The Cellist
Issue #4

Secrets of Dead-Center Intonation

Judging by the response to the first three issues of The Cellist, this is the topic that seems to be the most eagerly anticipated. And over the years many students have said to me "if there's just one thing that I could have in my playing, it would be great intonation".
Let's start by saying that perfect intonation on every note in string playing doesn't exist.  It's not possible.  What we hear in great performances is great passion, sound, expressiveness, and great intonation, but not dead center intonation on every single note.  A colleague once said that if you want perfect intonation, play a well-tuned piano: which isn't technically true either because a piano is temper-tuned, meaning, among other things, that a Db and a C# are the same on a piano which in the precise world of perfect intonation isn't the case - but that's another story.  So agonizing over occasional notes that are a tiny bit off will just make you tense, focused on the wrong thing, and cause your existing intonation to deteriorate, which is exactly the opposite of what you are trying to achieve.
Let's define dead center intonation (dci) as the point at which the note really is in tune.  With the method and ideas outlined in this issue, this is always achievable for all cellists provided that there is enough time.  The challenge for all of us is to narrow that time down to the smallest amount possible.  Very fast passages may require notes being played at the rate of 8-12 (or even more) per second: here tons of adjusting time just isn't available and this is where perfection breaks down for even the finest of cellists. But the smaller the amount of time required for your dci becomes, the more accurate the notes will be that aren't adjustable.
Let's look at steps that are easily followed and practiced.

