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5 Steps to Improving Intonation in Your String Orchestra

By Kirk D. Moss, PhD | November 10, 2017

5 Steps to Improving Intonation in Your String Orchestra

In a recent interview with Strings magazine ahead of his 60th birthday, virtuoso cellist Yo Yo Ma shared a joke about intonation, to which many string teachers can relate:

A cellist walks on a beach and picks up a bottle. A genie pops out and says, “I give you two wishes.” 

The cellist says: “Wow, I’d like to have world peace.” 

The genie thinks for a second and says, “That’s too hard! What’s your second wish?”

The cellist says, “Well, I’m turning 60, and I want to play in tune.” 

The genie thinks for a second and says, “What was your first wish again?”

Some days, that punch line hits too close to home! Earlier in my career, I recall moments pleading with students to “Listen” or “Tune” or “Fix it” in ever increasing volume, as if saying it more emphatically would somehow aid student progress. Clearly influenced by my pleas to play in tune, several high school orchestra students got together and gave me a “Tune it or die!” coffee mug as a gift. While the mug did nothing to correct the orchestra’s faulty intonation, at least the coffee brought relief! These teaching experiences seem consistent with research findings suggesting teachers rely too much upon verbal instruction to teach tuning.

1. Remember, Telling Isn’t Teaching

Although telling students to “tune it” or “fix that note” may help teachers feel better, the axiom “Telling isn’t teaching” rings true. Research also reveals that aural models and demonstrations are more effective than verbal instruction for improving many aspects of music performance. I now recognize the importance of engaging students in the learning process through exercises and routines designed to teach students how to listen and adjust to play better in tune. Innovative intonation warm-up exercises in the most common keys develop high-level listening skills through practicing intervals, chord tones and balance, major/minor/diminished/augmented chord qualities, drones, and extended hand patterns––including cello extension pedagogy. A Bach chorale nicely culminates any warm-up period to polish intonation within an expressive, musical, context. A few examples of exercises to refine string orchestra intonation follow—I hope you find them useful with your students!

2. Start by Introducing Intervals

Intervals, triads, and chords form the building blocks for Western music and tonal harmony. Studying intervals through aurally recognizing their quality and visually identifying them, can inform––what my former teacher Jim Froseth called––“ear-to-hand” skills, that is, the ability to connect how a melody goes in one’s head with how to play it on an instrument; the musical intelligence of knowing which notes to play.

Guide students to move from one diatonic interval to another against a drone, holding each new interval to remove any beats in the sound. Allow students time to experience each interval and hear it more clearly. Remember to have students sing the interval prior to playing it on their instrument. Although experts in music education often promote singing as a way to develop pitch awareness and improve intonation, somewhat surprisingly, research indicates the use of tuning strategies involving the singing voice is not widespread among orchestra teachers, a practice in need of remediation. Singing builds community and unifies students together as one, blending pitch and timbre as a model for instrumentalists. After playing and singing intervals, ask students to write out each interval using music notation on manuscript paper. The process of writing/notating intervals has similar educational benefits to journaling. The physical act of writing by hand, rather than keyboard, forces students to focus and contributes to higher order thinking connections in the brain, cognitive exercise, and enriched memory.

An example of a simple diatonic interval exercise in D major follows. The intervals sound against a drone to increase reliability as students manipulate each pitch until the beats slow down and stop altogether, signifying correct intonation. Switch parts on the repeat so everyone gets to play the intervals. Encourage students to evaluate their performance relative to the frequency of the beats.


(Excerpt from Sound Innovations: Creative Warm-Ups for Intermediate String Orchestra.)

