As orchestra directors, we must prioritize the issues we will address in rehearsal. Placing the refinement of tone quality as a high priority in rehearsal will greatly improve the sound of an orchestra. This section will describe strategies that are commonly used to improve the tone quality of orchestras. Many of these strategies can be used at all levels, from elementary to the college level, as developmental or remedial strategies. Some will be more appropriate to use with younger students, some with older students. I begin by discussing tone quality, because it is not possible to tune a bad sound.

No. 1 –Balanced Posture

Posture is the essential foundation on which all technique is built and affects every aspect of string playing. Maintaining good balance while giving careful attention to the whole body is very important for the refinement of tone quality at all levels of music making and has been emphasized by leading pedagogues throughout the last century (Flesch, 1939; Havas, 1961; Menuhin, 1972; Rolland & Mutschler, 2000). Many students have postures that work against them as they try to develop good tone. While most teachers place an emphasis on posture with their beginners, it remains important to continue addressing posture as students go through the rapid growth spurts of early adolescence. Barnes writes,  “Middle-school students are sometimes growing at such a rapid pace that, all of a sudden, those good habits we thought were ingrained seem to disappear….They must be continually but gently reminded to sit up away from the back of the chair and have the soles of both feet flat on the ground” (Barnes, 2008, p. 39).

Here are some strategies for improving posture in rehearsal:

1)     Ask violinists and violists to stand during the rehearsal warm-up. Make sure they have a balanced stance with a little bend in the knees.

2)     Play a scale with long slow bow strokes, shifting weight between legs (hips when sitting) - down bow - right, up bow - left. This will instill a sense of balance and flexibility.

3)     Play standing & sitting games to keep students sitting at the edge of their chairs. Have students stand up and sit back down when you snap your fingers, say a funny word, or when they play a certain pitch. Try this game with a scale or in the context of a piece of music.

4)     Make sure violinists and violists support their instrument without assistance from the left hand. While holding the instrument in playing position, their shoulder support should allow them to reach across their bodies and touch their right shoulders.

5)     Check to make sure the scrolls of violinists and violists are pointing toward the wall, not the floor. If the scroll is pointing toward the floor the bow sits on a severe downward slope, which may negatively affect tone production (Fischer, 1997, p. 35).

6)     Make sure your double bass and cello students are not resting their left elbows on their instruments when they play.

7)     Cellists need a chair that places their hips higher than their knees and does not slope to the back of the chair. Many cellists slightly raise the back legs of the chair with wood blocks, or buy a special cushion that slopes to the front of the chair. If you are teaching children who are still growing rapidly, try to have chairs in varied sizes available for them.

8)     If your bassists are standing, ask them to let go of the bass to make sure the bass is balanced and will remain in its vertical position without falling backward or forward. The left thumb must not support the weight of the double bass (Karr, 1987, p. 17).

No. 2 – Flexibility in the bow hold

Flexibility in the shoulder, elbow, wrist and finger joints is essential for a flexible bow hold, correct bow stroke, and quality tone production (Applebaum & Lindsay, 1986, p. 82; Barrett, 2006, p. 35). Tension in any of the right arm joints will be reflected in the sound (Freiberg, 2003, p. 59), and if there is tension in the bow hold, the appropriate movement of the other arm joints will also be affected. To achieve a beautiful legato tone, the wrist and the joints of the fingers should be flexible and move a little during the bow change (Rolland & Mutschler, 2000, p. 152). Some ideas that are widely used to help develop finger flexibility include the following:

Jellyfish game

Ask students to relax their hand and hold it as if they are dipping their fingers in a dish of water. Bend the fingers and thumb in toward the center of the hand, then relax them back to original position. This game helps students feel the flexibility of their fingers. This game is sometimes called the jellyfish game – students pretend their fingers are like the tentacles of a jellyfish. They catch delicious zooplankton with their tentacles and scoop them up into their hand! Another name for this game is “Scrunch and Un-scrunch” (Arskey, 2001, p. 43). You can also give students a soft ball sponge (e.g., nerf) to hold in their hand and squeeze to get the feeling of finger flexibility.

Bow drop and lift games

Ask students to hold the bow vertically in front of the body with curved fingers and thumb. Drop the hand from the wrist joint and the fingers will extend. Lift the hand from the wrist joint and the fingers will curve (Rolland & Mutschler, 2000, p. 148).  This game is easier to do with a pencil, if students are struggling with the correct motion. Another game to try is to hold the bow an inch above the string with fingers and thumb very curved, and placing the bow on the string by straightening the fingers (Fischer, 1997, p. 7).

