Chinese Proverb

"Tell me and I'll forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I'll understand." - Chinese Proverb.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Earplugs + Martini = Better Intonation?

I've been really annoyed at how awful my intonation has become, although it's only been one week of removing the frets and thumb marker! If my intonation doesn't improve in the next 3 more weeks, I'm going to pencil-in the 3rd fret mark back on to the fingerboard, but leave the thumb marker off.

Since it typically takes 30 days to develop a habit, I thought I'd better give myself the full 4 weeks to determine whether I can handle practicing without any visual or physical aids.

This got me thinking, "what can I do to make this more enjoyable for me in the mean time?"

Two things I've discovered

1) One Chocolate Martini + Cello Practice =  Fun Practice!
  • My favorite drink is a Chocolate Martini - so yummy!!! Anyway, my husband and I went out dancing the other night, but when we got to the bar, they didn't have the music we were expecting so we ordered some food and I had a chocolate martini. After we finished our food we drove home, and I decided to do some cello practicing.
  • Obviously drinking alcohol isn't very conducive to learning. However, I did learn that when I'm "relaxed" and not worried about intonation, that my intonation comes back to me! All the old songs I learned were spot on! I know this was true because I always practice with my tuner ON when I play any piece to watch for intonation, which I did this time as well.
  • So what does this mean for me? 
    • That I'm probably over-thinking things again (as usual) and I'm forcing my hand to do things that it normally doesn't do, i.e. before I removed the markers my hands were consistently getting the correct intonation; therefore it shouldn't be as difficult as I'm making it because even while I was a bit tipsy my hand remembered where to go!

  • During my practice this weekend I'm going to try and just focus on being nice and relaxed and not be overly concerned about intonation. I'll focus mainly on how my body feels and what my fingers, hand, elbow, etc. is doing.
  • This reminds me of a Family Guy episode:
    • Lois & Peter after a night of heavy drinking, sing some karaoke songs, which shows them singing perfectly in tune and singing professionally. The day after, they reminisce of how awesome their karaoke duet was and how they kicked everyone's butt in singing. It then flashes to another scene which shows them as they really were, i.e. falling down drunk, singing horribly out of tune with Peter barfing beside the stage! 
      • LOL - I wonder if this was the case for me...probably not since I only had one drink! Although I did take more freedom in expressing the pieces! ;). 
  • These are just observations of mine, so DON'T start drinking and practicing! Although, imagining a bunch of drunk cellists practicing is kind of a funny thought! :0)

2) Earplugs + Cello Practice = Better Intonation!
  • Another thing I tried this week, practicing with earplugs! I couldn't get past how bad I sounded and would stop after 5 minutes of playing scales. I thought, "if there were only a way for me to practice without hearing myself so I could get comfortable with finding and memorizing the position first before working on how it sounded..." I immediately wished I had an electric cello so I could just turn the volume way down, then I thought of earplugs. 
    • I put them on and used an electronic tuner to check my intonation, i.e. if my intonation was correct a green light would light up so I could check it visually instead of aurally. Although I still could hear my cello through the earplugs it wasn't as annoying hearing myself play out of tune!
  • It seems counter-intuitive, but it actually works out fairly well! I made a few discoveries:
    • First, I never noticed how much the cello vibrated against my leg, the front of my chest and over my stomach! WOW!! My teacher had mentioned this during one of my first lessons, but I always thought, "yeah, I can feel the cello vibrating, not a big deal - who doesn't?" But I'm talking about really vibrating powerfully~!  So much so, that I can tell if my intonation is correct because it vibrates with a certain intensity! Feeling AND hearing the cello now has a whole new added meaning!
    • Second, I was able to really focus on my body posture and what my limbs were doing. For example, the only way I can consistently find first position is if I make sure my initial seated position is correct and all the cello parts are touching specific spots on my body. This is all basic stuff and something my teacher has told me countless times, but it just clicked for me how important it really is!
    • Third, when I removed my earplugs, my volume was SO MUCH LOUDER! Almost annoyingly loud! I've been working on getting more volume for awhile now, and this definitely helped.


    1. hey it's me again..have been busy this month to comment but rest-assured I check your blog almost everyday on my way to work :)
      anyway, good to know you actually hav taken a big leap in cello-playing by removing the tapes! i know by now you might have nailed the intonation thingy but juz wanna wish good luck.
      I didnt have such xperience since my teacher forbids me to do those two thngs for my intonation (tapes and tuner) so my barometer all this while are my most familiar songs (twinkle2, old washerwoman etc. lol)..if i suddenly hate it then i know smthing is wrong :)
      however, like famous late Casals once said " Intonation is a matter of conscience" so my in-tune might be wayyy-out of tune to you :)
      so good luck with intonation, I pray your left hand will make peace this rather cruel creature of music called Intonation.
      p/s: please pray for my left hand. i hurt my index and middle fingers that my index cant bend due to swelling. this week has been sucky since i could only practice 3 times, with 3 functional fingers, so you have to imagine i gotta shift to half position everytime i need play 1st finger! not to mention i got my brother's wedding to play in next 2 weeks!

    2. Hi Thaddaeus,

      Sorry to hear about your left hand!! What happened to your hand?

      BIG bummer!! :(.
      Doubly so, since you have to prepare for a wedding! Busy couple of weeks coming up for you! I'll pray for a speedy recovery and a great cello performance too!

      Well, I don't quite have my intonation yet. I've never been one to sing a song by myself in tune anyway, so it's been a real challenge! I think this will definitely slow my progress some...I've been avoiding practicing already. So much so, that I've been reading more books on the cello, violin making and blogging instead of practicing to get over this hurdle!

      How did you figure out where your fingers are supposed to go, and how long did it take you? I know you have a really good ear for these things, but what helped you know where your first finger is supposed to go? It seems if I can find E on the D Major scale everything goes well, if I miss it, then everything is just off.

      Here's to a fast recovery!

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    4. (pardon the double commenting)
      Apparently i had these nasty infected cuts on those MVPs of the left hand that 'suddenly' there( though i am pretty sure it started with just a small paper cut on the middle finger!)..fortunately all is well now and i am back to celloing (with minor stiffness on the index)!

      I guess for me it's the tonal gap that guides my 1st finger. Tonal gap isn't birthright for me, so at first i did solfege (do-re-mi) A LOT to make sure the D major scale is ok. Unlike you i guess my finger gap wasn't so solid so solfege kinda tape it together. It went on until my 2nd month when my teacher said he's ok with my 1st finger intonation.

      In your case IMHO you just need to remember the Do-Re gap and leave the rest to the finger gap. It was the exact method my teacher was using when he was young when i asked him the same question. Test yourself by not looking the fingerboard once in awhile. by listening to the open string D, find the E by not looking at it.It's more like using your ears as the spark plug for the whole scale :)

      Intonation is both cruel and sweet. It's painful if we messed it up but nothing beats the awesome feeling of playing in unison with another cellist. I had both when i suddenly gotta duet shostakovich waltz no 2 with my teacher today!

      I really hope you would nailed it very soon ( I know you could!) cuz like my teacher once said the hardest is the first step. Anything else will just follow ( I found this quite true as half, 2nd, 3rd and 4th position will feel like a friendly alien once you master 1st position!)

      Best of luck!