What’s your hurry? It’s time for a Tune-up!

What’s your hurry? It’s time for a Tune-up!

Understanding the value of understanding
by Loreta Fin

As an AMEB examiner and adjudicator, I have often heard other musicians enquire, “Is it normal to accept a certain amount of bad intonation from string players?” or “how out of tune are they allowed to play before they are penalized?” Although perfect intonation is highly desirable, it is rare in level 1 AMEB (preliminary to grade 4). In grades 5 to 8, with the issues of shifting positions and playing in the higher registers of the instrument, other factors come into play, such as the distances between the fingers, which become closer. The fact is that achieving perfect intonation is more difficult than you might imagine. I often explain to parents that stringed instruments DO have frets, which get closer and closer as you get higher, only our frets are invisible.

Since “retiring” from teaching in a school, I have met some lovely new students. However, I was shocked that, although they were playing Grade 2 and even 3 pieces, they were just happy to play really fast and really out of tune. Sadly, I am seeing quite a trend towards pushing students to “get through” the grades. Often, they are just learning their 3 pieces and necessary scales or even just doing repertoire exams and “skipping” whole grades to get to the levels required to audition for certain high schools. Whilst SOME students are certainly capable of fast tracking, I would caution teachers about the dangers of being pressured by parents and leaving gaps in the technical and theoretical aspects of playing an instrument. The result? Playing out of tune, with no understanding of what they are doing. Nobody is impressed with fast, furious and out of tune. Nobody is impressed by hearing “I’m doing AMusA”, but the piece is full of wrong notes and poor intonation. At that level, it is really difficult to get a student to agree to doing remedial work. Often, they just get bored…and then (the worst 4-letter-word of all) QUIT!

Even students with a “good ear” can play out of tune. However, it is evident to an examiner when a student has not been taught some of the basic “tricks” that assist with enabling them to play in tune. Often, the student simply switches off and is just not LISTENING! It is the teacher’s duty to keep reminding the student to listen. One of my favourite tricks for younger students is to perform Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star appallingly out of tune – with a serious, virtuoso playing style, complete with swaying and eyes closed – and watch their faces when I finish. I then ask them, in a totally surprised voice: “What’s wrong?” Usually, they can hear when OTHERS play out of tune, but they need to learn not to switch off when THEY play. What makes this difficult, particularly for a beginner, is that they have SO many things to think about. Consider the following just for a start: In the right hand, the thumb is bent, the wrist moves up and down as the arm opens and closes, the elbow stays still in the upper half and the fingers curve around the stick. The left hand is turned around the other way and the thumb is fairly straight. The wrist must not move in and out and the elbow pivots sideways, depending on which string you are on and the fingers move individually. Oh and by the way, don’t forget to stay relaxed!

In the first years, the teacher generally tunes the instrument, as the student has not yet acquired the ability to fine-tune. This can also be difficult, due to the quality of the instrument: pegs slipping or fine tuners being too tight for a small hand to move. Nowadays, of course, we have Apps for tuning. Great! but let’s not forget to train that skill. Even before a student is ready or capable of tuning their own instrument, it is possible to teach them to listen for the “lack of beats” in the perfect intervals. I usually demonstrate this to a student by playing the interval of a unison slightly out of tune. (e.g., D in 3rd position on the G string, with the open D.) When it is out of tune, the beats are fast and almost “fighting”. When the interval becomes “perfect” the moving note almost “hides inside” the other note. They have to say “STOP!” when it becomes perfect. I repeat this, using a perfect octave, and eventually, the perfect 5th. This is an exercise I have used to great effect in ensembles too. Always starting with the unison and then moving into octaves and chords. Another exercise I use is to start in first position, then slide up the string, and ask the student to slide up and “hide inside my note”. When they reach it, I move up or down, so that they have to keep finding the perfect unison. We then swap, and I have to find the note that the student slides to. Often, I will deliberately NOT reach the note, and the student really has to stay switched on to hear the perfect unison, and cannot slide away until my note is hiding, or PERFECT. This concept of “swapping” to test out understanding is what I call: “You’re the teacher and I’m the student.”

Echo playing is another technique that I use to teach students to listen. I begin with a simple rhythm on an open string. I change the rhythm, and after a few examples, a second note is introduced, then the rhythm is changed and finally a third note is introduced. It is also a good way of introducing the use of the low 2nd finger, as they can hear that something sounds “different” if you play for example D E F#, then after they echo, play D E F natural.

“Ringing notes” can be used to help with intonation. These are any of the notes that have the same letter name as an open string, i.e. E, A, D, or G. There are 13 in first position alone (out of a possible 20). For example, when the D on the A string is played, the open D will “ring” if it is in tune. In the first year of playing, this method can be put to good use, as the student rarely moves out of first position in most pieces.