Remedial training

If you teach students who have been playing for several years and are still struggling with a flexible bow hold do not give up hope! As teachers, we must provide ongoing remedial training for those who are not holding the bow correctly. Review these ideas to help them develop a correct bow hold:

1) Draw a line across their fingers at the place where the fingers should contact the bow stick and place a mark on the thumb tip at the place it should contact the stick.

2) Have them form the bow hold with a pencil and practice the bowing flexibility games. The great thing about practicing with a pencil is students can do this almost anywhere (in other classes, on the bus, in front of the TV, etc.)

3) Show them how to hold the bow at the balance point. Keep them playing at the balance point exclusively for 2-3 weeks to help them develop the feel for the correct hold. When they transfer their hold to the frog, monitor them carefully to make sure their fingers remain curved, flexible, and relaxed.

4) Ask everyone in your orchestra to tap their pinkie and their first finger every time they put their bow on the string to play.

5) While bows are on the string, ask students to lift their bows off and rotate their hand 180 degrees (like a windshield wiper) so they can show you their bent thumbs. Make sure the thumb is bent correctly and the tip of the thumb makes contact with the stick.

No. 3 – Basic bow stroke motion

Fluidity and ease of motion are the most important things in achieving a good tone. Practicing the bow stroke away from the instrument using “shadow bowing” techniques is an effective way to help develop correct bowing motions (Rolland & Mutschler, 2000, p. 85). Give students tubes to hold in their left hands (empty toilet paper rolls or paper towel rolls cut in half work great). The tube should be held with the left hand in a location that will accurately simulate the correct bowing motion. Violinists and violists should hold the tube near the left shoulder, cellists hold the tube above their left knee, bassists in front of their left leg, their left arm fully extended, with just a slight bend in the elbow. Practice shadow bowing with recordings of familiar songs using various rhythms. Practice bowing from frog to tip and back. The tube should remain stationary while bowing.

A fun cooperative learning game to try in orchestra to give students the feeling of the correct basic bow stroke motion is to place students in pairs and let them assist each other in moving their hands along the bow (Fischer, 1997, p. 20). A student holds his/her instrument in playing position and gives the bow to a helper. The helper places the bow on the D string at the tip, parallel to the bridge, halfway between the bridge and fingerboard, while holding the bow at the screw. The student places his/her right hand on the stick 4-6 inches from the tip in the bow hold shape, and moves hand up and down the stick while the assistant holds the bow steady. Try this game on all 4 strings and at different contact points, always keeping the bow parallel to the bridge.

No. 4 – Sustained bow strokes

The importance of playing long tones has been recognized since the 18th century. Leopold Mozart wrote, “Draw the bow from one end to the other whilst sustaining throughout an even strength of tone. But hold the bow well back, for the longer and more even the stroke can be made, the more you will become master of your bow...” (Mozart, 1985, p. 99).

Spend some time at the beginning of each rehearsal focusing exclusively on bowing technique and tone production. Reinforce with students the three important factors for the production of beautiful sound: 1) bow speed, 2) bow pressure or weight, 3) sounding (contact) point (Galamian, 1985, p.55). In every rehearsal, practice long slow bows played forte with an even sound throughout the bow. Ask students to move their bows toward the bridge to feel the resistance of the string. Encourage students to make as much sound as possible. Practice with a metronome at 60 beats per minute. Begin by trying to play 4 beats per bow, then 6, then 8. Ida Kavafian suggests that ''warming up on long tones is a really good idea. We concentrate so much on the left hand, we forget to warm up the right. Work on smooth bow changes, loosening your fingers so that they can be responsive'' (Freiberg, 2006, p. 59).

When your orchestra has repertoire passages with several notes under one slur, make sure they are moving the bow slowly enough to maintain their tone quality throughout the bow stroke. Remind students to “Save their bow” so they may finish the end of the slur with quality. Galamian writes, “A well-controlled and logical division of the bow is of the greatest importance. When it is absent, unwanted dynamics or undesirable tone quality or both will be the result. One of the most frequent faults found in this connection is that many players waste too much bow at the beginning of the stroke and therefore run out of bow toward the end” (Galamian, 1985, p. 56).

In addition to maintaining a steady volume level while drawing a long bow, another important bowing technique to address is changing volume level during a long bow stroke (Kjelland, 2003, p. 12). Students can increase volume while maintaining a consistent contact point by increasing the weight and speed of the bow. They can decrease volume by doing the opposite. For more refined tone production in slow legato playing, teach students to increase volume by maintaining consistent speed while gradually moving the bow toward the bridge and increasing weight.

