may 15

Right-hand intonation

I was unable to attend my mother’s 60th birthday last week, and a mailed card seemed insignificant. After all, how does one convey gratitude — ‘Gee, Ma, thanks for schlepping me all around the world for fiddle lessons all those years’ — between the crease of Hallmark card?

So, just before wrapping up some practicing, I turned on my laptop camera and recorded a little J.S. Bach for my dear mother, and sent it her way in an email.

Listening from the arm-chair

I have always known to record myself playing whenever possible: I’ve done it a ton in the past; when preparing for competitions and the like. Basically, it’s impossible to record oneself too much.

For many, it’s hard to muster up the will-power to do it, as we serious classical violinists are groomed from day one that perfection is the goal. Facing the music, so to speak, takes courage! When we push ‘play’ on our recordings, our reaction can be like that when we hear our recorded voice: ‘Turn it off! Do I really sound like that?’

Listening to the birthday video yielded the usual suspects of observations from me. At the top of the list:

‘[Sigh]… How is it possible that my intonation is this poor?’

Forever out of tune (probably)

I can’t stress enough how crappy a violinist’s intonation is on average when you get close & listen objectively. And that’s understandable! It’s a tough musical instrument to play, and an almost athletic fitness is needed to maintain core technique.

Added to the challenges of the instrument, is the fact that intonation is subjective given that the relationship between notes is mathematically clumsy (see more here). One’s intonation in playing Bach when applied to Beethoven, would certainly sound ‘off.’ There is no such thing as perfect intonation, really, though we certainly know when we hear something out of tune, don’t we?

But while we try our best to get close to being in tune, there’s an elephant in the room unrelated to where our fingers lay on the fingerboard. It’s a huge stinker, and not many pedagogues obsess about it. It’s the intonation of our right hand.

Messy tennis

Every time our bow grazes an open string accidentally, fingers pluck open strings on error, etc., we are saturating our sound with noise. I have come to think of this concept as right-hand intonation, even though, indeed, some of these impurities are caused by the left hand, oddly as that may sound.

As maestro Ricci once remarked, it’s the job of our left-hand to survey, and the job of our right arm to arc the bow around with beautiful & precise circles, like that of a tennis player.

When we are not playing perfect tennis, the result is noise.

Tuning that bow-arm

Fixing right-hand intonation is all about coming to grips with the fact that ‘messy tennis’ makes for an amateur sound (greater than any left-hand misintonation could ever do). It’s best not to take my word for it, you should face this fact on your own: record yourself & listen for anything that shouldn’t be there. Once you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole, the table is set for making it all right.

Now that we are privy to the fact that our bow-arm is out of tune, it’s time to identify some of the common noises we can eliminate. Here’s a short-list of some:

  1. the ‘e’ string whistles, instead of sounding;
  2. page-turns of the sheet music brings a ‘rip’ to the middle of a phrase;
  3. the bow grazes other strings, creating extra noise;
  4. the end of phrases are snuffed, because the bow doesn’t release the sound;
  5. the start of phrases are initiated without assertion, yielding cruft in the sound;
  6. the left-hand fingers carelessly graze strings, creating quasi-pizzicati (sometimes louder than the intentional notes);
  7. lifting of fingers at the end of a quiet passages, reveal a pizz sound louder than the passage itself;
  8. sniffs to cue other musicians come from the nose, and can be heard beyond the stage.

The common thread above, is that practical matters are making themselves heard. Here’s an analogy that may underscore the need to fix this:

What if every time a percussionist got up to play a passage in a symphony, he/she bumped their elbow into the chimes or dropped the mallets on the floor. This percussionist would be dismissed pretty fast, I would imagine.

As it should be with our playing a stringed instrument, nothing but the printed notes should be audible.

Poor right-hand intonation spoils our overall presentations. Since we want to do our best to present our fine interpretations, insist on excellent bow-arm intonation, just as much as you do left-hand perfection.


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