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Imperfect Pitch - Excerpts From an ACMP Member’s Anecdotes on a Familiar Obsession

ACMP member Frank van der Drift (Vn/Va, Dordrecht, Netherlands) shared his writings on a decades-long obsession with pitch and intonation. Here is the first installment, excerpted from his piece. 

Introduction

Hello, my name is Frank, I have played the violin since my childhood and viola for over half my life . I am addicted to playing classical chamber music but do play some gypsy jazz at the side.  One thing to to note is that I am also slow learner. Over the past five decades I have cherished taking lessons on a regular basis, both private and ensemble-wise, always hoping to improve my skills bit by bit, never completely accomplishing the mission of course. Now that I quit my demanding job in health care, I have a lot more time to practice, and read and think about music.

Along the way, it often struck me that one aspect of making music seems to be taken for granted a lot, especially in amateur circles. I am talking of Intonation. For myself it’s always has been the most important challenge to achieve in any music I play.

It struck me that most of my teachers at best told me that I played out of tune when I did, but almost never why. Yet, over the years I collected an arm full of tricks, tips and methods to achieve just that, sometimes by being taught,  more often in discussions both with professionals and fellow amateurs, reading, and often by coincidental observations or picking up an a propos remark.

Intangible Tools

My first viola teacher gave me a most valuable tip one time when I could not get past playing a certain tone without it being out of tune. He pointed out that I had intoned the same note a bar or two earlier quite nicely and asked me to think back on that well-tuned predecessor the next time I came to that obviously hard spot for me. It worked. And it still works, whenever I think of it, provided there are no other bears in my way. Imagination can work to a certain extent too. It often helps me when I sing along with my playing in my thoughts.

The most difficult part consists of the really intangible stuff, meaning calm, perseverance, patience and method. Those first three issues are the most important because the only method that I know of simply costs loads of time, like it or not.

Calm, or ‘du calme!’ as a French cellist/chamber music coach during a session stressed to show what intonation was all about. He also demonstrated what he meant quite theatrically. Sat down behind his cello, closed his eyes and with a wide and slow and deliberate gesture placed his finger on somewhere on the A string. ‘Let’s hear if this is a proper D,’ he said, and played the tone. ‘Mwah, bit sharp I figure’. A comparison with the lower D string proved him right. A little slow shift of the hand corrected the pitch. He repeated the procedure a couple of times for demonstration’s sake. It took him about five minutes before he was able to accomplish the right pitches three times in a row. “And now for the next tone,” he declared, smiling.

I had never heard him play a single note out of tune before so I assumed he was just faking it for educational purposes. Later on his girlfriend told me that he had been doing this every single day of his life for the last 15 years. It has obviously paid off.

On another occasion I was sitting on a terrace having tea with a conservatory professor, also a cellist by the way. Through the open window of a nearby room we overheard someone practicing Dvorak’s cello concerto. Over and over the same passage gushed towards us and it was obvious that not one of the attempts was a total success. The teacher slowly shook his head and said, ‘I know this guy. He’s never gonna make it.  He’s merely engraving his faults into his system.’ This was a harsh, but possibly very true verdict.

It requires a lot of determination and discipline to change one’s habits and fight the natural inclination to play and play, and enjoy the music, but unless you’re one of those ever so rare naturals who get it all for free, I fear there is no other option.