No. 5 – Bowing Lanes

Explain to your students the concept of bowing lanes (Applebaum & Lindsay, 1986, p. 81). Imagine that there are five bowing lanes between the fingerboard and the bridge. Have students place their bow halfway between the fingerboard and bridge, in lane 3, and ask them to add so much weight that when they play a slow downbow the sound “crunches.”  If they gradually release the weight while moving the bow, the place just after the crunch stops will be a strong tone. Then ask the students to move their bow closer to the bridge (lane 4) and repeat the exercise. They will be able to add much more weight before the sound “crunches” and they will be able to move the bow slower and draw a big sound from their instrument. Have a “longest note” contest to see who can draw the slowest bow with a big quality sound.

When students are consistently playing near or over the fingerboard, they quickly learn that they cannot add much weight to the sound. The result is a thin, whispery tone.

Many experts in string education have written about the importance of learning to play close to the bridge to fully develop the tone of the instrument.  Morrow writes, “The increased tension nearer to the bridge is the area where string vibration begins to excite the upper partials of the harmonic series…Regularly utilizing this area of the string opens the instrument to the bright end of the tone color palette. This resulting tone quality is one that can carry to the back of the hall and offers an immediate and, therefore, articulated response” (Morrow, 2005, p. 70).

No. 6 — Articulation

Orchestral musicians need to be able to produce a well-defined articulation at the beginning of the bow stroke. Without articulation, pieces that requires staccato or accented notes will sound mushy and weak, and the fundamental frequency of the pitch may be obscured by transient upper harmonics, particularly in the cellos and basses.  Galamian writes, “Tone production on the stringed instruments does not consist of continuous sound only, but it has to have a certain mixture of percussive or accentuated elements, which give it character and contour” (Galamian, 1985, p. 10). Here are a few ideas to get students to play with a crisper attack:

Ask students to do “bow push-ups.”  Place bow between the balance point and middle of the bow and add weight to the stick until the stick touches the hair. Do ten or more of these push ups, then ask students to try playing a very short note by releasing the weight and making a very small up- or downbow motion using just their fingers. This is called collé and is the fundamental stroke for all articulated bow strokes including martelé and spiccato. It can be thought of as “playing pizzicato with the bow” (Galamian, 1985, p. 74). Have a contest with your students to see who can play the “world’s shortest note.” Try this game in different parts of the bow. Once students can play a crisp collé stroke, try adding length to the bow stroke to develop the martelé bow stroke.

No. 7  — Uniformity within the orchestra

Making sure everyone is playing in the same part of the bow, with the same articulation, contact point, and amount of bow will greatly improve the tone quality of the orchestra by giving the sound uniformity. One game to play is to ask the student who is seated in the concertmaster chair to place his/her bow on the string, then ask everyone to match the bow placement location. As the student leader changes his/her contact point, all must lift and adjust their bow placement. Use this game to get students to look to the front of their sections to determine the bow stroke, contact point, and type of vibrato they should be using (Colnot, 2007, p. 108). To help ensure students can achieve uniformity, make sure the parts are well-edited with good bowings and that bow lifts and retakes are clearly marked.

The sound quality of your orchestra will greatly improve by addressing tone quality in every rehearsal. It is important to work on developing tone quality in the warm up/skills development portion of your rehearsal, away from sheet music, so that students may focus all their attention on developing their sound.  Ongoing work on the development of beautiful tone will help focus your students’ critical listening skills and help to facilitate high quality performances for your orchestra.  


Fixing poor intonation can be challenging to address because it requires tremendous patience and ongoing attention from both director and students. As Cohen (2009) writes, “intonation is a problem for string players, from beginner to advanced. And it's a skill that most work on constantly.” (p. 23).

All orchestra directors would likely agree with Curry’s observation that, “slow and disciplined intonation practice is essential to becoming a great string player.” (Curry, 2011, p. 94). Yet in an orchestra rehearsal, fixing intonation can bring the pace to a grinding halt. Teacher and students can be frustrated if rehearsals are consumed by slow work on intonation. Sometimes in rehearsal we apply an intonation “bandage” to a problem that actually requires a much lengthier treatment to cure. Fortunately, there are ways that intonation can be easily addressed in every rehearsal and gradually refined over time. This article will describe strategies that are commonly used to improve intonation in orchestras. Many of these strategies can be used at all levels, from elementary to the college level, as developmental or remedial strategies. Some will be more appropriate to use with younger students, some with older students.

