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In the previous issue I discussed some of the basic things I wanted to gain from practicing. I also talked about how to use some of the modern tools such as tuners, rhythm machines and computer backup programs. All of these tools, if used correctly, are great. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that it's possible to have a tuner or metronome turned on while playing badly out of tune and/or out of time.
A little trick to make using a metronome easier is to either amplify the sound of the metronome by running it through an amplifier (if it's an electronic type with an earphone outlet). While I wouldn't want to use a good stereo system for this amplification for fear of damaging the speakers, there are lots of inexpensive powered speakers designed for use with computers that might be just the trick for amplifying a metronome. I see them all the time in thrift stores and yard sales for next to nothing. Another possibility is to mute your fiddle down with some sort of mute in order to be able to hear the metronome better, or you can do both.
Just be sure that you're really synchronizing with the beat of the metronome rather than just having it ticking in the same room. If your metronome is electronic it might offer a light that flashes on the beat. Fancier types even have a series of lights that sweep back and forth, mimicking the pendulum movement of the old-fashioned wind-up type metronomes. Whatever type you have, I recommend keeping an eye on the pendulum or light if possible. Of course, if you're reading music and wanting to keep an eye on the music, the lights of an electronic tuner and a metronome all at the same time you may have to grow another eye. Oh well, such is life!
In the first part of this article I mentioned that I keep an electronic chromatic tuner on all the time when I'm practicing to help myself stay in tune. My favorite types of electronic tuners for this purpose are those that offer three lights, a green light that signifies in tune and red lights for flat and sharp as well as a needle to indicate pitch.
I favor this type of tuner over types without lights, or with only two lights is that modern tuners are extremely sensitive and are designed to tune to the tempered scale (to which pianos are tuned, more or less). Let's say that we get our fiddle tuned in perfect fifths, so that the strings sound exactly right, with none of the pulsing of the difference or beat frequency found in tempered fifths.
The needle of the tuner, because it's set to tune to tempered fifths rather than perfect fifths, will indicate that the D and G strings are a little flat and the E string is a little sharp. For these three strings, the needle will not be completely vertical, but the green 'in tune' light will still be illuminated. We'd all run ourselves completely nuts trying to keep the needle of a sensitive tuner completely vertical all the time, even without the added complication of the tempered fifth/perfect fifth discrepancy. The green light gives us a good real world indication of when pitch is 'good enough.' I'll let a note go by if the green light is on, while making a mental note of whether the red 'flat' or red 'sharp' light is illuminated as well. The green light gives just enough leeway to allow us to stay sane while still playing well enough in tune.
I had a student who, while competent in other regards, was playing badly out-of-tune. I showed him how to practice with a tuner, and I had hoped that this would improve his pitch. Sadly, when I saw him again last summer he still had abysmal intonation, despite carrying two electronic tuners in his case.
The trick is to give the tuner enough time to recognize the pitch you're playing, and then look to see if the green 'in tune' light's on. If so, you can go on to the next note. If not, if the green light's off while one of the red lights is on, indicating that the note's seriously flat or sharp, don't go on. You wouldn't drive through a red light at an intersection, would you? It's the same thing. If the green light's not on, or, worse yet, if the tuner thinks you're trying to play one note when you're trying to play another, it's time to pick the finger up and place it down again and again to get the pitch better. Simply practicing while a tuner's on will do no good unless you really pay attention to what the tuner's telling you.
An excellent trick that will really help your intonation (or, as a befuddled fiddler once called it, 'in-notation') is this. Many fingered notes can be sounded along with an adjacent open string to see if the resultant double stop is in tune. Fortunately, there are many of these double stops that are thirds, fourths, sixths, unisons or octaves. Almost any fingered note on the D and A strings can be compared with an adjacent open string, producing a consonant double stop. The high third finger on these strings, unfortunately, is a 'Y.O.Y.O.' note, as in 'you're on your own.' If a fingered note and an open string produce a sour-sounding double stop, and our fiddle is in tune, it's the fault of the fingered note. It's a good idea to get in the habit of checking fingered notes with adjacent open strings often.
Above all, try not to get discouraged. Nobody, but nobody, gets it right all the time. If you keep practicing carefully, you WILL get better - as they say in Spanish, 'poco a poquito,' or little by little.
Copyright 2009 by Paul Anastasio All rights Reserved Used by permission of the copyright holder
About the Author
Initially classically trained, Paul Anastasio soon began exploring the world of fiddling. In the mid-1970s Paul studied and performed with Joe Venuti. Beginning in 1978, Paul toured with Merle Haggard, Asleep at the Wheel, Larry Gatlin, Loretta Lynn and many others.
Paul is the owner of the Swing Cat CD label, (www.swingcatenterprises.com), writes a regular column for Fiddler Magazine and also teaches privately. He has made thirty trips to southern Mexico, recording and studying a beautiful local fiddle style.
Visit his web site at: www.SwingCatEnterprises.com