The unique Pitchfixer Method helps students play better in tune

More than a decade ago, I was having violin students use a wide variety of available exercise books for beginners, hoping to discover methods that would help them to play in tune.  But what I discovered instead is that none of the available books developed students’ awareness of how to move (and not to move) the fingers, thumb, wrist, hand, and left forearm to play with consistently good pitch.

So in 2003, I began developing a teaching method and composing études based on principles of motor memory, as described in Susan Kempter’s book
How Muscles Learn: Teaching the Violin with the Body in Mind.  The result was the first two volumes of Progressive Melodic Études (with 30-40 studies per volume) that I currently self-publish.  Beginning students who are nine years old or older start out with these studies, which systematically build their awareness of how they are using their bodies and help them to play in tune proactively. The studies are particularly effective for adults, who are accustomed to facing new challenges in rapid succession.

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Sachit Nagella and Joshua Schaefer playing the Bach Concerto for Two Violins.

The material that follows may be overly technical for readers who are not familiar with violin or viola technique. However, it explains briefly the principles that are at the core of The Pitchfixer Method. Moreover, it may give a glimpse of why it is that the method is more effective than others in teaching students to play in tune.

There are two keys to The Pitchfixer Method. The first key concerns how to move the fingers from one string to another on the instrument. Left to their own devices, students (like those who learn to play in school ensembles without the benefit of private instruction) will find a variety of ways to move the fingers across the fingerboard that involve stretching and retracting them and/or twisting and cupping the left wrist. There are two problems with these ad-hoc ways to move the fingers: they are hard to replicate, and they require different muscle combinations for each finger on each string.

According to the principles of motor memory, the finger muscles can operate more simply and consistently if the student uses
the left arm to move the fingers from one string to another. Using the arm to move the fingers allows the shape of the fingers to remain the same on all four strings. It also permits the forearm, wrist, hand, thumb, and fingers to maintain the same relationship to one another while they move as a unit from the left shoulder to transport the fingers straight across the strings. (This motion allows the fingers to trace virtual frets across the fingerboard.) The motion of the forearm-wrist-hand-thumb-finger unit is most visible at the elbow, and this technique is sometimes referred to as “elbow leading”. Moving the unit as a whole leaves the fingers with the much simpler task of just pinching down to play the notes on whichever string they happen to be above, and rising back up above the fingerboard when they’re not needed.

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At the June 2017 recital, preparing to play the Gluck-Kreisler Melodie, Max Graves, Cherie Lee, Vipul Dokku, Adam Gleichman, and Vivian Chow (Adam’s mother).

To help students learn to move their fingers straight across the strings, the Progressive Melodic Études show them just when they need to move their left arm units. The notation used also shows the direction in which the arm needs to move to get the fingers to the next string on which they’re needed.
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Vivian Chow and I play Massenet’s Meditation from Thais.

The second key to The Pitchfixer Method addresses another challenge that string players face. Each finger on the left hand needs to be able to touch the fingerboard at two or three different places to play naturals, sharps, and flats. Fingers have to move down about a finger’s width from their normal locations to play flats, and they have to move up about a finger’s width from their normal locations to play sharps. In their revised versions, Volumes I and II of Progressive Melodic Études show when fingers need to move lower on a string to the flatted position with down-arrows next to the finger numbers. They also show when fingers need to move higher to the sharped position with up-arrows next to the finger numbers. This guidance takes much of the guesswork out of locating the fingers on the fingerboard. In combination with the arm movement notation, the arrows also provide students with a conceptual framework for keeping track of their left arm and finger movements.

What distinguishes The Pitchfixer Method from others is this explicit attention that it draws to the ways in which students can move their left arms and fingers in a consistent manner. Students who use the method develop a much greater awareness than others of how to move around on the violin. This results in their developing motor memory skills that help them to play consistently in tune.

The third editions of Volumes I and II of Progressive Melodic Études, newly revised in 2015, organize their studies by keys. Volume I focuses first on major keys with sharps in them (that require the fingers to move up the fingerboard, toward the player). Next it introduces pieces in major keys with flats (that require the fingers to move down the fingerboard, away from the player). Volume II introduces minor keys (which may require finger movements in both directions) and three variants of the minor scale—natural, harmonic, and melodic. Thus, in the process of learning to move their fingers higher and lower on the fingerboard, students also learn about the ‘circle of fifths’ that underlies the progressions of sharps and flats in different keys. This mode of organizing the studies also serves as a reminder for students to check the key signature of each piece. The revised edition of Volume I also introduces students to various time signatures in a systematic way.

Often I use the studies in Volumes I and II of the Progressive Melodic Études with inherited intermediate-level students who have pitch issues.  The method has helped dozens of these violin and viola students--children, adolescents, and adults alike--to refine their skills both quickly and systematically.
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In the spring of 2013, to accommodate the needs of students who had successfully mastered the studies in the first two volumes, I added a third volume of Progressive Melodic Études. This one introduces students to the third and second positions.  The third volume builds upon the motor memory skills that students have learned in the first two. These studies also build up students’ skills systematically in shifting between positions. They begin with studies that use same-pitch shifting (for ease in recognizing whether the distance the left arm has moved is correct). Using the skills developed in same-pitch shifting as a foundation, the volume then introduces same-finger shifting. Finally, the volume uses same-finger shifting skills as a foundation for teaching different-finger shifting.  There are 30 études in this third volume.

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Nuel Maravilla and Joshua Schaefer play the Bach Double.

Early in 2014 I completed a first volume of Progressive Violin Duets, nearly all of which can be played in the first position. A year later I completed a subsequent volume of duets that require shifting between the first and third positions.