Improving Intonation

Getting kids to play in tune requires enormous effort on the part of the teacher and students. The biggest challenge is finding the energy and patience--in every class, every day--to look for and correct the myriad problems that cause poor intonation. There is no quick fix, and only a combination of strategies—when used together—will produce the most successful results. Intonation strategies work best with consistency, when teachers remind their students to pay attention to their pitch and playing position every time they pick up their instrument. Students will play as poorly as their teachers allow, and they will not play truly in tune unless their teachers give them no other choice.

  1. Require FLAWLESS left hand and instrument position from every student. Use daily games, calisthenics, and constant assessment to eliminate position problems that make playing in tune more difficult than it already is. Develop a large and varied arsenal of strategies for remedying the myriad ailments classroom teachers face on a daily basis.
  2. Make sure every student’s strings are perfectly in tune. Take the time to make sure every child’s instrument is in tune at the beginning of class. Use the bow to tune student instruments; we would do no less for ourselves before rehearsing in an adult orchestra. Kids have no chance for learning to play in tune, unless teachers insist that their student’s strings are correct. Good strings and fine tuners also make a difference.
  3. Improve everyone’s awareness of the key and its leading tones. Make sure students know how to read a key signature, to know when notes are sharp, flat, or natural. Become exceptionally aware of the leading tones—BOTH the 7th and 4th scale degrees—where intonation problems and wrong notes occur most frequently. In major modes, keep the 4th degree low, and the 7th high; tell the students “When it’s the 4th down, drink 7-Up.
  4. Improve everyone’s awareness of finger patterns. Use scales, tetrachords, and tetrachord etudes to develop finger strength and finger pattern awareness. Where appropriate, discuss string crossings, shifting and fingerings that may challenge or promote accurate intonation.
  5. Tuning to others. Frequently have students compare their pitches to open strings or to the notes of another section. Have them “play softer, and listen more.” Use pedal tones—like a classroom tuner or the strings of idle students—to play the root of the chord or the key while students slowly play a passage, one note at a time if necessary, to check intonation.
  6. Tone. Teach students to hear the relationship between tone and pitch. It's easier to tune when the note's tone is clean, and not over powered. Encourage students to play softer than the note they are tuning to. In advanced groups, it may be helpful, even necessary to stop all vibrato while fine tuning the ensemble.
  7. Sing. Sing the correct pitch or group of notes. Singing a note helps the brain focus on the correct pitch. Students almost always play a note better in tune after they have sung it. Don’t let reluctant students deter you; demonstrate singing yourself, praise students who are participating, and encourage the kids who are embarrassed. Make the following a common, non-threatening routine in your classroom: Listen, Sing/Hum, and Play. Not only is it a national standard, it’s an invaluable tool for improving your group’s intonation.