the intervals is also learned.

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Have him find his first note before starting to play his piece. Finding the first note is best done with pizzicato. You pluck the open string, then place the finger and pluck again. It is fine for a student at this level for you to politely and gently indicate whether he is too high or too low if he isn't sure.

Do lots of singing.

Play duets together.

Go to concerts and recitals.

Make sure your child's teacher is not allowing poor position. Technical problems can cause real problems with intonation.

One way to be sure about the technical grounding is by working with a certified Suzuki instructor. It's not the only way, but if you're not sure what proper technique looks like, that's an easy way of being sure.

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Pitch is really just a cultural convention. The only important part in my musical opinion is the interval. This is the distance between notes of a chord.

Even as an adult musician it has taken me a long time to truly begin to grasp the beauty of the octave. The octave is a pattern that "sounds regular" and "repeats" but with "higher" and "lower" notes. Really, every sound is different, but they exhibit a natural similarity to our ears so first you can train your child in identifying the equality of the octave.

Play low A then high A
Play low E then high E

Play any sound (not necessarily a 12-semitone even tempered sound aka unconventional) 
and play its one-octave up and one-octave down.

Take time to really listen to their "equality" .. what do they sound like when they line up best? Is the effect more pronounced at lower or higher tones?

Getting your child to try to imagine what a string is actually doing (resonating very quickly) will begin to unlock the mysteries and magic of tempo.

I believe that it will take some time, so be patient. Combine theory and practice with your child and have fun.

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Here is what I have tried with my child.

Keep left hand fingers close to the fingerboard My son tends to open up the fingers on his left hand when he plays the open E or A string. When I place my fingers near his left hand to remind him to keep his fingers close to the fingerboard, he is more consistent in where he places his left hand fingers down.

Listening to the song We have a CD of the song played by a professional violinist. The Suzuki method requires parents to play the Suzuki CD for 20 minutes each day to train the children to know how the song is supposed to sound.

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This is a wide topic, but one of the often given advice is to do scales. While scales are useful for sound stability, they are not the faster nor the better way to develop intonation.

In contradiction with the answers here, the right way to develop intonation is by playing two sounds at a time (somewhat covered in Karen's answer, the drone tone section). That means, playing on two strings. Playing on two strings is not that hard, especially for the goal of exercise:

To develop intonation, one should play double stops, with one open string and one finger on the other string.

  • Play an open D string with a first finger on the A string (B note), adjusting the sixth
  • With an open A string, play a second finger on the D string (F note), adjusting the third.

Intonation is, by definiton, how a sound sounds in accordance with another sound. A sound by itself, without being in the context of a key, can't be out of tune, there are no tune to begin with. Doing scales will not practice how sounds are relating to other sounds, not unless you already have an advanced hearing for intonation.

One have to teach their own ear what is the correct relation between sounds for each intervals, then one can play in tune regardless of the context.

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Make sure that he is not touching the neighboring strings. When one listens carefully, one can hear whether the fingered string is combining nicely with the unfingered strings or not. Of course, that's best hearable when they are actually in unison. Or if you just play along the neighboring string as a drone.

The problem is that this is a self-control device. If your kid is not interested in it, you cannot really expect to make him. If he is not bothered with intonation, you'll likely annoy him with stuff that feels totally academical to him and spoil the fun.

So his teacher is likely right: just give him time and grit your teeth. At some time it might start bothering him that playing an empty string in some scale will totally disrupt it because it does not fit with the rest.

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