Move The Pendulum
I have come to think of this practice method as the “intonation fixer.” But be forewarned: it is a counter-intuitive fix, because it doesn’t seem to address the problem of intonation directly.
How do we play in tune?
When we think about getting notes in tune, often we are only thinking about it externally. In other words, we see a note “out there” on the page and we try to play it correctly. We hear a sound played by the teacher or the orchestra section and try to match our pitch to it.
Tuning externally in is an important ability that must be cultivated especially for ensemble playing. However, it leaves out the other half of intonation work, which is how to move your body in order to play in tune.
Grasping for pitch
When we only know how to match pitch externally, we will move our body any which way in order to achieve a pitch. I like to call this “grasping for pitch.”
Grasping for pitch, no matter what the instrument, creates strain. Strain harms tone quality, and over the long run the player herself. This is true no matter what the instrument, Whether tight embouchure, tight fingers, or tight vocal chords, poor balance causes bad habits, tension, pain, and eventually injury.
Note: Another way to play in tune is to hear a sound in our head using pitch memory. For simplicity here I am going to include that in the “external” category, meaning apart from the body, or existing as a concept rather than a physical movement. Grasping for the concept of a pitch in your head, without knowing how to move, causes the same kind of strain as reaching for a note on a page of music.
An issue of balance
As Suzuki teacher and author Ed Kreitman has written in Teaching From the Balance Point, the first priority of teaching music should be balance. I didn’t always know that this not only refers to posture, but hand and finger positions as they fall onto the strings.
When it comes to string instruments, balance with the fingers, hand and arm in landing on notes is paramount to playing in tune. Many players have not been taught to think about tuning in this holistic way.
There are many aspects to achieving this balance, including the position of the violin, a relaxed arm, and finger strength and agility. Here I am going to focus on one often overlooked aspect of left hand balance: the elbow. When students can free up their elbow, they can achieve a better hand position as they move around the fingerboard.
The Elbow Pendulum
Achieving better balance with the left elbow works as follows:
- Imagine that your left elbow is a pendulum, swinging freely under your violin.
- The elbow should swing forward, to the front of the violin, when going to the G string, and back to a neutral position under the violin, when going to the E string.
That's really all there is to it!
When this is not done, the left hand, arm, and shoulder all begin to contract. They squeeze, pinch and push up against the neck of the violin in order to reach for pitch and get firm pressure on the string.
Sometimes students do not know what a pendulum is, because they have never seen one! In that case I use the image of a giant swing. Usually this is a fun thing to picture, and as I’ve mentioned in many other practice tips, use of a visual image increases engagement, retention, and motivation for practice.
Hitting it the first time
Proper movement of the elbow helps to achieve proper intonation the first time, instead of after multiple tries.
Students who are used to worming their way round the fingerboard to find pitch, for example, or who consistently play 3rd finger too low, are likely out of balance. No amount of lecturing about listening to pitch or paying more attention to intonation will fix that!
It works particularly well in descending scales, arpeggios, 5ths, or octaves, and is also good for chord playing.
For students with small hands, it can be a strain just to reach 4th finger high enough to be in tune. Work with the elbow position will open up and relax their hand, making 4th finger playing an easier thing to do.
Notice that the two elbows, right and left, move in the same direction. They are like twins! When the right elbow moves up to play on the G string, the left elbow moves forward. When the right elbow moves down to E, the left elbow moves back. If you have never noticed this parallel movement, practice in front of a mirror, just crossing strings. You’ll see that the elbows have a kind of synchronous movement.
ACTIONS FOR THE WEEK
- In play position, swing the left elbow forward and back. Exaggerate the pendulum motion. The left wrist should be kept flat and fingers hovering relaxed and curled over the strings.
- Moving from G - D - A - E, play the fingering 0-1, 0-1, 0-1, 0-1 (the Quint pattern, see note below). The elbow should start in the forward position and slowly swing under the violin as you approach the E string.
- Moving in reverse, go from E - A - D - G. Play 1-0, 1-0, 1-0, 1-0. The elbow should swing forward again as you approach the lower strings.
- In a separate practice session, repeat above with the fingering 1-2, 1-2, etc., (and reverse coming back down 2-1, 2-1, etc.) then 2-3, etc., then 3-4.
Tie a string
With young students I ask them to pretend that a string is going through their elbow. The string goes out the front and back. “If I pull on the string this way,” I ask, miming pulling on the string, “which direction would your elbow go?” Then I pull on the imaginary string back and forth in different patterns.
Have students play the exercises above, helping them by pulling forward on the imaginary string as they cross to the lower strings.
Be sure they are not cocking their elbow behind their body when going to the A and E string. The A and E left arm position should be neutral, that is, comfortably hanging under the violin.
When the elbow motion becomes more comfortable, you will get better intonation across the strings. Use this awareness to get better at descending scales. It is hard to get intonation correct as we reach across the strings going down a scale. You will find much help with this method in achieving the correct placement of the 3rd finger, descending from the previous open string.
Intermediate students wishing to start chords and more complex finger patterns can benefit greatly from Suzuki’s Quint Etudes. (Quint, from the number 5, because in first position we have five notes per string. The exercises above are based on Quint.)
The Quint etudes are designed to teach cross-string awareness and develop exactly the elbow motion as outlined above. The etudes become more complex as they go, and feature double stops, fourth finger work, and playing up in higher positions.
Bring it to your piece
Don’t fall into the trap of forgetting about this motion when you go to your working piece. Let the elbow pendulum happen at the string crossings, concentrate on doing it to improve your intonation. The more complicated the passage, the more you need to slow down and establish the proper balance for each note. If this seems clumsy or halting at first, don’t worry, your body will learn to do it faster as you practice.
I have been pleasantly surprised to find students’ intonation immediately improve, as if by magic, when using this elbow-pendulum technique. Return to it often as it will solve many problems and make things easier.