Playing side-by-side with the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century was one of the more cool things I got to do during my training.
I remember commenting to the lady next to me that it was interesting that the same verb, ‘stemmen’, referred to tuning, but it also meant ‘to vote’. I said that I couldn’t see a connection. My colleague for the moment said that there was: ‘It’s what you go for.’
I thought about this for a while, and I’m still thinking about it some years later. Inspired by her comment, I’m consciously conceptualising good intonation as directly and unfussily going for something.
Slow practice, both with a metronome for steady pattern-making, and without so that I can freely explore sounds and pitch-shapes, is an important part of my routine. Learning a difficult passage, I like to pick whichever slow speed will enable me honestly to know that I am hitting each note absolutely accurately, with every interval relationship exactly right. (And to get to this point, I’ll probably first play around with chords and overtones, layering up the notes I’m tackling and getting them to talk to one another).
Yes, intonation has been described as a process of making micro-adjustments: having good intonation means being good at noticing problems and moving your finger to the right place before anyone else realises.
But I like the discipline in the idea of aiming for, and hitting, a target. Of getting it right and moving on.
That’s why I practise slowly.
I like clarity. It’s one of the things I really value.
And this holds in many areas of life. I come from a family of siblings who are great at a lot of things, for whom the angst lies in deciding what to focus on. Growing up, I tended to look to narrow down the options as a way of avoiding overwhelm. There may have been times when I was sure that music was the right career path for me for the wrong reason: because music was such an obvious love for me and the idea of not knowing what to do was too scary. (My eldest sister calls this approach ‘void avoidance’).
I now think that allowing for ambiguity is to be encouraged when deciding how to go about life. Because facing up to things in this way probably leads to greater clarity later on.
Of course, you do have to do stuff. It’s probably best not to hedge your bets for ever so that you’re in a procrastinating limbo of nothingness.
The violinist’s intonation practice is a useful lesson. Stay flexible. Explore possibilities and prepare yourself, but know what you’re doing. Eventually choose a thing and go for it. You don’t have to do it for ever; life is long. As a wonderful teacher reminded me, the best way to know what something is like is to try it. There is something genuinely attractive about choosing something to do, and proceeding to do it well. You can always turn the page afterwards.