No. 1 – Promote aural-based musicianship

Developing students’ aural-based musicianship in elementary and middle school orchestra lays the foundation for good ensemble intonation. Research has established that developing children’s ear-to-hand coordination for aural forms of musical performance such as playing from memory and by ear promotes high levels of musical achievement (McPherson, 2005). A common way to develop intonation with a beginning orchestra is to learn songs, finger patterns, and scales by ear. Teaching in this manner frees students from the demands of playing in tune and reading music all at once (Barber, 1990). We live in an eye-bound society—think of the common idiom “seeing is believing!” In music, however, hearing is the primary sense, and sound must precede symbol in music instruction. If we do not focus on developing a strong sense of intonation in the earliest years of instruction, then we are likely to encounter students who  “play out of tune and do it over and over again without thinking about what was incorrect” (Curry, 2011, p. 94).

  Teaching students songs that can be sung as well as played reinforces aural development. As students become more experienced, effective strategies that teachers use to develop their students’ sense of intonation include:

•     Introducing new keys and left hand patterns using songs learned by ear (e.g., play Twinkle in F, Bb, Eb, etc.)

•     Introducing shifting and vibrato by ear

•     Introducing new bowing concepts by ear (e.g., bow strokes, tonal concepts, dynamics, phrasing)

•     Playing alternative styles that do not use printed parts, like Fiddling, Jazz, and Rock

•     Playing songs with harmonic backgrounds using method book CD recordings, or software (e.g., Band-in-a-Box, Smart Music).

Promoting aural-based musicianship allows students to easily connect new musical concepts to what they already know, and thereby experience cognitive growth through the processes Piaget termed assimilation and accommodation (Shaffer & Kipp, 2010, p. 251).

No. 2– Left hand position and finger patterns must be well established

     “To play a stringed instrument in tune, fingers must be placed exactly on the fingerboard to accurately obtain the desired pitch” (Jacobson, 1998, p. 54). A factor that often contributes to poor intonation is a less-than-effective playing position and a poor understanding of finger patterns (Barnes, 2008). The basic position for the fingers should be naturally curved, over the fingerboard, and the fleshy point of the fingertip should make contact with the string. The wrist should be straight but flexible. For violin and viola there are differing opinions about the placement of the thumb in relation to the neck and fingerboard. Galamian (1985) suggested that placement of the fingers should be the determining factor for the placement of the thumb and elbow. “They have to be placed in such a way to allow them the most favorable conditions for their various actions. Once this is done, everything else – thumb, hand, arm, will subsequently find its corresponding natural position” (p. 14).

On double bass and cello, the thumb should be placed on the back of the neck opposed from the 2nd finger. The position is very similar to holding a cup, an orange, or a tennis ball. If students place their palm on the back of the neck and wrap their thumb around the side, it restricts the fingers and poor intonation will result. Collapsed wrists will affect intonation, dexterity, and may cause tendonitis or carpal tunnel syndrome. The fingers should be perpendicular to the neck of the cello or bass. If the thumb is pulled out of position, or the wrist is collapsed, the fingers sometimes slope and point toward the bridge. This will affect intonation and dexterity. On the bass, the first finger must extend backwards slightly to provide correct finger spacing.

     Many teachers use finger placement markers to help establish left hand frame and finger patterns. Research has found that the use of finger placement markers in beginning string instruction assists in the development of intonation skills (Bergonzi, 1997). However, teachers should remove these markers when students have developed a basic understanding of finger patterns. As Barber (1990) writes, “The more narrow the tapes (and the fewer), the better. Although these can be a good idea for beginners, the tapes should be allowed to self-destruct (wear off) as soon as possible so they do not interfere with the development of the students' aural sense” (p. 84).

     It is important for teachers to have a system to teach all of the finger patterns required to play with accurate intonation in the different keys. Villasurda describes the typical problems when he writes, “when the first chromatic alterations begin to appear and when tonic becomes something besides an open D string….Some students seem to be oblivious to this notion and continue to play everything in D major even though C-naturals or B-flats are required” (Villasurda, n.d.). There are many excellent method book and internet resources available with varied approaches to teaching finger patterns. One effective approach is to use 4-note patterns (tetrachords) to introduce all the possible finger alterations. Scales can be constructed by combining the different tetrachords. Several excellent articles have been published in AST describing teaching and practice techniques using tetrachords and other finger pattern techniques (Abler, 2002; Kelch, 2000; Klim, 2008; Maurice, 2006). Introducing the concept of chromatic alteration by ear during the first year of instruction and having students play with varied finger patterns as a regular part of their warm up routine will improve finger placement and ensemble intonation.

