Sunday, March 20, 2011

Playing in Tune on the Viola and Saving Gas?

Driving a Prius has completely changed the way that I drive. Through the various displays on the dashboard that let me see how much gas I am using at any given time, I understand the contours of the various roads I travel, the advantage of coasting, the amount of energy that it takes to get moving from a full stop, and differences that wind, cold, and speed make in my overall gas mileage. It makes the actual process of getting to rehearsals a lot more fun than it was during our pre-Prius days.

So what does this have to do with playing in tune?

I have long poo-pooed the notion of using a tuner to play in tune. I remember one time--oh it must have been in the 1980s--when I was playing one of the piccolo parts of Mahler's Third Symphony, and one of the other flutists brought a tuner to a sectional rehearsal. It is virtually impossible to tune two piccolos. Really. Somehow it's possible to have three piccolos sound like they might be in tune, but two piccolos always have bumps and potholes when they play together (that driving analogy was not intentional, but I'll keep it anyway). I suggested that we try to listen and make note of the extreme adjustments we would need to make in order to sound less than horrid, and he suggested we just follow the tuner. That experience turned me off from tuners completely.

The metronome I have been using of late is a combination metronome and tuner. Being a relative Luddite, I didn't know exactly how the machine functioned as a tuner, and I certainly wasn't planning to use it as such, until I turned on the "tuner" function by accident. I actually thought that the device wouldn't be able to "hear" me unless I plugged in a microphone, but I was proven wrong.

I decided to try the thing out--just to see if it could "hear" me. I was surprised that when I played scales on the violin it could tell me what pitches I was playing, and it could tell me whether I was playing them in tune. When the little green light is lit, the pitch is making the exact number of vibrations it needs to make to equal the mathematical expectations of the device. There is a "safe zone," and then there are areas that are way out. I was surprised to find that I was "way out" much more often than I could ever have imagined.

My tuner doesn't "hear" pitches in the ledger-line regions of the treble clef, so it isn't incredibly practical for violin practice, but it hears the viola register very well. It is particularly useful for viola practicing because the intervals on the viola are not fingertip-width natural like they are on the violin. Even with broad fingertips, there is a degree of adjustment that violists must make. Perhaps the main thing that separates violists from violinists who play the viola is the "default" to adjust that violists have, because we can't depend on anything being "where" we think it is. People who get a kick out of that sort of thing (like me) prefer to play inner voices in chamber music and in orchestra because that's where adjustments are always necessary. It's part of the fun. That's why I'll always be a violist who likes to play the violin, and not the reverse.

Practicing slowly with the tuner, and adjusting the pitches carefully to remain in the "safe" zone, or to get a succession of green lights over a span of a passage or a phrase makes practice time extremely rewarding. It is my belief that once you get in the habit of playing in tune (and we all allow less-than-in-tune notes to pass undetected when we practice without "supervision") that becomes the default. In the case of playing the viola, the speed of adjustment as well as the response of the instrument improves with awareness, and the little tuner device provides "supervision" and increases awareness.

The various contours of the road and the various contours of the music we play require constant awareness. I'm so happy to have devices that enhance my awareness of both.

N.B. Double stops with a tuner are strange. Playing any kind of D minor chord, for example, makes my tuner tell me it "hears" a B flat. It would be interesting to know why.

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