Step 1. Tune your cello accurately. Because of the way dci is achieved on a cello - or any fretless bowed instrument - a cello tuned even slightly inaccurately will get in the way. As un-cool as it may seem to some, my recommendation is to always use an electronic tuner to tune your cello.  If you don't already have one (almost everyone does these days), they're not expensive.  Korg makes a good one for about $20.00.
Step 2. Once your cello is accurately tuned, turn your tuner off!  Many student cellists play with their tuners on, believing that by seeing if a note is off, and in what direction, they will learn more accurate intonation. This simply isn't true.  By using your tuner this way you are training your eye, not your ear and it will take you years to significantly improve your intonation that would take only weeks or short months by training your ear.
Step 3. Learn to hear the "ring" that a note makes when it achieves dci. A good ear for pure pitch is necessary and this will develop as you do, but the way string players tell if they're really in tune is by this "ring".  Watch a good cellist, violist, or violinist perform.  She/he will finger a note then, so quickly that you really have to watch to catch it, ever-so-slightly adjust it.  The "ring was not to their liking and they adjusted it until it was. One of the best notes to start with here is the D on the A-string (4th finger/1st position).  Finger this note using any finger you want. Now bow the string using a good soundpoint (The Cellist No. 2).  Listen.  Is it perfectly in tune/dci?  Hard to tell.  Keep bowing and roll your finger slightly forward.  Do you hear more "ring" or less on the note or, to phrase it another way, is it more clear or less so.  If it seems clearer, i.e. has more ring, continue to roll it very slowly forward until its sound/clearness/ring obviously deteriorates. Then roll it slowly backwards and listen for the same things. Keep rolling slowly back and forth until your ear detects the clearest ring to the note.  I've suggested this D because, with the harmonic overtone series on the strings (A,D,G,C) it produces one of the most noticeable rings of any note on the cello.  By the way, if terms like "harmonic overtone series" cause your "I failed every single science class I ever took and I'm positive I'll never understand anything scientific ever" button to light up, relax.  You don't have to understand any of that to achieve dci in the same amount of time as anyone else, but some people may want to know why this works.  Now try the same thing on G on the D-string: the note right across from D. This is a good ringing note also but not quite as good as the D.  Actually every note will have some ring to it although some are remarkably better than others.  F's are lousy, by the way but are still detectable.
Step 4. Play a 2-octave C-scale slowly. Adjust each note until you feel you have the best/clearest version of that note before you go onto the next one. Make sure your bowing is right while you do this: good soundpoint, good weight and bowspeed.  Your success at detecting the ring will be much greater with good bowing (The Cellist 1 & 2). Resist the temptation to check your results against an electronic tuner. This listening ability takes time and practice, and things become more obvious the more you do them.
Step 5. Try this adjusting technique with simple repertoire pieces adjusting the notes that allow some time like half and whole notes, gradually adjusting on quicker notes as you get better at it.  Allow some time each day to practice only this intonation - using scales and repertoire that don't require any of your focus. Increase the difficulty of what you're playing only very gradually.  Remember our rule about the brain being able to focus on only one difficult thing at a time.
Step 6. Let your notes breathe. If you power every note it can make the ring difficult to distinguish.  Try backing off just a bit with bow weight - but not speed - and let the ring come to you rather than trying to force it out of the string.  There's an ideal weight and speed-of-bow that makes the ring easier to discern.  Backing off a bit - letting the note breathe - can tell you in almost instantaneously where dci is, whereas continuing to power the note often will not.  Especially at the earlier stages of all this.
Step 7.  Use vibrato (The Cellist No. 3).  When you think about it, vibrato is a series of rhythmic adjustments to pitch and, as explained in TC #3, it is not difficult to learn where the center of pitch is and adjust to it.
Step 8.  Be kind to yourself.  Don't expect instant results, and don't beat yourself up if you don't get them right away. It can take a while to recognize the "ring" and learn methods to maximize your hearing of it. Frustration with the process only makes you tense and playing tense makes intonation, as well as everything else good, difficult to produce.   Keep at it, every day, stay away from your electronic tuner, and I guarantee it will come to you.
DCI above 4th position
A student performance Melissa & I recently attended featured a high school senior playing a cello concerto with his youth orchestra.  His intonation - and confidence - were OK in the first four positions, but unfortunately few cello concerti have their notes exclusively there and this was not one of them. The higher the position, the less in tune his notes became. Any confidence waned quickly and soon every note above G on the A-string became tentative, unconnected, and out of tune: he began perspiring noticeably, got off his high notes as quickly as possible making things even worse, and the entire audience suffered with him.
Many intermediate & most advanced students are reasonably comfortable in the first four positions because most of them have spent a lot of time there.  Becoming comfortable in the higher positions requires spending lots of time there, but simple fear of not sounding good prevents many from doing much more than playing a few high notes in scales and etudes and occasional repertoire once or twice, then retreating to more comfortable locations.
In fact, notes in higher positions are in some ways easier than lower ones.  First, they're much closer together so the distance traveled between them is less. Second, they're easier to vibrate as varying the pitch in either direction takes much less movement. Third, higher notes tend to ring more easily than their lower counterparts.
Here are some ideas that will greatly improve your intonation in higher positions.
1.  Practice up there a lot.  Select (possibly with the help of your teacher) etudes or pieces that put you up there almost exclusively.  Look for easy ones - easy key signatures and rhythms so you're only working on the intonation of the notes.  Beginning or low intermediate violin pieces are also good and you'll get the added bonus of getting better at treble clef.
2. Do the same adjusting technique with your finger that was suggested above: slowly listening for the ring.
3.  FINGER YOUR HIGH NOTES WITH CONFIDENCE.  A timid approach will sound like a timid approach and any intonation will be compromised. An out-of-tune note played with relish will sound infinitely better than a pretty-much-in-tune note played with fear.
4. Don't get off your high notes early.  Fear of these notes leads cellists to leave them prematurely and everyone in the audience, no matter how un-musical, will hear it.
5. Play your high notes with your bow near the bridge.  A perfectly fingered high note played with the bow too close to the fingerboard will sound weak and out of tune.
6. Make sure that whatever finger you are using for your high notes is coming as directly straight down on the note as possible.  If you are reaching for it (assuming the notes are being played slowly) it means that either you are not confident that you will accurately hit it, or that you are not confident you will not accurately hit the note that follows.
One last pointer: You may find that everything that has been suggested is a little easier if your strings aren't too high off your fingerboard, and the concavity (scoop) that has been planed into it is minimal.  I know a lot of teachers recommend the high string "resistance" but it is a physical fact that lower resistance encourages a more relaxed hand, and a more relaxed hand is much more available to adjust the pitches of your notes.

In the next issue we'll discuss achieving really secure and accurate shifting.