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Seeing Intonation

When you play notes that are close together, playing in tune is not that hard.  You don't have to change a lot - a finger or two, a minuscule difference in voicing with your air or embouchure.  You can pretty much do it mechanically, without thinking.  When the interval you're going for gets bigger, though, more is required.  On the oboe you really have to think about what your mouth and your air are doing.  If you jump up into the upper register everything needs to be more supported and you have to roll in on the reed- not too much, but just exactly enough - and blow more - not too much, but just exactly enough - and resonate a different part of your head to truly get the note you want.

In the Cimarosa Concerto, which two of my students were just working on for our year-end recital, there's a passage that repeatedly leaps the octave from middle C to high C.  The fingerings are easy but those two notes are both terrifying ones to try to play in tune.  Both have extremely short fingerings, vibrating only a few inches of the wood of the oboe.  Both are VERY flexible, such that a tiny amount of embouchure motion can easily make them very sharp or very flat.  Normally, my students slur to  the high note flat, then immediately correct to be in tune, because they have great ears.

That's not the way to really solve the problem, though, is it?  In the context of a long note, you can hit it too flat, correct it quickly, and spend lots of lovely time playing it in tune.  But if the note is short, as it is in the Cimarosa, and you try that, the correction time itself becomes a much higher percentage of the note and we as an audience become aware of the effort.  And unimpressed with the oboist.

The way to solve the problem in your practice room is to NOT adjust the bad intonation.  Make the leap, place the note where you think it goes, and just sit there.  Analyze whether you are too high or too low, and by how much.  Then go back and try again.  Predict where you want the note to land, go there, and sit on it so you can see if you are right or wrong.  Once you have the feel of the interval, start making the leap faster and faster, but unless you are actually in performance DON'T adjust a bad interval, redo it so it's right.  It's the interval you need to practice, not the correction.  No one wants to hear the correction.

I attended a group cello recital last weekend.  Full disclosure: my daughter PERFORMED in her FIRST EVER cello recital last weekend, and knocked it out of the park with Hot Cross Buns on her 16th size cello. Played the whole thing through without stopping.  Took a bow.  Was visibly proud, as was I.

In other words, I was 100% prepared to love everything about the hour and a half of student performances, and I did.  It's scary to perform in public, but no one cried or ran away and piece after piece went perfectly nicely and left everyone smiling.

It's interesting, though - when you watch student players you begin to realize what's hard about the instrument.  The difficulties that professional players don't let you see.  What I really noticed was shifting and intonation - because it's exactly the same thing I'd been working on with my own students.  It's just much more visible on the cello.

To make a big leap upward on the cello you need to move your entire hand and finger position to a different place on the fingerboard, without any frets or keys or buttons to guide you.  You just have to know, on this expanse of wood and string, precisely where to go, and, unsurprisingly, many of the students we heard did not.  It takes a ton of practice and experience to hit the notes accurately, especially in a performance situation when nerves come into play.

The students with the best ears corrected themselves right away.  They'd hit the note out of tune, and immediately wiggle their finger around until it sounded right, and then keep moving through their piece.  Exactly what they SHOULD do in performance.  Perfect manners.

But not the way, ultimately, to solve their intonation problem.

I pointed this out to one of my oboists, who was attending, and watched his eyes widen as the problem he'd invisibly been fighting in his mouth became visible, and apparent.  It's nice to be able to SEE your way through the problem you've been working on.


  1. I am always impressed by your posts Jennet. Every time you write about learning anything musical I feel very pleased that I am learning something new. You have an exceptional ability to state the problems that face your students with amazing clarity and explain them in a way that is easy to understand. Your suggestion of “not too much” is so universally valid, not only in music, but in other human activities as well. It reminded of some ancient graffiti on the walls of the temple of Apollo in Delphi.(Along with other admonitions).Delighted, really that Zoe has inherited your talents and stage presence. I hope I can hear her when she begins to attack more complicated scores.
    I suppose that both wind and string instruments face the same problem of achieving correct intonation in various degrees. I am curious, do any students attempt to find the right note, or try to camouflage it by way of glissando?
    Thanks for writing.

  2. This is a very interesting and useful observation. When string players shift from position to position (successfully) they move the hand to the correct "floor" and drop down the necessary finger. It is kind of like the way a manual elevator measures its distance, and then opens the door. Through years of practicing the ear "hears" that distance. It is, ultimately, easier than playing in tune on a wind instrument. Violinists have ways of developing hand positions that can be almost foolproof (foolproof only if you listen intently and correct instantly, when necessary). A correction on a string instrument can be more easily masked than on a wind instrument in performance. Having the image of something absolute to begin with does put you ahead of the game.

  3. Thank you for sharing your ideas, they are always so useful. I'm filing this away to share with my young oboist when she gets to that step.

  4. Dimitri, you are absolutely right that glissando is the student's friend and the teacher's bane when it comes to intonation. That's really the effect I'm talking about when I mention the "correction"- the student will hit the note flat and then scoop until they get to the right place. On a short note this doesn't work at all, as I mentioned - but on long notes it can be pretty subtle and can become a bad habit unless we catch it and correct.

  5. Elaine, I would never have assumed that intonation was easier on a string instrument. I would have thought that having "buttons" to get you into the right neighborhood would be more helpful than that expanse of unmarked wood... Thanks as always for commenting!


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