3. Build, Tune, and Balance Chords

As students gain confidence internalizing intervals through listening, playing, and singing them, begin using intervals to build and identify triads and chords with students. Direct one group of students to play the root, followed by another group adding the perfect fifth above it. Then call on a third group to place the major third in between the root and fifth and listen for the chord quality. Again, I like to involve the singing voice in this exercise, especially having students alternate singing and playing the major third. Students will intuitively adjust the sung major third until it sounds correct. Take this opportunity to introduce the concept of equal and just tempered tuning systems as soon as students sing the third in tune. To change from the equal temperament/equally compromised tuning of a piano to a pure or just temperament, the perfect fifth of the major chord needs to raise a shade higher (+2 cents), while the major third must lower in pitch significantly (-13.7 cents). In other words, to sing or play “in tune,” students must develop proficiency manipulating the third of a triad/chord as a routine course of action. Only by slightly widening the perfect fifth higher and narrowing the major third substantially lower will a major chord sound truly in tune. Once students grasp these concepts with major triads, expand their listening and performance skills by presenting minor, augmented, and diminished chords and the corresponding mathematical adjustments to make them pure. As students develop their ears to name intervals and discern between each voice in a chord, they will construct the sophisticated pitch adjustments requisite to cleaning up the overall intonation of the ensemble.

(Excerpt from Sound Innovations: Sound Development for Intermediate String Orchestra.)

The importance of balancing chords too often gets overlooked in the quest for pitch perfection. Pitch manipulation to achieve an in-tune chord presumes an evenly voiced, well-balanced, triad. A proportionally smaller sized viola section, for example, may cause an otherwise in-tune chord to sound out-of-tune due to the third getting buried within the texture. To remedy this all-too-common imbalance, try adding a nearby second violinist or cellist (depending on the register) to double the third of a prominent chord and reinforce the outnumbered and overpowered violists. Re-orchestrating crucial cadences to better fit an ensemble and achieve a warmer and more beautiful sound benefits performers and audience members alike: a win-win. Use this trick as needed with any section of the orchestra.

4. Provide Harmonic Context

Chorales offer an excellent way to apply newly honed interval, chord tone, and balance skills into a musical setting. Students should perform chorales sensitively while listening to, evaluating, and adjusting each note to perfect intonation. Review interval identification with students, and draw their attention to the chord (triad) character of each note. Balance each voice and bring out the moving lines. Take time to hold, balance, and tune fermatas at the cadences.

(Excerpt from Sound Innovations: Sound Development for Intermediate String Orchestra.)

5. Assist Students in Musical Analysis

For deeper synthesis, engage students in meaningful critical thinking as they perform chorales by showing expressive conducting gestures that nonverbally shape phrases, contrast dynamics, vary the length and release of fermatas, and lead to artistry. Bach chorales present musical growth opportunities for the conductor, as well as the students, having withstood the test of time for over three centuries! Fully prepare the chorale score by completing a harmonic analysis. Identify non-harmonic chord tones and their purposes. Share findings with students so they learn the academic language of music theory, such as tonic, dominant, and subdominant diatonic progressions; seventh chords, dissonance and resolution, leading tones, passing tones, neighboring tones, suspensions, and appoggiaturas. Assist students in their understanding of how musical phrases and cadences function. Lead students in responding to the question, “How do we judge the quality of musical works?”

The use of innovative intonation warm-up exercises with your string orchestra students transforms the notion of playing in tune from wishful thinking to reality. You can put your “Tune it or die!” coffee mug back on the shelf and the genie Yo Yo Ma joked about back in the bottle! Instead, treat your students to a regular diet of intervals, chord tones and balance exercises, major/minor/diminished/augmented chord qualities, reference drones, chorales, and more. Practice these exercises with the goal of facilitating a student’s next step toward playing in tune. In a letter to his younger brother, the great painter Vincent van Gogh portrayed step-wise progress in an eloquent and inspiring sentiment we can apply as teachers:

Now hardly a day passes that I do not make something. As practice makes perfect, I cannot but make progress; each drawing one makes, each study one paints, is a step forward. It's true, it is the same as on a road, one sees the church spire in the distance, but as the ground undulates, when one thinks one has arrived, there is another bit one had not seen at first, and which must still be covered. But one gets nearer and nearer. After a longer or shorter time, I do not know how long, I shall arrive . . . 

Kirk D. Moss, PhD

Kirk D. Moss, PhD, serves as Dean of the College of Arts & Humanities and Professor and Chair of the Department of Music & Theatre at University of Northwestern. Coauthor of Sound Innovations, he is a past national president of ASTA and has appeared as a conductor, clinician, or adjudicator.

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