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The never-ending quest for better intonation

Luis Dias

I’m so pleased that our Child’s Play India Foundation tenth anniversary concert was so well-attended, and by an unprecedented number of parents and relatives of the children from the project. Building new audiences is also an integral part of our raison d’être, alongside providing music education to the highest possible standard.

Those of you who were at the concert would have noticed that even on stage, a fair amount of time was spent just tuning up to a pre-determined ‘concert A’ pitch, even though all the instruments had been tuned not that long ago in the final pre-concert rehearsal on stage. This is because sheer probability dictates that out of fifty instruments (and we did have that number on stage at the start! That’s 200 strings!), more than a few strings are likely to get out of tune over time. Wind instruments have their own set of problems, but essentially the broad issues are that the ambient environment will inevitably affect the state of the instrument. Having an auditorium and stage at a different temperature (even if by a few degrees) from the green-room or backstage area will impair the intonation of a previously tuned instrument, be it made of wood or metal. It would be imprudent to commence playing without making allowances for this very physical phenomenon of temperature-sensitive relative expansion or compression of an instrument body, and therefore of loosening or tautening of strings.

But even this is just the tip of the iceberg. Any good teacher of a fretless stringed instrument, or for that matter a wind instrument, will know what a challenge it is to impart good intonation to a student. It presupposes, of course, that the teacher him/herself has a finely attuned inner ear and sense of intonation. Some children have a better developed sense than others from the beginning, but in all cases it is a constant uphill task, and it is foolhardy to be complacent about one’s intonation. Even the world’s greatest instrumentalists and singers work hours each day to maintain their fitness levels, and good intonation is up there on their list.

If one wishes to get really technical about it, one can disappear down rabbit-holes of terminologies; from “just intonation” versus “equal temperament”, to “harmonic series” and “Pythagorean tuning” using ratios of the prime numbers 2 and 3 as well as their powers, a “spiral of cycling fifths.” It is really quite fascinating, the deeper one delves into the physics and history of what is considered “good” intonation.

A lot of the work has to be done at individual lessons and in small groups. A good sense of what intervals (starting from the perfect fifths of adjacent open strings on the student’s violin, viola, cello) sound like, needs to be inculcated from the very start. Deviations from properly tuned intervals should be corrected at every step. A careless approach to intonation, once firmly entrenched, becomes difficult to correct, and  worsens with time.

Listening to music played by great instrumentalists, orchestras and chamber groups makes a huge difference. Paradoxically, although access to such music has never ever been easier in the history of humankind (think of YouTube, Spotify and so many avenues), relatively less time is actually spent by music students in listening to such great music, whether live or recorded. In a more innocent age, when distractions were fewer, and the long-playing record was the pinnacle of audio technology, so many glorious hours were spent just allowing oneself to be bathed in such a divine sound.

When a group of young instrumentalists meet to make music in an ensemble, the intonation challenge is multiplied manifold. A whole section of players has to sound as one, and they in turn must harmonise fittingly with the voices of the other sections. The more the voices and types of instruments in the ensemble, the bigger the challenge.The great French composer-conductor Pierre Boulez (1925-2016) once said: “The most difficult problem in conducting is intonation. You must know what is wrong and how to correct it.”

Orchestra rehearsal can be very good medicine for intonation issues if one comes to them with the right approach. A relatively inexperienced player seated to someone with better intonation can make huge strides in improving their own sense of intonation.

The vagaries of one of the most severe monsoon seasons in recent memory with consequent flooding and incessant traffic jams along Goa’s dilapidated roads, compounded by a rotten public transport system, and nagging illnesses varying from a minor viral upper respiratory infection to dengue fever notwithstanding, it is to the credit of all our young musicians, their parents, and our teachers that tutti and sectional rehearsal sessions were pretty well-attended.

Nevertheless, the logistics of everyone meeting to play as an ensemble are quite daunting. For starters, one needs a rehearsal space big enough, and quiet enough to work in. It takes some effort lugging a double-bass up three floors (no elevator!) to each rehearsal. And then, time-management is crucial. One expects everyone to have studied and practiced their part, sent to them well in advance. The muscle memory of fingering and right-left hand coordination should already be in place. A tutti rehearsal should then, strictly speaking, only be a matter of working on finer points, such as bowing, (when to draw breath for wind instruments), dynamics, phrasing, etc.

Nevertheless, in student ensembles, the opportunity should always be taken to reinforce a good intonation if already present, or to work at improving it if not.

A good way to ensure that all sections are “in sync” is to play, slowly, really listening, to the scale of the piece being rehearsed, in unison, and in intervals of thirds, fourths, etc.

Scales played in ensemble, besides being good medicine for intonation, are nourishing in so many other ways. Many of you will have read Vikram Seth’s ‘An Equal Music’, a book well-appreciated by music aficionados, for the intimate knowledge with which he writes about so many aspects of the music world. It warmed my heart, but didn’t surprise me, when he describes the Maggiore Quartet’s ritual of beginning every rehearsal session with a three-octave scale. His protagonist Michael Holme says: “When I play

[the scale]

,…I become the music of the scale. I mute my will. I free

my self.”

In Baroque music especially, (and string ensembles end up playing such a lot of this, for obvious reasons. One needs larger forces, woodwind and brass for later periods of music), it helps to “clean up” the intonation vertically. It often is the case in a vertical chord that two of the four voices (first and second violins, violas, cellos/double-bass) are playing the “root” usually as an octave. Once a perfect octave has been achieved, the voice playing the perfect fifth in relation to the root joins in, followed last by the major or minor third. Other chords can similarly be tidied up in this way. This is why it makes no sense when some players try to excuse themselves from rehearsal, wanting to turn up only nearer to the concert.

Ensemble intonation is a collective effort. And like all ideals, it is something towards which we all strive, and never stop working at.

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