No. 3 – Use reference pitches

     It is important to teach students how to improve intonation by using open strings and harmonics as reference pitches. Watkins (2004) suggests that students should be taught to “test as many pitches as possible with open strings and harmonics” (p. 91). A good starting point is to check octaves and unisons with the open strings, then learn to check perfect 4ths and 5ths, followed by 3rds and 6ths (Curry, 2011; Watkins, 2004).  

No. 4 – Make tuning a “student-centered” process

An ensemble benefits when students take responsibility for tuning their instruments and playing with good intonation. A tuning routine that is “student-centered” has the following characteristics:

•     Teacher assists students

•     Students maintain control of their instruments

•     Students are encouraged to listen and make aural assessments

•     Students assume responsibility

•     Tuning is done quietly

•     Room atmosphere is solemn and reverent, characterized by deep sincerity and seriousness of purpose

Graulty (2010) writes, “Why not put the tuner away (after getting at least one player in the ensemble tuned to a standard pitch), and ask other players to comment on whether individual pitches sounded are higher or lower than the reference pitch? When other students in the ensemble know they might be called upon randomly to correct the pitch of another player, directors might be surprised at how much more quiet and attentive the rest of the ensemble becomes during the traditionally mundane and passive tuning process” (p. 55).

If students are encouraged to make aural assessments during rehearsal they will develop a deeper sense of intonation and “take responsibility for their own learning in a way that engages their attention, involves their active participation, and fosters their ability to listen and adjust” (Johnson, 2011, p. 51). Allowing students in a large ensemble to be actively engaged throughout the rehearsal helps train their ears to discriminate (Crochet & Green, 2012, p. 51).

No. 5 – Using scales to improve intonation

Many expert teachers and performers have written about the importance of hearing a pitch in the mind before playing it on the instrument, or what Gordon refers to as “audiation” (Gordon, 2007). For example, Gerle (1983) writes, “Good intonation depends on being able to hear the pitch of a coming note in advance and on a vivid preconception of the actual physical sensation of playing that note-its location, distance, direction and ‘feel’ -in relation to those you are already playing” (p. 37). Whitcomb (2007) writes, “You must always be able to imagine the pitch before you play it, in order for your ear to be able to evaluate the pitch and guide your efforts (p. 44).  

A way to train students to imagine pitches before they are played is within the context of a scale (Karr, 1995). Many orchestras warm up with scales and arpeggios. Play a whole note on each note of the scale at a slow tempo, placing a bar of rest in between each note of the scale. Ask students to imagine the next note in their mind before they play, and to quickly adjust their fingers to bring it in tune when they play.

Another option with scales is to use a call and response. For each pitch of the scale, ask students to listen to an in-tune pitch played by you, a student, or an electronic sound source. On your signal, everyone in the ensemble plays and adjusts to the reference pitch.  This can be a useful approach for teaching students how to listen and adjust to others they are playing with.

Another effective approach is to play scales by returning to the tonic pitch after each pitch in the scale to develop interval awareness. When playing an ascending scale, descend to the tonic after each note. When playing a descending scale, ascend to the tonic.

Playing scales against a sustained tonic drone pitch can also be very useful for developing intonation awareness. Watkins (2004) writes, “Practicing with a drone becomes an excellent way for students to work because they are more attuned to the variety of consonant relationships and much less likely to reject dissonant relationships as sounding bad” (p. 88). Use an electronic sound source or CD recording to produce a tonic drone, or have some members of the orchestra remain on the tonic while others play the scale.

No. 6 – Pitch adjustment games

An important part of string playing is learning to adjust the fingers. As Flesch (1939) wrote,” there is absolutely nothing disgraceful about placing the fingers inexactly on the strings, if only the note is so rapidly corrected that the listener is unconscious of the original, incorrect

pitch” (p. 21).  Asking students to go from in-tune to out-of-tune and back can improve intonation. Play a game where you ask students to sustain a long tone on a stopped pitch (e.g., E or F# on the D string). If you point up, they slowly raise the pitch. If you point down, they slowly lower the pitch. When you put your hands together they center on the correct pitch. You can have different sections adjust independently, or assign sections different pitches of a chord. These games can help students learn to make fine adjustments with their fingers and hear the difference between in-tune and out-of-tune. It is very helpful for students to hear accurate intervals compared with out-of-tune intervals (Barnes, 2008).

No. 7 - Listening for resonance

When string instruments are played in tune sympathetic vibration or “resonance” is present in the tone. An easy way to demonstrate this is by playing the low G on the E string of the double bass. When that G is played in tune, students can observe the open G string of the bass vibrating without being played. Students can be taught how to listen for a resonant tone by playing a short down bow on an open D or G and lifting the bow off the string to listen for the ringing tone. Barnes (2008) notes that once this is accomplished, “the teacher can model an in-tune and out-of-tune fingered note of her choice, bowed the same way and demonstrate that in-tune notes will have resonance also” (p. 40).