Here’s another one to try: “Listen to your violin and hear it singing back to you” – I sing the open D and it will “sing back”, even without playing or plucking it. “Did you hear it sing to you?” It’s saying “THAT’ME!” But if you don’t sing the D in tune, it won’t sing back. Try it with the other open strings.

As I said before, it is easy for an examiner to establish that a student has not been taught various “tricks” to assist with getting the notes right. Often, a student will play a scale, with no concept of where the tones and semitones occur. This brings me to the topic of finger patterns. On the violin and viola, the four fingers used fall into four main patterns, of which I’m certain that most teachers are fully aware. However, I believe that many teachers do not take full advantage of teaching in patterns to simplify the learning process, especially for scales.

The four main patterns are as follows:

The learning sequence is generally M, L, H then O. I have heard a few different ways of describing these patterns, such as “WXY and Z”, and “12, 23, and 34”. You could call them “apples, pears, oranges and bananas” for that matter, but the main concept is to teach the student a simple way of recognizing and understanding that most of their pieces and scales use these 4 patterns. For example, any major scale starting on an open string is MM and any major scale starting on a first finger, is HH etc. Any scale staring on 1, 2 or 3 can “move up” into ANY position and the pattern will remain the same. This is obvious to those of us who have been playing for years, but NOT so obvious to a beginner, or even to some students who have been playing for a while! Then, when adding a second octave, a G Major 2 octave scale is simply MMLL, an Ab or A Major scale is HHMM. The latter can also travel up to higher positions.  Harmonic minor scales introduce slight variations, but these are simply understood by placing a “+” in front of a finger. For instance, a harmonic minor scale, commencing on a first finger will be M L+3, changing the L pattern to 12 +34.

Without getting too technical, let me just say that fast runs across four strings can then be thought of, for instance, as MLHM, rather than 16 different notes. Arpeggios, dominant and diminished 7ths can also be memorized by using simple finger patterns. Double stopped scales in 3rds and 6ths are so much easier to play in tune when the student understands where the semitone is in the hand. These are often the weakest section in an exam, but need not be so. Because the strings are tuned in perfect 5ths, a major 6th is simply a tone across the string, and a minor 6th is a semitone. The scale in 6ths ascends, using the following intervals between the fingers: For major scales – STTS STTS and for harmonic minor scales – TTST SSTT. Furthermore, the whole hand falls into a pattern. For example, a one octave Bb major scale in sixths, starting with Bb on the A string, is quite simply an “H Pattern” scale, using 2 fingers at once. Scales in 3rds can be taught in a similar fashion, with the student first being taught some basic exercises, such as placing the 1/3 combinations, then going to a 2/4 combination, using the main 4 patterns.

“OUCH!! Enough of that – my brain hurts” I hear you say. There is a great book by Barbra Barber (Alfred Publishing) called Fingerboard Geography, which sets out the different patterns in coloured charts and exercises. Great for the visual learners, it comes in an individual and String Class version. Check out the tech work on the resource page on my website. I call it “Tech Work: The SUPERFOODS of Music:” 

It’s a free download. By the way, so are the piano accompaniments to my Beginner Books. Go to https://wilfinmusic.com.au/list-of-works/ and click on the BSES Bk 1 or 2 Teacher’s Manual.

I try to teach my students what I call a “maintenance plan” of technical work. Like most teachers, the majority of my students have a severe allergy to anything that has even a faint whiff of “scales”. Therefore, I make this bargain with them: “This sheet contains all you need to know to get through your technical work for this exam. Your scales will be much easier to learn. Now, I could teach you the same things by giving you about 25 studies. Which would you rather? This sheet, or 25 studies?” The reply is predictable. “Well then”, I say to them, “I PROMISE not to give you 25 studies, if you promise me you’ll practice this sheet.” (Teaching 25 studies is something I could not possibly have done in the half an hour that we were given for school lessons!)

In over 40 years of teaching, I have to say that many of my methods have evolved from trial and error and ideas that I have acquired from watching others and from attending professional development sessions, and conferences, held by various associations around the country. I will forever be grateful to those many great teachers. My final words of wisdom would be this: NEVER stop learning, and NEVER think you’ve got all the answers. Open your mind to exploring new ways of approaching your teaching and seek out ideas to inspire and keep your love of teaching alive…and if you can find a way of making it easier to understand, SHARE it!

Loreta Fin
Represented Pedagogical Artist – Australian Music Centre (AMC)
Federal Examiner and Senior Syllabus Advisor for Strings, AMEB
National Advisory Committee, AUSTA
Principal Viola, QLD Pops Orchestra
Composer, Wilfin Music