Intonation help

Discussion in 'Orchestral Technique [DB]' started by bigcello, Oct 17, 2006.

  1. bigcello


    Dec 13, 2004
    Pomona, CA
    So that I can introduce myself a bit, please indulge me with this little bio:
    I am currently working toward a PhD in Musicology, and I don't get the chance to play bass as often as I'd like. I have been taking Viola da gamba lessons for the past year as part of the MA program I just finished...I earned a Bachelor's degree back in 2004 in Music (not performance, though I was required to give a full recital on double bass...). I was listening to the recording from my senior recital last week and I was kind of bummed...To help you to see where I was, chops-wise, back then, here are the pieces I played: Bach Cello Suite #1 (down an octave), Hindemith Sonata, Capuzzi Concerto and an arrangement of Prokofiev's Romance from Lieutenant Kijé Suite. Not the highest caliber, I know, but it is what it is. Anyway, after listening to the recording I couldn't help noticing how awful the intonation is in some spots. I am pretty pleased with the sound itself, and the phrasing/musicality is good (for the most part), but the intonation just kills everything. As I said earlier I haven't had many opportunities to play/practice since I started grad school back in 2005. I am now on staff at a local community school of music teaching double bass (and bass guitar) and I am really wanting to fix the problems I had in my technique in the first place (so that students don't pick them up) and once again begin to progress...
    My question is this- What path(s) do you recommend I take to fix the intonation problems in my playing? I don't remember feeling really concious of how out of tune I was sometimes playing, which is the worst part about it. Honestly, in the low range (below the A on the G-String) I find it difficult to tune sequential intervals (ie. not simultaneous) when I am playing...I can totally hear it in others' playing or in recordings of myself, but in my "live" playing I don't hear it. Any pointers or tips would be greatly appreciated. I am almost embarrassed sometimes because I feel like my chops and musical instincts are pretty good- but who cares if you can't play in tune. Hopefully this makes sense...sorry to go on so long...:D
  2. Practice with a drone. A good warm up is to play a scale slowly with a drone on the dominant. Don't move on to the next note until you are satisfied with the pitch. Practice the scales with vibrato. Remember that the highest part of the vibrato should be the note you want heard. Try playing a note that will get the bass resonating such as a C on the A string to get the G string going. Play it without vibrato then add vibrato but make sure the G string is still vibrating. A lot of intonation problems can come from vibrato going past the note you are wanting to be heard.
  3. tappingtrance

    tappingtrance Cooke Harvey

    Jul 27, 2005
    all great tips - additionally we tend to practice a lot of movement in seconds - try your arpeggios against drone chords so you bring the thirds into tune etc. let your arm make the movement not your hand - lead with your forearm, not wrist when you shoot for out of position moves.
  4. bejoyous


    Oct 23, 2005
    London, Ontario
    The best thing I found to work on intonation was singing in a choir. I sang at my church for about 3 years. I sing tenor which has lots of suspensions, sevenths, Picardy thirds, thirds of chords and so on. Singing gives you a real, tactile sensation of being in tune.

    Also, having your instrument bang on in-tune with a tuner helps, too.

    Also, whenever possible, compare the note you are playing with an open string that is an octave, a fifth or a major third interval from the closed note. (EX. G on the D-string with the G-String, B on the G-String with the E-String, C# on the G-String with the open A, etc.)
  5. bigcello


    Dec 13, 2004
    Pomona, CA
    Yes these are good ideas...the problem I find is that I can most definitely hear good and proper intonation just fine in a choral or simply listening situation..the difficulty is in actually hearing my bass when I am playing.
  6. Johnny L

    Johnny L

    Feb 14, 2002
    Victoria, TX
    I've had this problem ever since I began playing bass. I never really could figure out why, though. I've speculated it's because, as a doublebass beginnner, my mind can't focus on intonation so well until my technique develops further.

    But then it occured to me that maybe I never really did have that great a sense of intonation...that maybe the caliper of my intonation wasn't so high as I thought...and harmonizing/comparing my stopped notes to open strings and harmonics pretty much confirms this.

    So now I harmonize and compare my stopped notes quite a bit in my practice to improve my intonation too as bejoyous recommends...not to mention looking up words for correct spelling/usage.

    Oh yes and singing of course
  7. bigcello


    Dec 13, 2004
    Pomona, CA
    Well excuse my sloppy typing and lack of a proof-read...gheez:meh:
  8. Johnny L

    Johnny L

    Feb 14, 2002
    Victoria, TX
    I talked with a cellist some time ago who claimed his brother lost his perfect pitch ability when hearing lower range pitches such as what basses are able to produce, but as a violinist he had great intonation.

    Sure intonation problems can get real complex and in my own quest for great intonation I might abandon the whole "it's an ego problem" diagnosis for myself someday...but that's my current approach.

