My first violin teacher put three thin strips of masking tape on my fingerboard. He told me that they were a guide so that I would know where to put my fingers to make the notes. Back in those days we started with the key of G. He showed us how the second finger on the A and E strings didn’t go on the second piece of tape to make the right note – but it went in the space just beyond the index finger. I was six years old. When I was seven the tape was removed. I had the fingering for the key of G down pretty well, and we moved on to the other keys. Although Mr. Ferrante would show me, as well as tell me, where the notes for each particular key would fall I was pretty much on my own for pitch. I had to trust my ear to match it exactly. If I was off pitch, Mr. Ferrante would plunk the piano and look at me with a pained face, which was my cue to listen to myself and move my finger accordingly till the pitch was right. Sometimes he’d say, “You’re flat.” or “You’re sharp.” But he never did specify exactly how flat or sharp I was. He never did say, “I think you should slide your finger 3/32 of an inch up.” He trusted my ear. I learned that my ear was trustworthy.
I use the same method in teaching fiddle. At times, especially in the heat of the summer, a beginner student will begin to play a tune and find that certain pitches are off the mark. They say they can’t understand why that would be. They are putting their fingers right on tape, or in between, but some pitches are off. “Just last week I played and everything was fine!” I’ll take a look, see that 90 degree heat and sweaty fingers had caused the tape to slide, point that out to them and then say just like Mr. Ferrante, ‘The tape is just a guide. Trust your ear.” Sometimes I just take that piece of tape off altogether, kind of like removing the training wheels on a bike, and then say, “Now trust your ear.”
Only once in my many years of teaching have I had a student who really seemed not to be able to hear bad pitches. I also found that he sang “Happy Birthday” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” pretty much all on the same note. After just a few short months he gave up on the fiddle and thought maybe a fretted instrument might be better.
For the most part, though, we can discern pitches. We can tell when a note is right and when it is not. We can tell a harmony from a discord. As babies we learn how to speak by trusting our ears even before we know what that really is. We copy what we hear.
There are times when a more advanced student is playing a tune (the tape being long gone) and they will consistently hit a wrong note, then stop at the end of the piece and ask me, “Why doesn’t this sound right?” I always give them praise for knowing that a certain note was wrong, and then we go through the piece again, discuss the key, the notes of that key and where those particular notes are found in the key. We play a scale. Play the tune again. Problem solved.
Upon occasion a student will come in all in a dither from a busy day, start to play a tune and find that the pitches are all over the place and it just doesn’t sound as good as when they were home the night before playing. I tell them to close their eyes and play. “Trust your ear.” It seems that with the eyes closed we can focus better on just sound as well as pitch. Even if a violin fingerboard had built in “lines” for each individual pitch, our eyes just can’t see exactly where we should press our fingers for just the right pitch. For one thing the size of people’s fingertips vary greatly. No matter. There is still just one point where each fingertip will stop the string to make the note we want to make. I love when I hear a student make a lickity split adjustment to a bad pitch and get on the right one. If you can hear when a note is bad, you can trust your ear well enough to make it right.
This is the foundation of fiddle playing. First learn the notes and learn how to make the standard notes (notes found on a piano) then go on to the real art of folk fiddle – the subtleties in between the notes!
For learning to speak – we copy. For singing – we copy. For playing a fiddle tune in a certain regional style – we copy. We hear what another fiddler played and copy. If a note was played intentionally slightly flat, slid up to, or slid back from, we hear that and copy. And how do we do that? We trust our ear. First of all, we’ve trusted it when we heard the deviation from straight-on-note playing. Then we trust it again as we mimic what we heard.
In fiddle playing a main difference between soulful playing and a sound akin to electronic music is that the fiddle players rely on their ear for what they hear and for the notes produced.
Can you trust your ear? Yes! And so you should.
Helpful hint: To help with pitch control, try recording yourself and listen back for bad pitches. Beginners sometimes concentrate so much on the mechanics of playing, they forget to listen to themselves. Play the tune again, eyes closed if necessary, and hear how you do.