No. 8 – Listen to recordings

Listening to high-quality recordings can be a way to familiarize students with excellent intonation. We live in an information age, and exemplar recordings by professional orchestras are available of much of the repertoire we learn in orchestra. Most publishers distribute high-quality recordings of the pieces in their catalogues.  YouTube can be a tremendous resource for accessing recordings from school concerts, clinics or festivals, and there are MIDI recordings available on the web that can be downloaded and opened with programs like Garage Band, or notation software such as Sibelius or Finale. MIDI recordings are often musically unexpressive, but at least they are in tune!

Intonation can also be improved by requiring students to listen to recordings of themselves playing and drawing their attention to the intonation problems. As Whitcomb (2007) notes, “Most of the time we listen much better and more objectively when we're not playing” (p. 44). Directors should regularly record rehearsals and listen for intonation problems. Our ears become desensitized after several hours of rehearsal per day. Take a recording home and listen to it over the weekend and take notes about what you hear. Yes, it may be depressing to hear at times, but it will help you realize what needs to be addressed in rehearsal.

No. 9 – Analyze your scores carefully for effective rehearsals.

In order to fix intonation problems in an orchestra, the conductor needs to do a complete analysis of the harmonies and doublings in a score. A careful analysis will permit a conductor to quickly isolate and fix out of tune harmonies. Begin tuning a chord by tuning the sections with the root of the chord. Recent research found high school band instrumentalists had greater difficulty tuning to a lower reference pitch (Bb2), than a higher (Bb 4) reference pitch (Byo, Schlegel & Clark, 2010). The implications are that if you are tuning a chord and more than one section is playing the root, it may be easier for the lower instruments to tune to the higher instruments than vice-versa. Start with one player, then add each student in the section, asking them to hide in the sound of previous person. If other sections are doubling the root, tune the octaves.   Add sections playing the fifth of the chord. Then add the sections with the third. If you want to get the chords rich and full tune using just intonation. When compared to equal temperament, just intonation requires that major 3rds be lowered by 14 cents and minor 3rds be raised by 16 cents. As Harbaugh (2009) notes, “when you add 3rds and 7ths, make sure the 3rds and 7ths in a major chord are not too high. Make sure the 3rd in a minor chord is not too low” (p. 62). While it is common for string players to raise the 7th scale degree (leading tone) in a melodic line, it is important to remember that in chordal harmony, a pitch functioning as the third of a V chord (the leading tone) needs to be lowered, not raised, to make the chord sound in tune.

No. 10 – Listening within the ensemble

Lewis (1998) writes, “As important as listening to pitches is to attaining good intonation, that skill is secondary to listening to what those around you are playing and saying”(p. 42). If parts that are doubled are tuned, particularly in a full orchestra, it can greatly enhance the intonation of the ensemble.  Rehearse sections together that are doubled. Ask the students “who has the same part as you?” Their ears will open when they listen for who has the same part as their section. Increasing the balance of the lower octave when a part is doubled can also improve the intonation.  

Knowing what to listen for in an ensemble can be challenging. Provide students with information on where to listen in the ensemble and who to tune to. I instruct my string sections to listen to the front of the sections, and instruct the winds to listen to the principal players in their section.

No. 11 – Shifting technique

Every shift is an opportunity for an intonation problem. Fingerings should be marked in the score and parts for passages with shifts. Flaws in shifting technique can be disastrous for ensemble intonation. Isolate the difficult shifts in a piece of repertoire and work on them in a warm up exercise. Make sure students keep finger(s) in contact with the string while shifting up and down. When shifting the thumb shifts with the fingers. Students must maintain their finger shape and shape of hand through the shift (Violin and viola handshape will change if shifting past the neckblock, since the thumb will remain in the saddle. For cello and bass shifting past the neckblock, the thumb will come around the neck and become another finger in thumb position)

Some shifting games that can be played by ear:

•     Harmonic game—Play D on the A string in first position with 3rd finger, 4th for cello. Basses play D on the G string in 3rd position. Shift hand to middle position and play D harmonic on D string, one octave above open with 3rd (or 4th finger). Practice a smooth flowing shifting motion back and forth between the stopped pitch in first position and the harmonic. After students can accurately match the stopped pitch to the harmonic 10 times in a row then alternate fingers.