    There are some great pro bassists who I also think have less-than-personally-acceptable-intonation too, so I try not to obsess over it. Plus, that's the chorus effect...a very nice lush gorgeous sound! :D
  9. Stan Haskins

    Stan Haskins

    Nov 17, 2005
    NY and Miami
    +1 - -

    When I was doing grad school in Music Education, My playing was at (what seems like) about the same place as what you described. During that time, I got to go to a master class with Ed Barker (Principal, BSO, and utter perfectionist) who listened to me playing (something like Eccles 1st movement). Of course, all my problems were magnified about a thousand times because of the intimidation factor. My intonation was far worse than I thought it could be. Here's what he recommended: Check each note against an open string drone. Use some practice time to "sit on" each individual note and really listen to the exact intonation(against an open string). He specifically referred to the introductory exercise in the ZImmerman Contemporary Concept of Bowing book ( the one where you play the G Major scale in combination with an open Dstring as a double stop) and said that every scale should be practiced like that, and every note in every piece you're learning can be practiced like that.

    Here's another take: Last summer Virginia Dixon introduced me to the concept of simpathetic vibration. EG: play D in 4th position on the g string. listen to the first harmonic of the open D string vibrate in sympathy. If you listen patiently, and adjust the intonation, you can find different harmonics on each string which will sympathetically vibrate when you play many stopped notes. Something about listening to those upper frequency harmonics has opened up my ears and made me personally more sensitive to my own intonation. Now another ten years of practice, and I might be in tune! (still not as good as Mr. Barker, though . . .)
  10. When thinking about sympathetic vibration think about Octaves, Fifths, Fourths, minor thirds, and minor sixths. i.e. on the G string: G, D, C, B-flat, and E-flat. The Octaves, Fifths, and Fourths sound at a fairly audible level. For the minor thirds and sixths you have to listen a little more closely since they will be at a much higher pitch.
  11. Johnny L

    Johnny L

    Feb 14, 2002
    Victoria, TX
    I always thought the G harmonic ringing out when I played a C note was super cool
  12. Stan Haskins

    Stan Haskins

    Nov 17, 2005
    NY and Miami
    Right. Sometimes, you have to actually play that higher harmonic first to sort of "activate" it before it will ring sympathetically. Ms. Dixon calls that "waking up the bass" (it wakes up your ears, too)
  13. If you are in tune the harmonic won't need any help ringing. When you get the harmonic started that can help you hear which way to adjust the note so that it does get in tune.
  14. Simandl helps a lot. If those exercises did not help intonation they would not still be around. Spend some time on them, even the early simple ones.
    Just play, listen and let them do some of the work.
  15. While you are working on playing with a drone (which I highly suggest as well), take the time to have someone else listen to you and give feedback regarding intonation. Recording yourself is also helpful. The reason for this is your sense of pitch is dramatically affected by your relationship to the instrument. The sound you hear from behind the instrument is radically different from the sound in front ( I am working on Koussevitsky and my teacher has told me to get a coarse tone near the bridge becuase in a hall it will sound punchy and beautful to the audience). This affects tone but it also has an impact on pitch so listening to high quality recordings (poor quality will give you a bad reference for intonation, especially old tapes) or having a friend listen can help you gague your actuall "in-tuneness".

    One last thing, as a student teacher I have experineced first hand that it is easy to hear when someone else is out of tune but musch more difficult to hear yourself. Even in the transition from me hearing them play a pitch to me taking the instrument from them to fix it (beginners not upper level student of course) I lost some of my reference to the goal pitch (i.e. A440)
    Well, that was long winded but I hope it helped.
  16. -Intonation is in both the ears and hands. If you build good positions and then use your ear to tune them up you are going to be way better off than relying on one or the other.
  17. Dave Whitla

    Dave Whitla

    Apr 25, 2006
  18. Ben Rolston

    Ben Rolston Supporting Member

    Aug 30, 2006
    Brooklyn, NY
    It really helps me to tune up my voice first before I even tune up my instrument. Once I'm in tune I can hear much more clearly when I playing out of tune of the bass.
  19. midgica


    Oct 22, 2006
    Bellevue, WA
    i myself am lucky enough to have perfect pitch, and if anyone's curious, i'll attest that it's much harder to identify pitches in the very high or very low ranges. i think it's because the human range of hearing is weaker at the ends of its spectrum. the guy's perfect pitch probably wasn't lost, just weakened. mine is the same way, but practice has helped somewhat.
  20. Monosynapsis


    Oct 13, 2006
    I'm not a bassplayer but a fretless guitar apprentice and I have to admit that I'm lurking around here regularily for all topics about intonation. :smug: Time to give a little 2cents back...

    I found that singing the note in my head clearly just before I finger it makes the difference between so so intonation and almost spot on.

    Thats how I often practice scales: my PC plays me the scale and I play in unison with it. After each note I leave a little silence and aurally visualize the next note, then I play it. Works wonders. As Soon as I stop doing it I have to rely on "muscle memory" and the intonation is hurt badly. Needless to say that I don't have the concentration required for keeping it up it at all times....

    I think that the inner ear can guide the finger to the right spot even before the note is physically sounded. This is the connection between mind and fingerboard.
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