A string player’s sense of intonation is a tricky subject. We do not play on instruments that possess set notches (guitar, recorder), holes (flutes, clarinets, bassoons), or buttons (keyboards, accordions) to determine notes. While beginning string students may have the benefit of fake fret-like tape on their fingerboards, this crutch is soon stripped away and we are ostensibly taught to rely upon “feel” and “hand position.”
Even once a good sense of intonation is gained, as we begin to play with other instruments, even more problems emerge. In a string quartet rehearsal the issue might be the struggle between the way we hear the perfect fifth and where the middle voices place the third or the seventh. A violinist and a cellist will hear things differently, based on their place in the chordal structure. When playing with a piano (a tempered instrument) one has to rely less on color of pitch but mathematical distance between them.
Intonation 101 checklist:
Starting out by yourself in the practice room
- Can it be tuned against an open string? If yes, then not only check it against string but listen and feel for the ringing. If not, then
- Can the note be fingered or related to a note that is an open string note? If not then
- Can it be related to a note or finger that you are assured of getting in tune (i.e. something in first position, or some other position that you can hit every time)? If not, then
- Can you simplify the approach to the note? Keep it in a low or safe (for you) position?
Add a piano (all the above, plus):
- Where in the chordal structure are you?
- Do you know what the melodic intervals are from note to note?
Add another string player (all the above, plus):
- Where in the chordal structure and inversion are you?
- Are your fifths tuned lower as you reach the bottom strings?
- Are you using vibrato? Are your vibratos matching? Are you using similar positions?
Add a woodwind player (all the above, plus):
- Is he/she warmed up? Wind instruments change in pitch according to the external room temperature
11. Are articulations similar? Sometimes pitch bends during hard articulations.
For more on the History of String Intonation, check out this article written by Hasse Borrup.