Updated: Jan 6, 2020
If you're like most string players, you'll agree that one of the most challenging principals of playing a stringed instrument without frets is playing consistently in tune. Assuming you are playing an instrument that is well tuned, here are five ways you can improve your intonation starting today.
1. Sink your thumb.
Use your physical landmarks, especially when playing bass and cello since shifting distances are dramatically different compared to viola and violin. I would much prefer to shift a longer distance if it means the notes I'm shifting to are conveniently located near the heal of the neck, (where the neck connects with the body of the instrument). If I lead the shift with my thumb and I'm shifting into the heal, I should be 100% accurate every time with good technique.
2. Focus on half steps and whole steps
I've always asserted that if you can play whole steps and half steps in tune, you can play beautiful music. This is true. Music cannot be beautiful or captivating and out of tune. It just doesn't work that way. For this reason, scales are one of the most resourceful and trusted methods to honing the precision of playing in tune. If scales can be played in tune, music can be too. This means that when applying scale practice to actual music, the player must practice the scalar passages of the music slowly enough to listen and really hear the accuracy of the notes in sequence.
3. Find and repeat musical patterns
Similar to the statements above, I find it far too common that when even experienced musicians play, they fail to pay enough attention to the shortest of passages. It can be extremely beneficial to play the same measure or two 20-50 times or more before moving on. My suggestion is to determine the intended phrasing of the music and then start by practicing those repeatedly.
4. Slow Down
Practice will be beneficial to the player, and the listener, when scales, and music are practiced s-l-o-w-l-y. I've worked with many young musicians and the one thing that so many of them have in common that prevents their musical development is their excitement to play fast. Faster than they're actually capable most of the time. It takes a certain degree of awareness and discipline to be able to repel the instinct to play as fast as you are (un)able to, every time. The more you can refrain from this and embrace the art of slow precision, the better your technique, accuracy, strength and durability will be.
5. Play along to a drone
The human ear is pretty remarkable. Our sense of hearing is capable of hearing even the slightest of differences between one source of sound and another. When we play a drone such as another instrument, or an open string, and practice scales against it, we suddenly hear exactly how far off, or how accurately notes are being played. You'll learn very quickly how much work and focus is needed to play consistently in tune. Of course, we lose the value of comparison when another source of the targeted sound is missing. After tuning, when my students warm up with scales at their private lessons with me, I often play a drone in the key of the scale and/or arpeggios they play and venture between major, minor, etc.
6. Play double stop chords
When a chord is played on a guitar, a specific shape is created in the player's hand to create that chord. They have memorized that a specific hand shape represents a certain chord/sound. But a guitar has frets and string basses and cellos don't. So in order to improve intonation on a cello or string bass, I advise all of my students to play double stop chords at every opportunity while practicing. Any time two consecutive notes occur on two different strings, even if they are only a whole step or half step apart, that creates an opportunity to hear one against the other to match spatial relationships. The difference between playing in tune, and out of tune is often a distance smaller than a millimeter. This level of accuracy is achieved only with the most mindful and strategic practitioner.
Practice makes excellence. But that doesn't mean that we must always practice the way we perform. There are many ways to practice that will enhance a performance.
Ryan Carney is a graduate of the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University with a Master of Music. Having played string bass for more than 30 years and privately teaching for more than 20 years, Carney explores creative methods to keep music fun, engaging and exciting so that it is a life-long endeavor worth enjoying.