Academic journal article Australian Journal of Music Education

Teaching Intonation in Violin Playing: A Study of Expert String Teaching

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Music Education

Teaching Intonation in Violin Playing: A Study of Expert String Teaching

Article excerpt

Introduction

The act of achieving perfect intonation on stringed instruments has been described as "trying to hit the bulls-eye of a small, moving target every time with a bow and arrow, from a bicycle on a tightrope" (Gerle, 1983, p. 36). Intonation in violin playing is challenging because unlike fixed-pitch instruments such as the piano, the violin is flexible in pitch, so players must continually make choices and adjustments according to their ears and the feel (Moody, 1995). Many string players view intonation as an insurmountable problem and give up attempting to improve their instrumental skills at an early stage of learning (Kanno, 2003). Consequently, the majority of literature related to teaching intonation to string players focuses on beginners (Cowden, 1972; Smith, 1995; Bergonzi, 1997; Hopkins, 2013). However, pitch accuracy is an issue that string players of all levels must cope with. Previous studies regarding master string teachers (Gholson, 1993; Neill-Van Cura, 1995; Low, 2000) have demonstrated that intonation problems emerge even in the lessons of advanced conservatorium-level string students. Further research is needed to create model for teaching intonation to students at the tertiary level.

Playing in tune is very important to the overall performance of a stringed instrument, and intonation has a strong influence on the quality of performance. The development of pitch accuracy of string students has been a topic of great concern to prominent violin pedagogues (Auer, 1921; Flesch, 1923/2000 & 1928/1930; Galamian, 1999). The renowned violinist Szigeti (1979) famously argued that:

   Beauty of tone, perfection of technique, sense of
   style, the faculty of transmitting the essence, the
   poetry, the passion of a musical composition, all
   these gifts will be of no avail if the cardinal virtue
   of perfect intonation is missing. So let me repeat:
   there is no substitute for perfect intonation. (p. xxii)

Lapses in intonation, even if only a few, can be very detrimental to a performance. Even if the rest of the performance is technically flawless, there is no way to justify playing out of tune. No one can play with perfect intonation. Renowned violinist and teacher Carl Flesch (1923/2000) acknowledged that playing with good intonation is all about creating the impression of perfect intonation by making rapid adjustments of incorrect pitches. However, audiences will unpleasantly remember performances with pitches that are obviously incorrect (Gerle, 1983).

Teaching intonation skills poses a unique challenge to music educators (Powell, 2010), and the teaching approach used for these skills can have positive or negative effects on students' opinions of intonation (Nunez, 2002). Without proper guidance from their teachers, students' abilities to recognise correct pitch can be permanently impaired (Nunez, 2002). Methods of teaching intonation have received relatively little attention from researchers to date, despite the importance of this topic to musical performance (Smith, 1995).

The current study was motivated by a desire to understand how to improve intonation. More specifically, this study aims to identify how to teach intonation to conservatorium-level violin students. This research concerns the teaching approaches of three master teachers, each of whom have at least ten years of experience in teaching the violin at established conservatoriums in Australia. Previous literature advocated the study of expert/master teachers because they possess expertise and skills from which we can learn about effective teaching strategies (Berliner, 1986; Neill-Van Cura, 1995; Low, 2000). According to Hallam (1998), expert instrumental teachers possess knowledge of their instruments, skills to play their instruments, teaching skills and knowledge of teaching methods. The findings of the current study could potentially provide new insights into teaching intonation to students. …

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