•     Going up—1st position – E – F# - E (with regular fingering) then play 1 – 1 - 1, then try E – G - E then 1 – 1 – 1 (bass – 1 – 4 -1, then 1 -1 -1) , E – A – E, then 1 – 1 -1 (bass/cello – 1 – 4 -1, then 1 -1 -1)

•     1 finger scales

•     1 finger scales returning to the tonic after each pitch

•     Simple songs on one string

When addressing intonation, remember to treat the cause, not the symptoms. Telling an orchestra “It’s out of tune” is obvious to everyone. Assume they know it is out of tune, but they are not sure how to fix it. Is it a fingering? A difficult shift? A difficult note to reach? Are the open strings out of tune? Is it a problem with left hand position?

Watkins (2004) writes, “Teachers can pursue intonation work with students in such a way that their intonation skills continue to improve on par with their advancing technique and musicianship. Teachers need to be sure that students really know and understand how to listen and choose their intonation” (p. 86). Put the focus on listening for intonation in every rehearsal and it will improve.  Get the students to take responsibility for their intonation. As Alexander (2008) notes, “To be in tune is to reflect an inner peace and a peace with those around us” (p. 21). An orchestra that performs with exquisite intonation will generate positive feelings from students, parents, teachers, administrators and community members.  


Rhythmic precision is vital to a high quality performance. Most orchestral music has internal tempo fluctuation to help the music breathe and be expressive. Yet within this flexible framework the musicians must be aware of macro and micro issues of pulse. There are orchestras I have heard where the macro tempo is more or less stable and yet within each measure there is tremendous instability. Below are strategies I have used to improve the rhythmic precision of orchestras I work with. Most of these ideas will work with orchestras at any level, although some work better with young kids at the beginning level.

No. 1 – Rhythmic Movement Sequences

Teachers of beginners should do rhythmic movement activities to recorded music to develop gross motor skills. Movement can be used to help convey musical concepts like phrasing and shaping, dynamics, articulations, feeling the pulse, subdivision of a pulse. Movement activities give you the chance to expose them to great repertoire – most don’t listen to enough orchestral music outside of rehearsal. I recommend two books to provide ideas on the types of movements that can be done in the context of an orchestra class, where space to move is restricted: Froseth,James O. & Phyllis Weikart. Music for Movement in Confined Spaces Chicago: GIA Publications, 1981, and Froseth, James O., Albert Blaser and Phyllis Weikart. Music for Movement Chicago GIA Publications.

No. 2 – Use a metronome

Some orchestra teachers shy away from using a metronome because they are afraid it will make their orchestra play too rigidly. I believe that music can be played with rhythmically “tight” ensemble without sounding “mechanical.” Your students should definitely be able to perform their scales and individual playing tests with a metronome. And there are times when it can be very instructive to use a metronome in rehearsal. With young students, it is important to explain to parents how to set a metronome and the importance of metronome practice.

No. 3 – Clap and count

It is important for students to be able to clap the pulse and count the rhythms they are performing. There is widespread use of counting systems in string education that are lacking in detail. Strawberries, elephants, doo doos and ta tas may be cute for beginners, but do not convey all the necessary information a person needs to develop rhythmic independence. My preference is to count the actual beat number and then subdivide - 1-ee-an-da, 2-ee-an-da, 3-ee-an-da, 4-ee-an-da, or 1-an-da, 2-an-da, etc. or for sextuplets - 1-an-da-and-an-da. There are a lot of systems out there. Students need a system to be able to decipher rhythmic complexities within the bar. Consider whether your system allows them to do that.

No. 4 – Rhythmic analysis of your scores

As a conductor, it is important for you to understand how the rhythms in a piece will work with the bow. Rhythms that require changing of bow speed, weight, or a combination can cause rhythmic challenges. Dotted rhythms, or uneven rhythms (quarter note down, eighth note up) can create issues of bow distribution which can become rhythmic precision issues. Even in well-edited pieces, you may need to add additional bowings, or lift and retake markings.

No. 5 – Establish performance tempos

Mark the metronome markings in the parts and your score so you and the players know what your performance goals are.

No. 6 – Construct warm-ups to address specific rhythmic challenges

•     Rhythms on a single pitch

•     Rhythms on every note of the scale

•     Interlocking rhythms between sections

•     Tempo changes

•     Fermatas with tempo transitions

•     New bowings, special bowing considerations

No. 7 – SLOW!!!

Learn fast passages at very slow controlled tempos and gradually increase the tempo.

No. 8 – Different tempos

If a group is having difficulty maintaining a tempo or playing together, start the piece at different tempos. Make it fun!

