When listening to your middle school orchestra perform, what will the audience hear?
1) orchestra is somewhat in tune yet certain moments are noticeably sour
2) orchestra is not in tune and has a “nebulous” pitch center
3) orchestra plays with flawless intonation, worthy of goose bumps
What is your ultimate goal? Is it choice number 3? Fantastic! Developing strong middle school orchestras that play with superior intonation is the greatest challenge we have. In our orchestra classrooms, the out-of-tune playing will not fix itself. It is our direct responsibility to implement a few simple and effective ways to address common intonation problems that arise on a regular basis.
When working on intonation, no matter the exercises you use, the skill of listening must be a constant 24/7 component. Students need to discern what is and is not in tune. For some students this will come naturally and for others, time and extra reinforcement will be a must. For all students, it’s important that they gain confidence as good listeners, and in combination with execution of accurate finger patterns.
The following suggestions offer a variety of my favorite and most successful ideas combining the development of individual and group intonation, along with isolating different finger patterns and left hand shapes:
Singing and Humming. Teach ear training by having students sing. The sooner the better! There are many different ways to have the class sing to improve their relative pitch.
a) sing simple solfeggio or sing an entire exercise on the “la” syllable
b) sing pitches using note names. During rehearsal, if a certain note is being played out of tune, have the group immediately stop and sing that particular note followed by playing the note again.
c) hum a certain pitch while playing the same pitch (arco)
Teach Fabulous Left Hand Shapes/ Teach Finger Patterns. It is impossible to have great classroom intonation when left hand positions are poor. Offer manual assistance and constant reminders (i.e. curved fingers, straight wrist, etc.) Take pictures so they have a different visual perspective to see where problems are occurring. Never give up!
It is imperative that violin and viola students know which fingers are touching (half step) and which are not (whole step) in a given key signature. Cello and bass students will need to be completely sure which finger should be creating the pitch. For more advanced classes, it’s a great idea to start the rehearsal with a heavy emphasis on half steps/chromatic scales. If you have time, have two students play several consecutive half steps, telling them to sound, “like one person.” This is an excellent exercise for developing critical listening skills, especially for the players, and also for the rest of the orchestra. Fall is a great time of year to teach a Chromatic Scale!!!
3. Regularly use the tonic pitch during class. Work to develop a pitch center in the room. For example, when playing a G Major scale or
similar exercise, have cello and bass sections play a repeated/sustained open G while the violin and viola sections play the scale. Switch parts accordingly. Used often, this tool is very effective for ear training and is simple to execute. Other ways to use the tonic pitch are:
a) during warm ups, use rote patterns/scales/exercises
b) when introducing a new key signature or finger patterns in the method book
c) when executing drill type activities. There are infinite ways to work with a drone tonic pitch. Here’s one popular drill; Cello/bass students can play open D pizzicato pulse (half notes or quarter notes) while violin/viola students play the D Major or D Minor scale. Switch parts accordingly. Keep the drills interesting, varied, and fast paced.
4. Rote Patterns. Play simple rote patterns for your class (no vibrato). Having them hear exemplary examples will help their ear training. Generally, be sure to utilize teacher demonstrations during critical intonation learning targets (i.e. low first finger study). If you are unable to demonstrate yourself, choose an advanced student to play the example.
5. “Hold!” It is important for young string players to have the opportunity and time to make tiny adjustments with their fingers until the given note is in tune. Holding out certain notes will give them that chance. As you teach your lessons, implement the following ideas that fit the specific intonation needs for your situation. Holding a pitch only once will not be enough to fix the problem. It may be necessary it repeat a process at least 3-5 times per class period (especially when new notes or finger patterns or intervals are being introduced).
a) Teach the “rules” of holding out a pitch (hold the note softly, with a slow bow speed and no vibrato)
b) Climb up from an open string: For example, when tuning an F-sharp, have the violins and violas sustain open D while cellos/bass play D-E-F-sharp.
c) Chord building two ways: 1) Have bass players sustain their first note, followed by cellos, violas and violins. From the bottom up! Great intonation begins with the lower string sections! If yourcellos and basses are not matching pitch, the entire orchestra will be out of tune. 2) Begin with the tonic pitch of the chord in low strings. Add upper strings that also have the tonic note. Add the fifth of the chord and lastly add the third.
d) When working on a new piece, have the class hold the first note of each measure (just for a few measures), forming beautiful chords and harmonies in the classroom. Remember that the dynamic level when holding these notes can be soft.
Commit yourself to teaching the artistry of great intonation. Frequently remind your students that detailed work leads to real results!
Terry Shade has been teaching middle school orchestra for 30 years. She has built successful programs in Washington, Nevada, and Georgia during her long career. Terry has also taught throughout the UK, working with teachers on group class techniques. She currently teaches at Pacific Cascade MS in the Issaquah, WA school district. She conducts All State Orchestras and honor orchestras around the country and works with music teachers giving clinics and sessions at state conferences. Her orchestras have performed at The Midwest Clinic, NAfME Northwest and Washington Music Educators Association. She has been awarded the WMEA/ASTA Classroom Teacher of the Year.