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I am looking for intonation exercises for bowed strings. I use techniques mentioned by Simon Fischer in his books and those have served me well I think. However I am now able to match pitches well but only while hearing them. If I'm playing along with an ensemble I can match their pitch fairly well. My problem is that when I am alone my intonation is rather inconsistent.

I practice playing with an electronic tuner for hours and hours but this doesn't seem to help at all. After hours of practicing this way my intonational problems have not improved much. Teachers just say "practice scales" Which is an instruction which frustrates me to no end since I can't tell when my scales are truly in tune. That isn't to say I am completely inept, I am just not satisfied with my intonation for my playing level and I would like to improve.

I understand that intonation on bowed string is a combination of mechanical skill and internal audiation. I would like some exercises that can help with both.

  • Can you sing in tune? – JimM Jan 23 '17 at 10:42
  • I can. I'm not sure how precise I should be by myself but I have sung as part of a choir. I don't think I am any more or less precise with singing than I am on on violin/cello. – xerotolerant Jan 23 '17 at 10:49
  • You say that you cannot tell when your scales are truly in tune. If you cannot tell why do you think that they are not in tune? I'm trying to understand what exactly the problem is hre. – JimM Jan 23 '17 at 12:26
  • @JimM I have a sense of the structure of scales. I know the notes. I can play them. But I am not confident. When I listen to recordings of myself my scales are never as in tune as I thought they were. When I sing or play with an electric tuner I never get it exactly. I am usually within 10 cents but that is hardly in tune – xerotolerant Jan 23 '17 at 12:28
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I have never used an electronic tuner and I don't really know how they work, but I am guessing that they do not adapt for temperament.

On a stringed instrument such as the violin or cello (I play the cello) as well as in singing you naturally veer towards mean temperament, so for example you will tend to play mediants sharp and leading notes very sharp. So the f# you play in a scale of G major will be slightly higher than the one you play in the scale of D major. If your tuner does not accommodate this then I am not surprised that you do not agree with it.

This would be consistent with your statement that you seem to play more in tune with an instrumental ensemble (where I assume you do not employ the tuner) but seem to struggle when playing alone using the tuner.

I hesitate to suggest this but I think that you should try practicing without the tuner. Use the tuner to tune your A string and tune all the others by ear. Give it a week or so and see how it goes. Use your natural aural ability rather than rely on an external source all the time. This is, after all, how everyone did it until a relatively few years ago.

Good luck.

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    Hey. I am actually doing this now, based on your advice. It seems that throwing the tuner in the mix has just served to make me insecure. I am now using it at the start of practice with the cello to practice finger placement with less guesswork. After I'm going without the tuner and I seem to be improving a lot. My instrument is a lot more resonant and my corrections are more confident. So I'll mark this one as right. – xerotolerant Jan 24 '17 at 11:56
  • @xerotolerant Happy to have helped. – JimM Jan 24 '17 at 13:05
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I would allow me to start with a question: do you play in tune while you stay in one position? If not, I would start working on improving the intonation without changing the position. For me always works looking in a mirror - just watch your hand if it does not do some inappropriate movements and check with your ear if you are correct. If you think your ear is not enough precise, practice veeeery long notes and download some app which can show you exactly where you are (I am using the legendary Pitch Primer for iPhone, but I am sure there much less expensive apps).

That is the basic I think - to find a nice shape for your hand. Every hand is different so you need to find yours.

Of course most of the intonation problems come with changing the positions. Then I would do the next step and concentrate on that (after you master separately each).

My favourite - not only because I am Czech - is Ševčík, which you can find on IMSLP. You can start with Op. 1: http://imslp.org/wiki/School_of_Violin_Technique,Op.1(Ševč%C3%ADk,_Otakar)

P.S.: I am a cellist, but I guess that makes no difference :)

P.P.S.: The most finest intonation is not felt just by ears but also by your fingertips. Just try to concentrate while you play on this fingertip sensation. It will be different when you play out of tune and in tune. Another "yoga" exercise is to look at your strings how they vibrate. Again - if you play in tune you can see that they move more (esp. lower strings).

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    I'm sceptical about the very last part - unless you are playing with others. – Tim Jan 23 '17 at 10:16
  • I do not understand. Intonation is definitely something you need to practice just by yourself. It is a basic ability to hit the note you wish. No one can help you with that :) Different category is e.g. quartet, where you have to find specific intonation of the ensemble, but I guess that is not the case of xerotolerant.... – jamnik Jan 23 '17 at 10:25
  • @Tim I think jamnik is talking about sympathetic resonance. Which I do know about. I find relying on it to be mostly ineffective since I am I don't place my fingers reliably, and sometimes I am always really sure whether or not I am getting the maximum amount – xerotolerant Jan 23 '17 at 12:20
  • @jamnik I started cello a few months ago. I would be nice if you share your cello exercises as well. I said "strings" in the original post since I play cello and voilin – xerotolerant Jan 23 '17 at 12:22
  • @xerotolerant - sympathetic vibration only occurs when something else has the same basic frequency, as I'm sure you're aware. It will only happen on a cello/violin etc., with any of the three unplayed strings, so if one plays a different note or even a not-in-tune note (in the cracks, we say!) then that wouldn't resonate any more or less than an in-tune note that wasn't the same as another open string, if that makes sense. So it won't help with intonation. – Tim Jan 23 '17 at 12:33
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Suppose you are playing tonal music:

As you said, you perform better when there are reference pitches (e.g. play in ensemble). To play solo violin, a method I use to maintain consistent intonation is always compare with open string or natural harmonics when possible. Do some ear training to get familar with basic intervals. Your ear will tell you the interval is weird if you played off-pitch, compared with open string or harmonics.

Of course in some piece you do not have the chance to use many open string or natural harmonics. Then play the piece in segement, and record it. Analyse what is not in tune, and fix it. This process is relatively slow, but it will train your for better intonation and muscle memory in the long run. So it worthes the investment.

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