A violin walks the tightrope

Fix violin intonation by walking the tightrope

Have you ever walked a tightrope? How about a balance beam? I tried one recently, and I’m pretty sure it was easier when I was a kid.

When you watch circus performers, or champion gymnasts, though, it does look easy! One foot goes in front of the other. Why would they walk any other way?

But as violinists, our fingers sometimes “walk” more like grown-up me than like Simone Biles. And the scary part is that we might not notice… even if our listeners do!

Searching for notes, hesitating, adjusting after the fact: all of these are destructive habits that will sabotage your progress toward speed, accuracy, and reliability. Of course, Heifetz was known as the “fastest adjuster in the West”… so why was it OK for him? And how can you ditch the bad habits and build solid ones?

I lay it out in this video, set in a beautiful yet deadly gorge:

14 thoughts on “Fix violin intonation by walking the tightrope”

  1. Hey Nat
    Thanks for left hand adjustment video. You have given me way to improve my intonation that I hadn’t thought about.
    George Mahida

  2. Melody Albanese-Kelly

    Thank you for being a fine teacher and a generous soul! The time and thought you put into your videos is appreciated by students and teachers alike.Keep up the fine work!

  3. Nathan, your points are well taken however one thing about intonation that many amateur violinists don’t understand is that when playing, the violin is right under the violinist’s ear and receives all of the many overtones which the violin produces. This makes it difficult for the violinist to hear pitch accurately. But if a recording is make the violinist will be shocked at the many flaws in intonation. Recording one’s self can be helpful but a more direct way to hear one’s own intonation accurately is to use a heavy rubber practice mute. This dampens out many of the overtones and allows the primary pitch to be heard by the violinist while playing. Another technique is to wear headphones while playing and have them connected to a recording device that allows headphones to monitor the recording feed. This has the same effect as recording and playing back- many of the overtones are eliminated.

    1. Good points! However, just take care not to practice too much with the heavy mute. The fact that the overtones are dampened also has the effect of removing lots of feedback about sound quality. For example, you can get away with lots of poor bow positioning using the practice mute, only to find that when it’s taken away, you get sounds you don’t like! I especially like the headphones idea, hadn’t heard that one before.

  4. Hi Nathan, intonation is not made by the finger but by the ear. Don’t you think so? The finger will follow anywhere if the ear commands. A finger is not what has to decide whether or not the intonation is correct, but the ear (mind)! I hope this helps.

    1. I agree! But just as the ear can be trained to hear pitch quickly and accurately, it can also be “trained” to ignore things like adjustments, if they happen consistently enough in the same way. So these physical habits can unfortunately dull the ear as well. It’s nice to work on both the physical and the ear sides of things at the same time, and improve both at once!

    1. Well, that’s not how I meant to come across. I agree that the body will eventually follow what the ear/brain commands. The question is how persistent you’re willing to be, and how many obstacles you’re able to overcome. By fixing one or two physical problems, you may be able to solve quite a few intonation issues, making the remaining ones that much easier to pick up on. Too often, because of incorrect setup and execution, all the bad intonation blends into one big “soup” and the ear is unwilling to deal with it all at once!

  5. Natan, you make the intonation an almost impossible-to-get subject, a terrain approachable for at least half-geniuses.
    In a reality, one can get a really high-quality intonation within a couple of weeks, well if one is not complete intonation deаf.

    1. It depends where you’re starting from! Great intonation is a life-long pursuit, a mix of the ear and the hand. It is great to think of it as something you can succeed at step by step, and not an impossible task.

      This exercise is especially for those who feel like they’re getting close but are unable to get that real consistency.

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