My sister, Kendra and I have been teaching fiddle and inspiring young musical minds for decades. Many of our students have actually toured with our band and are now off doing their own shows. One of the most-common frustrations with beginner fiddlers is intonation – the ability to play in tune – or in other words, where to consistently put your fingers on the string to produce the correct pitch. They say the violin is one of the most difficult instruments to master. There are no keys to press – no frets to guide you – so how do you know where your fingers go?
Some teachers actually will put a thin line of masking tape or pin-striping across the fingerboard so young students can simply put their fingers in those spots. That helps to a degree, but the slightest change in the angle of the finger or the wrist will make the pitch wobble and sound out of tune.
Many musicians refer to muscle memory as being the key – and to a degree they are correct. Although the muscles themselves technically have no “memory” the repetitive motion of doing exercises, scales and etudes makes the brain remember the feeling when a finger is placed in a certain spot on the neck of the violin. These repetitions will take hours of practice and months of continuous agony. There is really no short cut to this.
However, practice time can become much more efficient if we include the most important tool in our arsenal… our ear! Many fiddlers say “I play by ear” (meaning that they do not need manuscript to learn a tune). But do they really listen? I have heard many a student practise a passage over and over – equally out of tune each time. This type of repetition will not improve their playing – in fact it may cause bad habits to form, which can be much more difficult to correct down the road.
The first thing I suggest… AND the first thing I do myself, is to slow down! Almost like meditation, we need to connect with the violin and the sound we are producing. Often referred to as the most human-like of all instruments, the violin will actually “sing” when it is played in tune. The way it works, is when a note is played correctly, the resonant frequencies cause overtones in the wood, which provide complex tones and a “sweet” sound to be produced. But only when the pitch is correct! If it is off just a little, these overtones simply will not happen. Listening for this “singing” sound is the key!
As an example, years ago, before it was common to have a portable electronic keyboard, we always used an acoustic piano for accompaniment in whatever venue we were playing. These neglected instruments were sometimes not in the best shape and often out of tune. We had to tune our fiddles to match the piano and play along, but I would notice immediately that my violin did not sound quite right. Even though my relative pitch to the piano may have been correct, it just wasn’t the same as if the piano had been tuned to A440. (A fiddle’s “A-string” resonates at 440Hz – standard tuning). It was difficult to play those shows because if the pitch of the piano was off enough, the violin just did not “sing”.
As a touring player who has spent 30+ years performing professionally, I can tell you that everyday I think about… AND struggle with intonation. It is always a work-in-progress, but with lots of careful repetition and warm up, my fingers usually go where they are supposed to… and if they don’t, I always slow down and try it again! And most importantly – I listen for that “singing” resonance in my fiddle!