Improving Intonation on the Cello

My cello students often come to college as music majors with what I jokingly refer to as 'freshmen intonation'. Freshmen intonation is not necessarily horrible intonation but it is intonation that needs much more refinement. The question at hand, therefore, is what are some basic ways we can develop better intonation on the cello.

First, let's define faulty intonation. Faulty intonation is the failure to tune intervals (the distance between pitches), both melodically and harmonically (intervals played harmonically are notes that sound simultaneously and melodic intervals are played successively). Whether it is the inability to match pitch or play a melody in tune or tune a note in a chord, all have to do with the failure to tune intervals.

Having identified the problem, we need to come up with ways to improve intonation. This is a complex question because many factors can cause faulty intonation but there are some basic things that we can do to help us improve.

In my teaching I like to assign double stops (harmonic intervals or playing two notes simultaneously) to improve intonation. I find that the more one practices tuning double stops the better the ear and the muscle memory get, resulting in better intonation overall.

One can practice double stops through studies and playing with drone notes. Practicing thirds, sixths, and octaves have long been a staple of string pedagogy. Violoncello Technique by Mark Yampolsky edited by Gordon Epperson is an advanced book for this end. The Ivan Galamian Scale System for Violoncello edited by Hans Jorgen Jensen also has thirds, sixths, and octaves. If you would like a beginning book of double stops try Double Stops for Cello by Rick Mooney.

But one doesn't have to have a method book to practice double stops; they can and should be practiced right in the repertoire. We can tune notes to open strings and tune melodic notes as double stops. The repertoire is replete with double stop opportunities and we should take advantage of this.

We can also practice scales to drone notes. Teachers often hold drone notes for their cello students during scales and other passages. For example, when playing an E major scale it is helpful to tune each note of the scale to an E drone.

Of course, this isn't the only facet of training that is important for good intonation; developing an organized method for shifting is also imperative, for example. But a great place to start is practicing double stops within the same position.

As you practice double stops, your ear will become more and more sensitive to intonation and your left hand will develop more muscle memory regarding finger spacing.

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