No. 9 – Measure of silence

The measure of silence at the beginning forces everyone to internalize the pulse before they play. Snap your fingers in tempo, say “one.” The orchestra counts in their heads and starts playing on a specified number (five). You can expand this game to any number of internal beats before the orchestra starts to play.

No. 10 – Downbeats

Play the music, but only play the downbeats. Play staccato. Ask them to look up, breathe, move, and place the note precisely with your downbeats. This is a particularly good exercise for orchestras that tend to rush into every downbeat.

No. 11 – Fill in the rests

If an orchestra is cutting rests short, fill in a rest with the note before to help the orchestra feel how long a rest is. Have one section fill in the rests, while another plays their written part. If an orchestra is rushing when playing staccato or spiccato, ask them to play the passage legato, filling in the empty space.

No. 12 – Emphasis

On groups of repeated notes (often 1/16s or 1/8s), it improves ensemble if the first note of each group gets some emphasis. The overall pulse of an orchestra is improved if the musicians place emphasis on downbeats. It is important for musicians to understand that pulse, lilt, movement , phrasing, and excitement is created in music by placing more emphasis on the main beats and less emphasis on the connecting beats.

No. 13 – Percussion assistance

If you have a full orchestra with a percussion section, put them to work providing a “groove” for the orchestra.

No. 14 – Focus on the Musical Glue

Draw their attention to the musical glue in a passage  - It may be downbeat pizz in the basses, it may be moving 1/8 or 1/16 notes in the inner parts. Sometimes it is the melody.

•     Explain how important it is to listen for these parts

•     Rehearse sections together that have identical parts

•     Rehearse section that is struggling rhythmically with one of the glue parts.

•     Gradually add one part at a time back in, drawing attention to how the rhythms interlock.

No. 15 – Offbeats

In addition to the strategies already discussed, offbeats are greatly improved by listening to the people playing on the beat.

No. 16 – Listen to other sections

The nature of orchestral playing often creates an aural focus on our own part. Ask your students, “Instead of listening to yourself, or your own section, listen to what another section is playing.” Give them a specific section to focus on with their listening.

No. 17 – Forte and piano

Building off of no. 16, have the section that is playing an important rhythmic part play forte, while all other sections play piano

No. 18 – Play a passage pizzicato

Playing pizzicato is particularly helpful in slow pieces with lots of slurred notes when students cannot feel the rhythm in their bows. It can also be useful with fast, rhythmically complicated passages - Slow down if necessary.

Another way to keep people involved is to have one section in the orchestra be a “human metronome” by plucking a repeated drone rhythm while another section plays a challenging rhythmic passage. If appropriate, assign a second section to a subdivision role.

No. 19 – Articulation

Perceived rhythmic raggedness can result from a lack of unified articulation, particularly articulations that are too soft.

•     Work on developing the martelé crisp attack

•     Pass the notes game – A person plays two quarter notes – down, up and next person continues in tempo. Go through the whole section. You may be amazed by the variety of articulations you hear. It is important for an orchestra section to reach consensus on articulation and length.

No. 20 – Dotted rhythms

Here are some ideas to rehearse dotted rhythms:

•     Have one section play all the 16ths forte while the section with dotted 1/8 - 1/16 passage plays.

•     Isolate the rhythm - Have them alternate triplets with sixteenths.

•     Teach them how to use very little bow on the 16th.

•     Explain that the 16th belongs with the note that comes after. It is a curiosity of musical notation that sixteenths are usually beamed to the note before, when they musically belong to what comes next.

No. 21 – Turn the stands around

Require your orchestra to memorize a challenging passage in the music, and turn the music stands around. This will immediately focus their attention on listening and watching you.

No. 22 – Alternate seating

While this is not something I use too often since it takes time to  set up, seating them in a way that brings increased awareness to listening can be very helpful:

•     Turn chairs around

•     Line the perimeter of the room

•     Seat the sections in different locations

Concluding thoughts

•     Make sure your conducting is clear

•     Videotape yourself and watch for the ictus in your beats

•     Make sure they understand what to watch for

•     Play a scale pizzicato – you conduct a beat pattern, they play on downbeats only

•     Try the “coin toss” trick, where they play at precisely the moment the coin lands in your hand.

•     Make frequent eye contact with your ensemble, and expect them to make eye contact with you.

•     Give them 2 preps – dead, live – in a fast tempo

•     Check your tempos in rehearsal

•     Check your tempos before a performance

•     Don’t battle your ensemble over tempo. You must trust each other.

•     The keys to success are score analysis, and planning your rehearsal so you address tone, intonation, and rhythmic precision in every rehearsal.


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