Playing in Tune 3: Games & Exercises

In the last two articles we talked first about how intonation is about relationships, not about the placement of individual notes or fingers.  Last time we looked at ways to improve your hand position so you can play more accurately and effortlessly.  Here we’re going to offer some games/exercises to build good intonation into your hands and ears.  Your brain can help understand the patterns, but can’t direct your fingers to the right places; you need to build that physically into your muscle memory and your hardworking ears.

earhandLo-Hi Scale.  This exercise really gives you the basic relationship you want to get into your muscle memory so you can play both the low and high positions for each finger.   It’s video #10 in Technique Video Group #1.  Start with an open string.  Halfway through the bow, play first finger right near the nut (first circle on the Finger Finder), for the second half of the bow.  Try it a few times to get used to it, but once you do, you can just do it on the downbow, and on the upbow, again play open string for half a bow, and for the other half, play first finger in the high position (next circle on Finger Finder, a finger-width past the low position).

Remember, you are not just playing notes!  Checking your pitches against your electronic tuner won’t necessarily teach your ears or fingers what to do next time!  Give your ears and fingers a chance to compare open string with low first finger, and then Continue reading Playing in Tune 3: Games & Exercises

Playing in Tune 2: the Hand

In the last article we talked about how playing in tune is not about placing your finger in the right place, according to some authority (like your electronic tuner), but about the relationship of notes (and fingers) to each other.  Here we’re going to help your hand find a natural position so you can play in tune.  If your hand is in an awkward position, intonation can be hit-or-miss.  Next time we’ll take a look at games/exercises for building good intonation relationships into your hand and ears.

Note:  I have to summarize the exercises below because a full verbal explanation of physical motions can be boring and out of context if not applied to you in a personal way, as in a lesson.  I’ll be referring to some technique videos on this site, which give more info both visually and verbally.  They also allow you to play along and not have to think too much (a big plus!).

handposition-edBasic setup for good intonation.  The Drumming exercise (#7 in Technique Video Group 1) is  excellent for players of all levels, helping your hand teach itself a good position for accurate and effortless playing.  With the drumming exercise, your hand starts in an easy-to-reach position, holding the fiddle like a guitar, and drums on a string as easily as you would effortlessly drum fingers on a table while waiting for someone.  In fact, having your mind focused on something else is a big part of this game.  Start by tucking the violin into your left thumb, instead of the other way around, so that your hand can avoid preconceptions about how it should approach the neck of the violin.  The game is to slowly transfer that drumming up to playing position, using only your right hand to do the moving, allowing your left shoulder, elbow and wrist to slowly accommodate your hand and arm in a way it finds natural.

If you can keep your fingers free to move and not squished against the neck of the violin or held too low Continue reading Playing in Tune 2: the Hand

Playing In Tune 1: Relationships

Everybody wants to play in tune, but not everybody can agree on what that even means.  Much of it is not really a scientific thing, contrary to the beliefs of our electronic tuners.  It’s far more human than that.  It’s about relationships — your ear comparing one note to another, your fingertips either touching each other or stretching apart on a string or across strings.  Sometimes it’s about which notes want to lean sharp or flat in order to sound good.

harmonyspheresalchemyThat’s what we’ll take a look at here.  Having a better understanding of what you’re aiming for makes playing in tune a much easier goal to reach.  In the next couple of articles, we’ll look first at ways to set up your hand for more effortless and accurate playing, and then we’ll go over some games/exercises to build good intonation into your playing.

First, some perspective.  Important as it is, intonation is not our top priority.  If you play out of tune, but in time and with good spirit, others can still play along with you, enjoy listening to you, and dance to your music.  Good intonation makes it more pleasant and rewarding but is not essential.  You can play beautifully in tune, but unless you have good timing, your music will be hard to listen to, impossible to dance to, and discouraging for other musicians who want to play along.  Timing is a dealbreaker; intonation is not.

Having said all that, you still sound much better when you play in tune!  Sloppy intonation can also change the whole mood of a tune, for example by making a major tune sound minor or sour.

OK, so what’s intonation all about?  It’s about relationships.  It’s not about matching a note to your electronic tuner, though that can be a useful test.  It’s not about seeing an F# on a sheet of music and knowing where you’re supposed to put your finger, though that is a helpful skill.  And it’s not about sticking the little colored strips on the fingerboard — your eyes can’t even see those strips accurately from the far end of the fiddle, and I’m afraid they are a symptom of a terrible disease called fret-envy!

The bottom line about finger relationships on the fiddle comes down to a simple question — Continue reading Playing In Tune 1: Relationships

What’s in a Scale?

Scales are probably the most useful note pattern to become familiar with.  Scales are simply all of the notes played one at a time up Scaleand down.  On the fiddle, one note per finger plus open strings will generate a scale.  All of the white keys of the piano form a scale of seven different notes before reaching the octave, the eighth note.  If you start on the A (220 beats per second) just below middle C, then the octave note is also an A because it is precisely double the frequency (440 beats per second) and sounds to our ears like the same note but higher.  (See article on the frequencies of nature in archives at left, from June 2015.)

If you are familiar with scales you can much more easily learn by ear, as it will help you group notes as you learn a tune, so that you don’t have to think about each note individually.

For beginners, scales serve many purposes, including  Continue reading What’s in a Scale?

Pentatonic is Everywhere

One of the most popular note patterns in musical styles around the world is the pentatonic scale.  I often start beginners off  with tunes based on this scale because they can be great tunes, but easy to learn.  Some pentatonic fiddle tunes use only 2 fingers.
the-scale
This scale has been used for centuries in Celtic music, American folk, gospels, blues, country, rock, jazz, East European, West African, Chinese, Mongolian, Japanese, Greek, Native American, Southeast Asian, South American, Afro-Caribbean — in fact, it’s hard to find places where the pentatonic scale is not in common use.  It has been important in classical music as well, particularly in Romantic and impressionistic music.

Carl Orff believed the pentatonic scale was natural for children, so the Orff method focuses on its use for younger learners.  It’s also part of the Kodaly method, and us used in Waldorf schools, for similar reasons.
piano keyboard
It’s easy to visualize the 5 notes of this scale when you see it on a piano:  Continue reading Pentatonic is Everywhere