Playing an unfretted string instrument is both a blessing and a curse. While being able to produce a continuum of pitches makes expressive intonation possible, it also makes out-of-tune notes easy to play!
Practicing for good intonation is a huge topic that involves not only the ear but also left hand technique. This post focuses on a basic exercise that one can use to develop the ear, resulting in better intonation when playing a single line of music. (We'll discuss double stops in a future post.)
Singing for better intonation:
I remember learning Alban Berg’s String Quartet, Op. 3 and realizing that my ear, not my technique, was limiting my progress. While practicing difficult harmonies, intervals, and shifts, I noticed that if I heard the next note in my inner ear before playing it, my finger automatically traveled to the correct place on the fingerboard. In an effort to hone my inner ear and improve my intonation, I practiced by singing.
Identify a challenging passage. Ideally, keep the passage short: it can be as simple as one interval between two notes.
If you have a piano or keyboard (make sure it's in tune!), play the pitches on the piano. Then sing along as you pluck out the pitches. If you don’t have a piano and the passage is played in the upper positions of the violin, transpose the passage down an octave or two and play it in first position on the violin.
Apply solfège to your singing if you are trained in solfège. (Either “movable do” or “fixed do” can work if the passage is tonal. If the passage is atonal, fixed do will likely be the most helpful.)
After you feel more confident in your singing, try singing the notes without relying on the piano. As an intermediate step, sing pitches one at a time, singing first and then immediately checking the pitch against the piano.
Next, sing the passage acapella. Immediately after singing, play the passage on your violin while singing along silently in your head. What you hear in your head should be slightly ahead of what you play. For example, before a big shift, you want to hear the pitch in your inner ear before shifting.
If there is a shift that you find especially challenging:
Play through the note before the shift and immediately pause.
Sing the notes that immediately precede and follow the shift.
Next, play those two notes. Singing the pitches first guarantees that you are hearing the notes correctly before shifting.
Again, try playing through the note before the shift and immediately pause. This time, audiate (sing in your head without vocalizing) the two pitches of the shift. If you can do this, gradually shorten the pause between the two notes until you can play the shift fluidly.
Final thoughts: always be singing in your head as you are playing. The act of vocalizing during practice can help strengthen your ability to audiate.
In future posts, we'll explore more exercises that one can use to improve intonation!