Thinking in tune

Many of you probably know that I am a musician. Perhaps fewer of you know that guitar is my second instrument (third, if you count voice). I am actually probably better identified as a classically-trained viola player. In my relatively short career, I played 5 years in the Mississauga Youth Orchestra (3 years as viola section leader), 2 years with the University of Waterloo Symphony, and another 2 years with the Kingston Symphony. I was also a member of various string quartets through the years – one of our most notable achievements was playing at a dinner hosted by the Metro Toronto Chamber of Commerce and attended by the then-deputy premier of Ontario.

I wasn’t a particularly good player until I came under the tutelage of Mark Childs, a viola virtuoso who had a reputation as a strict disciplinarian and a wizard at teaching technique. To work with Mark was to re-learn the viola – he literally brought me back to the very beginning: learning to hold the bow, learning how to place my fingers on the fingerboard, learning to listen to notes, learning to make the right sound. It was an unbelievably frustrating process, coming as I was from nearly 8 years playing experience to return to a beginner level.

One of the most obvious differences between an instrument like a viola and an instrument like, say, a guitar, is the absence of frets on the fingerboard. While there are fretted viols, those mostly fell out of favour in the classical era, meaning that it is theoretically possible to produce any and all possible pitches within the span of an octave. Of course, you only want to produce one of twelve at any given time, meaning that anything other than the right note is the wrong note. Unlike a fretted instrument where as long as you stop the string somewhere between the frets you’ll hit the correct pitch, classical viols require your fingers to know where the correct position is within fractions of a milimeter.

It is additionally worth pointing out that a great deal of the violin/viola/cello repertoire requires lightning-fast sequences of notes, each one of which is played (by skilled performers) in exact pitch. It is trivially easy for a trained ear to pick out one or two sour notes in an otherwise-flawless passage, which is only a very small part of what makes the great viol players so damn impressive.

So how did I learn to play in tune? It seems like a sort of “lay and pray” approach, where you throw your finger down on the string and hope to whatever deity you believe in that your finger finds the correct spot. That was, at least, how I had been approaching intonation for the 8 years prior to meeting Mark. Studying with him, however, put me on to a much better technique: “lay, listen, adjust”. Instead of hurling my fingers in sequence at the fingerboard, I learned to play each sequence one note at a time at excruciatingly (at first) slow speed, and to listen extremely carefully to each one. When I heard a note that wasn’t correct, which was (at first) most of the time, I would slide my finger up or down the fingerboard as needed to correct the pitch before moving on to the next one.

I will confess to you that there were times when I wanted to hurl the damn thing across the room and take up the kazoo instead. But countless hours of careful methodical work eventually gave way to an ability to play entire passages, entire pieces, with near-perfect intonation. As an added bonus, the time it took for me to recognize and correct my intonation mistakes began to shrink gradually to the point where I could make a correction almost instantaneously, thus never letting on that I had mis-laid my finger in the first place. Mark assured me that this would be part of the process forever – that every note I played would be in pursuit of a perfection that could only ever be approached asymptotically, but never achieved.

I find a common frustration among people who talk about racism or sexism from a majority or outsider’s perspective (and indeed, even oftentimes from within the group of interest) that the pursuit of purity is never quite achieved. Indeed, I often get the impression that people would oftentimes rather not speak for fear of saying or doing something that betrays either their privilege, their lack of experience in the conversation, or both. I would imagine that it wouldn’t take too many instances of being the object of scorn in a once-amiable discussion group for one to throw up hir hands and say “to hell with this, I’m going to go learn the kazoo”.

Perhaps some heart can be taken in knowing that nobody gets it right all of the time. What we are instead all doing is trying to learn to think “in tune”. To be sure, there are no ‘right thoughts’ and ‘wrong thoughts’ in the same way that there are correct and incorrect pitches. Still, by learning to identify and recognize those thoughts and attitudes that are discordant with the goal of an equitable and just society, we can pay special attention to them. We can learn to make adjustments to those beliefs and behaviours that are not in concert with the ideal of living in harmony with our fellow human beings. The challenge, if course, is not simply the mere adjudication of the performance of others – it is always easier to hear other people’s mistakes than it is our own. No, the hard part is learning to hear our own mistakes earlier and earlier in the process, such that we can correct them before we let them ring out too strongly.

It will take practice, it will take patience, and there will be more mistakes than we might be comfortable with, but the only way to learn to think in tune is to learn to listen very carefully, and to not lose heart at every slip and stumble.

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Edit: I have uploaded a recording of a quartet I played in back in 2006 when I was living in Waterloo, Ontario. Those of you having trouble picking out the viola part should listen at around the 4:55 mark, and again at the 6:15 mark where I have the closest thing to an impressive solo that there is in this particular piece (although I am sawing away like mad for the whole of the 2nd movement – string quartet equivalent of heavy metal).