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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Intonation, part II: Ringing Notes and Super Ears

In my last discussion, I talked about improving intonation by improving tone. Today I want to talk about awakening the student's ear and kinesthetic sensations related to pitch. I do that by using the 9 natural ringing notes of first position and helping the student to hear tone and sympathetic vibrations. Along with seeing and hearing, I try to incorporate references to touch and sensation as well.

There are nine notes on the violin that naturally ring with a little extra sparkle in first position. They are those notes that bear the same names as the open strings: G, D, A, and E. These notes are:

©Paula E. Bird 2010

Use the fourth finger to play the D, A, and E. When I ask my student to play each of these notes, we note that the open string that bears the same name will sympathetically vibrate at the same time. If the student plays with a full, warm tone, the open string will vibrate with a greater width to match the depth of tone quality. This all presumes that the student is using the left hand properly and holding it in a way that allows the open strings to ring freely. A student who holds the left hand too low for the string to sound, will not hear the extra sparkle in the note's timbre.

Students of all ages seem to enjoy this exercise, even my really young elementary students. All students have been capable of seeing and hearing the sympathetic ringing of the open string.

This exercise can also be accomplished using octaves, e.g., the third finger G on the D string sounded alongside the open G string, the third finger D on the A string sounded alongside the open D string, and the third finger A on the E string sounded alongside the open A string.

I put together a simple exercise that displays various combinations of these notes and fingerings to give the student an opportunity to learn about these ringing notes through a systematic exercise or etude:

©Paula E. Bird 2010

I also use various finger patterns as drones, but I'd like to save the drone exercises for future discussions about using finger patterns, because drones are just one example of the types of benefits that one derives from the use of finger patterns.

Although the purpose of the exercises described above is for the development of the student's ear, the exercises also serve another purpose in that they awaken the student to the kinesthetic qualities of the sound as well. When a string sympathetically vibrates alongside a note of the same name, the extra "sparkle" that the student hears is also felt as an extra "umph" of physical vibration to the student's body. When we hold the violin, we are subject to several points of contact between the instrument and the body, and these are points that will connect the vibrations of the pitch to the student's body. I try to alert the student to these other sensations as well as to the pitch so that the student becomes more aware of the kinesthetic feeling of the correct pitch. There are many times in big symphony works when I cannot hear my high note pitches well above the fortissimo brass blow across the orchestra from me. I can still feel the kinesthetic sensation of the pitch vibration in my body through my contact with my violin, and I can still tell that I am in tune with the brass (although perhaps not heard as well).*

One last note relates to something I call "headphone syndrome." I was first alerted to this problem through a publication called Brain Gym: Simple Activities for Whole Brain Learning by Paul E. Dennison, Ph.D. and Gail E. Dennison, published by Edu Kinesthetics (June 1992). You can still find this book on and other places. In a footnote under one exercise, the authors mentioned that some students might have a particularly difficult time hearing well if they have been relying on headphones to a heavy extent. I'm not going into the reasons for this phenomenon, but I will state that I have observed similar difficulties in my teaching experience. Students frequently spend large amounts of their day with headphones or ear buds over or in their ears, so this "syndrome" is more than likely.

I find that one of the exercises mentioned in the book helps to awaken the ears. I call it wakening up the "super ears." Hold your hands out in front of you, palms facing forward. Then while holding that palms-forward position, bring your hands back behind your ears until the hands are behind the ears and the thumbs are in front of the ears. Then gently rub the ears' edges and lobes between the thumb and the other fingers. Start at one end of the ear and work around to the other edge, trying to roll out the curled edge of the ear. The ears will tingle. They will also "come to life." Students seem to hear better, perhaps because they are more aware of their ears. It's a simple exercise, but the ears really get a workout.

If you study the book, you will learn that this exercise has many other added benefits to it in terms of integration between the brain and various other body systems or parts. I highly recommend this book. There are many interesting exercises that would work well in group class settings.

We are coming to the end of the year 2010 although we are only at a midpoint in the school year. Still, I enjoy this time of year when I get a few extra moments to relax and ponder my upcoming year of teaching and playing. I'm sifting through various ideas about goals and enjoying the planning process for addressing my goals.

If I don't have a chance to continue our discussion in the next three days, let me wish "Merry Christmas" to everyone. I'm off to play another "Nutcracker" ballet with the Austin Ballet.
* I'm referring to a few moments that occur in Respighi's "Pines of Rome."

©Paula E. Bird 2010

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