Imperfect Pitch

A cello has no frets. The only way to play it in tune is to have, or develop, a sensitive ear for pitch.

How do we learn to distinguish one pitch from another? I’m not a neurologist, so I can’t answer that question in a technical sense. But as a practical matter, I’m pretty sure we develop a sense of pitch primarily by listening to and playing music.

Singing or playing a fretless instrument is probably a good thing to do, if you want to develop a strong sense of pitch. You could learn to play piano quite nicely, on the other hand, by wiggling your fingers. You might only develop a crude sense of pitch, because the piano takes care of the details for you.

If you’re going to play the cello, being able to distinguish 12 pitches per octave won’t do you a darn bit of good. You need to be able to distinguish, at a minimum, a couple of hundred pitches per octave. Not by name, certainly, but you need to be able to hear almost instantly that a given note is slightly higher than expected for a G# — and you need to be able to quantify “slightly” at the muscular level in order to correct the pitch. In order to do that, you need to be working with a detailed mental map of pitch space.

The reason this topic concerns me at the moment is because I teach cello. During the week, I teach in my living room. Except for an occasional passing siren, it’s fairly quiet. On Saturdays, though, I teach in a small room at a music store in Pleasanton. This little room is surrounded by other little rooms where other teachers are teaching. The rooms are not soundproofed.

On one side of me is a flute teacher. On the other side is a piano teacher. The piano is owned by the store, and hasn’t been tuned in a long time. Across the hall is a clarinet teacher.

In this environment, I’m trying to help my students develop a fine ability to distinguish pitch. It’s discouraging. I’m not even sure it’s possible. All they have to compare their own pitch to is the sound of my cello; there’s no keyboard in the room; there’s not enough space for a keyboard. And I’m trying to maintain a stable sense of pitch (so students can compare their notes to mine) in an environment where I’m listening to an old, out-of-tune piano, a flute student whose flute is about a quarter-tone sharp (or flat; I’m not sure whether she was playing G#-B or A-C, but she was playing it over and over, slowly and loudly), and my own student, whose finger is quite likely to have landed almost anywhere in pitch space.

I don’t think I could have learned a fine sense of pitch discrimination in a room like this. How can I expect anybody else to?

I’d be happy to teach these students out of my home, but the thing is, Pleasanton students quite often don’t want to drive to Livermore for lessons (that is, the student’s parents don’t want to make the drive). I have a couple of students right now who would like to switch from Livermore to Pleasanton, but there are no openings in my schedule in Pleasanton.

Besides, the Pleasanton store sometimes gives me referrals for prospective students. I don’t want to pull the plug on that source of income.

It’s not a tenable situation. Certainly not in an ethical sense, anyhow. I’m unable to teach one of the most basic aspects of cello playing, because the environment is not adequate. So do I take people’s money and fail to teach them one of the things they need to know? Is that proper?

No answers today. Just noticing the question.

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