Welcome to the brand new version of RhiannonLaurie.com! I didn’t want our new blog to be lonely or empty, so I’m including some of the best posts from before. This one was originally published on Jan. 17th, 2011.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about playing in tune.
Once Upon a Time I was a Violinist…
And in all the years of study, even when I was a music major, I never played consistently in tune. Despite the fact that my ear for intonation is actually quite excellent.
It’s just that there is a lot of smack talk that goes around in orchestras, and the worst insult ever was that someone had played out of tune.
Obviously she shouldn’t be a first violin/a chair ahead of you/a soloist when that F#/D/arpeggio that she played the other week had been so sharp/flat.
Why Violins are so Difficult
See the violin doesn’t have holes of precise sizes you cover with your fingers. It doesn’t have keys to hit. It has invisible spots on smooth strings that, when you hold your finger on them just right, will vibrate with surprising sweetness. And a finger just a millimeter away won’t produce anything like the same resonance and richness.
You can feel it through your arm, your chin, and down into your chest. It hovers in the air. That’s being in tune or out of it.
Starting on the wrong foot
I started playing a lot later than a lot of violinists do, so there was a little while when I could hear the notes but couldn’t hit them correctly.
Everyone knew. I knew. And I tried to protect myself the only way I could – by blocking out my ability to hear the notes.
Whether or not a note (or entire string) was in tune had become about whether I was a good person or an impostor. And the prospect of being the latter was so scary that I didn’t let myself hear it.
For years, lessons revolved almost entirely around whether or not I’d played a note or run of notes in tune.
It was a great mystery how I could sing it perfectly, hear if someone else had played it wrong, evaluate my playing on tape…but I often didn’t have the slightest clue as to whether what I’d just played had been sharp or flat or completely right.
If you’re usually flat, edge sharp…
When I was working on a very difficult song for my senior recital, I started playing towards the flat side. I didn’t know this myself, of course, but my teacher would tell me.
So I would go through the incredibly fast and difficult runs, the jumps between positions, and the key changes thinking “play sharp, play sharp, play sharp.”
To the vague idea I was playing flat I countered with a vague goal to play sharper, and therefore (theoretically) in tune. Are you seeing how this might apply to your own life yet?
And I still remember the day it finally hit me.
I was spending all my time on this song. It was the one which would be recorded and sent off to colleges, not to mention playing it with the orchestra backing me up in front of an entire auditorium of people.
And slightly less flat or only a little over-corrected to the sharp side wasn’t going to cut it. Mostly in tune wasn’t going to cut it. I hope those notes were right wasn’t going to cut it.
You have to know it is in tune.
Which sounds terribly perfectionistic, I’m sure. But it’s not.
The thing here is about guessing. There are times in life for guessing; that’s for certain.
But there are also a lot of times in life when you know full well if you are playing in tune or not, but somehow that data has become mixed up in something too precious for you to allow yourself the knowledge.
If being in debt makes you a terrible person, you aren’t going to look deeply at your finances. If bursting out angrily at your child makes you a bad mother, you aren’t going to honestly evaluate your parenting style.
And in those cases we guess. Sometimes we make conflicting guesses in the absence of data. “I’ll never get out of debt,” followed minutes later by “I bet I could have it paid off in less than a year.”
All this without knowing anything about your finances, because it feels safer to blank that knowledge out.
Being In Tune Means Being Okay with Out of Tune
To be in tune, you have to allow yourself to be out of tune and to hear it.
Sometimes that means playing the sections you’re most shaky in as loud as you can, just so the notes are clearly there are not. Sometimes it means sticking to your guns – don’t you move that finger if the sound that comes out scares you a bit.
If it’s out of tune, just hear it as such. Then you can play the entire passage again with your finger closer to where it goes.
And to allow oneself to be out of tune is a tricky business. It means unraveling the stories about what will be wrong with you if you play a sour note. It means giving the deeper parts of you safety. It means finding ways to cement your own worth. It means compassion.
But maybe-sorta-kinda-aiming for in tune doesn’t work. You know when you’re in tune. You can feel it. And you know when you’re not. You can feel that too.
Leaving aside nitpicky matters of music theory, an A is an A and you’ll feel it resonating in your chest. 440 is not equal to 438. And living in 440 is so much easier than bouncing around wondering if you’re there.
And the senior recital…
None of which, by the way, I figured out in time for my senior recital.
In fact, I don’t play the violin at all any more because my desire to play is not great enough motivation to work through this huge “am I playing in tune?” issue.
I sing instead, which is what I always wanted to do anyway (and do I sing in tune? Mostly).
But like a lot of the wonderful things I learned by playing the violin, man does this one cross-apply.
Is my diet in tune? Am I in tune with my friends? Are my finances in tune? Is my writing in tune?
You can do a sweep of your life and just feel for the sour notes and the rich ones.
Sometimes it’s too new – you don’t have the skills to play in tune even if you could hear it. Give your baby dreams the time they need.
But for the older ones, and especially those that you’ve been avoiding, it’s a question to ask. In tune is just such a lovely place to live. Don’t deny yourself the right to dwell there.
And sometimes you’ve been in tune all along – that’s important to know too.
Comments! We Approve of Them!
Anywhere you’ve been out of tune? Would like to be in tune?
Any other (kind, gentle, thoughtful, stuff-owning) thing you’d like to share?