William Fitzpatrick - violin expert

Can it be beautiful if it's out of tune?

Discuss with Prof. Fitzpatrick what it means to be out of tune in performance

In this video, Prof. Fitzpatrick discusses how much impact playing out of tune really has on the performance.

Released on June 5, 2019

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

I mean, when you listen to someone like Francescatti, it's not as in tune as Michael Rabin or Hilary Hahn. But at least I think it's very beautiful nonetheless. What that does is it begs the question, can it be beautiful if it's out of tune?

All right, what is out of tune or in tune? Well, this refers to pitch accuracy or intonation. That is, whether a tone is played in tune or not. This is a lot to think about. Gives us a lot to consider. Ms. Delay once told me that every note needed to be played beautifully. Every note had to have a beautiful tone, beautiful pitch, be beautifully clean. Be beautiful. So if you've been following my videos, then this is number 69, I think you know me a bit better now. I mean, you know that I just couldn't leave it at that. Of course, I had to ask myself exactly what you meant by saying that I needed to play every note beautifully. Because there was always a hidden meaning lurking behind her words. So again, I ask, can a note be beautiful if it's out of tune? Can a note be beautiful if the sound of the tone is not beautiful?

I mean, how can we determine whether or not what's being played is beautiful? Well, first of all I remember exploring once what we meant by saying something was out of tune. And noticing that it literally meant that it was being played out of the tune. And it no longer sounded like the tune. And so, was out of tune. Well, with that in mind, why don't we explore the meaning of the beautiful? According to the Collins dictionary, the word beautiful is applied to that which gives us the highest degree of pleasure to the senses and suggests that the object of delight approximates one's conception of an idea. Simply put, having beauty is something very pleasing to the ear, to the eye, et cetera.

So, does this suggest that playing notes beautifully is just making notes very pretty, just making pretty sounds? I mean, why couldn't an ugly sound be beautiful if we played it beautifully? Seriously, why not? Well, I don't mean like this. But I suppose I got that quality, that character better produced in a better way, like this. I'm reminded of a story that a singer once told me. The story was that there was this diva who said to someone, "Do you know why I sing this note less beautifully? Well, what I do, it makes this other note over here, sound even more beautiful." Now, I found that to be an interesting concept. What do you think? So I believe that we're really talking about is the production of sound, the tone. Getting those notes to be beautifully produced. Perhaps one way you could think of it, would be like this: the concept of beautiful is like the top, the canopy of the umbrella and tone, pitch, cleanliness, are all sub sets, are all underneath the umbrella. That beautiful umbrella.

So, beauty, canopy is totally dependent on what's underneath, the tone, the pitch, the cleanliness et cetera. Okay, so I think that's a bit clearer but with what criteria do I use to judge whether or not it's beautiful? Well, with pitch I think it's possible to know rather easily as the more out of tune, the more distorted the song becomes. We could have a big discussion about how notes are mathematically generated, calculating the frequency of a note in a scale given in terms of ratios. But I don't want to go there, I don't go there right now. At least, not in this video. Maybe in another. All right, with cleanliness it would be having sounds that are pure, not scratchy or as Miss Delay would say, "Without parasites." Here, let me show you what parasites in the sound sounds like. And this is what it sounds like without. So you heard the difference? Well, Miss Delay had me practice scales with my point of contact being very close, extremely close to the bridge over here. This is very difficult to do. Very difficult to get a really good sound. But it forced me to come to terms with the concept of playing without, or at least minimizing parasites.

Okay, so why do I complicate this discussion even more as Miss Delay also said to me this one day. She said to me, "Billy, nobody plays in tune. Some people are just quicker at changing the note, fixing it before others can hear it." Now that threw me, totally threw me for a loop, as my goal had always been to get the note perfectly in tune when my finger hit the string. Well, what she was suggesting brought something entirely different to the table. I mean, just how do I use this to set the criteria that I use to determine if I have played in tune? Wouldn't it mean as well that the path to the note was even more important than putting my finger on the note? All right. You see, if one admits that playing perfectly in tune is a myth, the same as playing perfectly cleanly is a myth, then we will have set a standard by which we can judge, curiously enough.

Admitting this means that we are always pushing harder to get it cleaner, always pushing harder to get it more in tune. It's about the journey, not the destination. If you understand this, then you can understand what I mean. Well, my goal was and continues to be just what Miss Delay talked to me about, to make it beautiful. To make the notes, to make every note beautiful by taking care of everything that's underneath that umbrella. I really like a phrase that was attributed to Yehudi Menuhin, that I tell to my students. Apparently he once said that if you want to be a star, then look out into the night sky and find the one the furthest away and try to be that one.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Tosh * VSM MEMBER * on June 5, 2019 @3:49 pm PST
1. Just a comment about how vibrato can help one play in tune....i.e.,
in a vibrato the pitch of a note goes downward (slightly flatter) and then back up to the correct pitch level. Isaac Stern commented on this once, remarking that some players didn't understand this. Indeed, I knew players who thought it was a matter of averaging out the pitch...going flatter and then sharper, etc., which would only result in the perceived pitch being sharper than it should be. At any rate, in a melodic series of notes, one can hear a "correctly" performed vibrato keeping one on track with the correct pitch...whereas if one plays the same melody without vibrato, it can become hit or miss with every note...although that can be good as an exercise for training one's ear, it may result in a flawed performance if this is carried on to the performing platform...this can happen, for example, when attempting to play in a so-called "authentic" baroque manner wirth little or no vibrato.

2. I understand Maria Callas often sang out of tune, but was considered a great soprano by opera afficionados. I gather that
she did this for "dramatic effect". I've heard Zino Francescatti,
both live, and on recordings...his playing is indeed beautiful and quite beguiling...beautiful sound, beautiful phrasing, etc. I don't even hear the slight imperfections in pitch he may be guilty of at times. It must be that I was mesmerized by the total effect he achieved in his performances. Think, the same thing can be said about Fritz Kreisler's performances...although he was known for being able to play double stops impeccably and harmoniously in tune...with vibrato of course. For example, listen to a recording of his Caprice Viennois with the RCA Victor Symphony orchestra, conducted (I think) by a Charles O'Connell.
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