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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Intonation, part I: Orange Peel Tone

Intonation is a huge topic, at least from my perspective. It is a broad subject area that involves many different inter-connected problems. I find that intonation isn't just a particular situation of the fingers, but that it often involves a combination of tone production, volume, bow usage, left hand position, posture, head-phone ear syndrome (my expression), and several other possible issues. Each student has his or her own unique combination of possibilities for good or poor intonation. As a teacher, much of what I do is to uncover the combination of issues and to develop a plan for systematically addressing each area until the problems are corrected or the student has learned to teach him- or herself in this area.

So, what is intonation? Whereas linguistics experts use the term to refer to the variation in tone used in speech, musicians use the term to refer to the accuracy of pitch. How does a musician know when something is "in tune" or not?  Just as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart knew pornography when he saw it[1], so musicians know bad intonation when they hear it. But how do you teach good intonation? How do you help students learn how to hear when intonation is good or bad?

In the beginning, we teachers often put some sort of tape markings on the violin fingerboard to give the students (and their practice partners) an indication of where a particular set of pitches should be when the fingers are placed on the those taped spots. That works well in the beginning, especially for parents and visual students. Tapes do go awry over time, however, and students look at them less frequently. Students learn new notes and begin to encounter new difficulties of playing in tune in different keys. Time to remove the tapes. Then what?

In my teaching, I contend with different issues depending on whether I am teaching a university student or a private student. I encounter one set of issues with my university students and another with those students that I have "grown" in my private studio. In this part I, let me address the intonation issues I work with most in the university setting, although I occasionally run into these same problems in my private studio. The university students either come to me from other teachers or they come from a string/orchestra/
Mariachi program with no background of private instruction. The students may have intonation issues, but these issues seem directly related to the fact that the students cannot hear themselves play. The tone is weak and the volume is soft. By improving the tone and volume quality, the students will then begin to correct their intonation automatically. I ask them to play a lot of open strings before beginning to play a passage and to imitate the ringing tonal quality of the open strings when playing the passage. This is a technique I learned from Dr. Suzuki's Method ("tonalization").

Another issue related to the quality of tone production is the student's propensity to practice too fast for his or her ear to hear accurately. I have observed personally that those students (and sometimes professionals) who tend to practice at high speeds most of the time without spending much time at lower speeds will have a fuzzy tone quality. The pitches may be correct, but the overall sound is as if someone threw a sheer curtain over the tone. You can see through the curtain but the visual clarity isn't there. I can hear the music but the clarity of sound isn't there.

One of my favorite tone builder suggestions is to ask my student to peel an orange several times throughout the week. It amazes me to discover how many mothers out there actually cut their child's orange rather than allowing their child the experience of peeling it for themselves. But for this assignment, I insist that the student do the peeling without a parent's help and to start the peeling with the right hand. I want the student to experience the sensation of digging the right thumb under the orange peel, because that is the feeling involved with producing a good tone with the bow. The right side of the body should be relaxed from the shoulder down to the hand, and the bow hold should be turned on. By turned on, I do not mean that the bow hold is gripping. I mean that the bow hold is engaged and the thumb is turned on rather than limp or soft. Like Atlas holding up the world on his shoulders, the bow hold thumb should be holding up all of the weight of the arm, elbow, and hand, and the thumb should be turned on to receive this weight. The feeling in the thumb should resemble that of peeling an orange.

Usually when a student returns to the lesson after the orange peel assignment, the tone has improved because the student now uses the thumb more appropriately. I am then able to refer to "orange peel tone" in future lessons as a reminder of the right thumb's occupation.

To summarize part I, I sometimes begin my work to improve a student's intonation by working on improving the student's tonal quality with the bow. I work to develop the proper use of the bow hold thumb in order to produce "orange peel tone." I have the student do a lot of open string playing before and during his or her work on a particular passage, and I encourage the student to imitate the ringing quality of the open strings.

This is my first step. For step two, I work to develop the student's ear and kinesthetic response to pitch. I'll discuss this in part II in a future post.

Remember to vote in one of the two polls situated to the right of this column. Please write a comment below to let me know what difficulties you encounter with intonation issues. Perhaps you have a particular teaching problem related to intonation that you'd like to address.

[1] "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that." (Justice Potter Stewart, concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964).


  1. I really like this description and exercise! This is great, thank you!

  2. I realize this post is old (I am new to the blog and am starting with the oldest posts)but I just wanted to say the orange peel exercise was a huge "ah ha" moment for me. I am using it right away with my students. Thank you for the great idea!

  3. Thanks Camille! Kathleen, I still find it astonishing to learn how many children out there do not peel their own oranges. Once they peel their own fruit, the learning discovery about how the thumb feels to play orange peel tone is there!

    I like to think about the thumb being like the fulcrum of a see saw. If we think about it, the see saw should feel heavy upon the thumb, not because it presses down, but because there is a natural, relaxed weight assisted by gravity. The thumb or fulcrum feels as if it is holding up the weight from underneath. That sensation feels to me just like that first dig under the orange peel with my thumb. How does it feel to you?

  4. thanks for sharing.