Better Intonation For Dummies

The late David Weiss was a member of the L.A. Philharmonic and a celebrated oboe player. He was a regular participant in IMSA festivals, and helped many people learn to be better saw players. Luckily for all of us, he also wrote a regular column for the Saw Player News. Here is his column for the summer 2009 Saw Player News:

Better Intonation For Dummies

One of the main reasons there are so few good saw players is because of how difficult it is to play in tune. Unlike most normal instruments, there are no keys, frets, valves, or tone holes to help guide us. We only have our ears. Without paying close attention to proper tuning, overtime it is easy to become accustom to one’s own “scale,” believing that it sounds pretty good. In reality, it could be horribly out of tune! Here are some saw tips that you can use while practicing to help train your ear and improve your ability to play in tune.

#1 Become very good friends with a piano player! The more you play with a piano background, the better your ear will become. Have the pianist play and hold chords or even single notes that you can try to match your pitch against. Then try playing very slow scales or melodies in unison. By regularly getting together with a pianist, not only will your pitch improve, but so will your overall musicianship. Trust me, I know. I married one!

#2 Use an electronic tuner. Electronic tuners come in all sizes from pocket size to large desktop models that have many advanced features. Using an electronic tuner is very easy. Simply play the note you wish to tune (avoid using too much vibrato- in fact try to eliminate vibrato altogether for this exercise to be most effective) and a meter on the device will tell you if you are sharp or flat. Very slightly adjust the bend of your saw, and the needle will move. When it points straight up, that particular note becomes perfectly in tune! The Korg model #CA 30 costs about $30 and is the one I recommend for my students. It’s the same one I have with me when performing with an orchestra or in recording sessions. Smaller than a pack of cigarettes, it runs on two AA batteries. There are different methods for using a tuner that are worth experimenting with. Besides watching the tuner as you play from one note to note, you can record yourself without looking at the tuner, then play it back and watched the tuner needle move with each note of the melody. You may notice certain inconsistencies. Some notes always want to go sharp, others to go fat flat. Becoming aware of these tendencies will help you compensate and find a much truer pitch. More elaborate tuners can play a drone note (pick any note you want and the machine will play and hold it), and then you can devise ways of playing in unison, octaves, or any other interval with the steady tone. Try sustaining the saw tone as purely as possible with no vibrato and holding it until you think you are making a perfect interval with the drone pitch (3rd, 5th, etc). If the interval is very close but not exact, you’ll hear slight rhythmic beats occurring. The closer you get to perfect, the slower those beats become. This won’t work for everyone, but it can be fun to experiment with.

#3 The best music teacher I ever had always stressed the importance of singing a tune before playing it. If you hate the sound of your voice, humming the tune can work too. In order to more clearly hear the tones, try holding your hands slightly cupped behind your ears (or even just a finger over one ear  can be helpful). This is a technique that many professional singers use when they need to focus in on their own pitches, keeping them separate from other ambient noise. When you think of singing with a view to good intonation, the concept is to hear the note a split second before you actually sing it. Try singing a simple arpeggio or scale with good intonation. When you begin to internalize this concept, you will naturally start using it for your saw playing. The Germans call our instrument the “singing saw” so let’s all practice singing a little bit in order to play better in tune.

#4 Use a search engine like Google. It is so amazing how much you can find with a few mouse clicks. Try searching for “ear training,” “music intonation exercises,” “playing in tune,” etc, and you’ll come across tens of thousands of links with advice!

David Weiss

You can find more past copies of Saw Player News at


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Rowena Southard, your blog hostess, is a musical saw enthusiast who lives in California. She loves all kinds of music and has a special fondness for unusual instruments.