'The Vomit Exercise'
Intonation is the ever-present demon that every bass player fights, no matter what their skill level, and I can say that it is the number one thing that I work on every day. That being said, I assure you that my intonation is not close to what I wish that it was, and probably never will be! There are a few warm-up exercises that I do each time I pick up my bass, and I'd like to share my absolute favorite with you. (I showed this one to Mark the other day -- I'm sure his wife loves hearing it! )
I'm not sure where I first learned this exercise; I believe it may have been at some master class in college. I'm sure some of you are familiar with it: the infamous -- and disgustingly named -- "Vomit Exercise." To do it right, a few things: this needs to be played Arco (using a bow) and you'll also need a metronome and a tone generator (many metronomes have this built in). This exercise focuses on accurate position shifts, and, if done correctly, may sound rather unpleasantly like a cat barfing up a hairball.
Set the metronome (your best friend) on a slow tempo -- 60bpm or less -- and get that tone generator blasting an A. Now that the room should be so loud that you can't think, it's time to give this a try. Starting with your first finger on the A on your G string, begin bowing half notes. I like to sit on this for a minute or so the first time through, so that my right arm can get into the groove of the tempo. Once you feel comfortable, we're going to play an A major scale up the G string, always alternating back to the A between each note of the scale. In time with the metronome, play the exercise using quarter notes (Click the diagram at the right for notation). Hold on! Here's the catch: the entire exercise will be played with your first finger ONLY. The first few shifts will be something like this: A-B-A-C#-A-D-A and so on. Once you reach the octave, it's time to do the same in reverse.
Take the exercise slowly, listening to (and tuning) the intervals against the droning A... this exercise is all about intonation and position shifts. Remember to keep your bow "in the string" and in constant motion with half notes; try to make the shifts as cleanly and quickly as possible, allowing no space in-between notes. For your first time, I would suggest playing the exercise only up to the D or E and continuing on after you have become comfortable with those first few intervals. Once you've "mastered" this (I'm at about 3 years and counting, so good luck with that!) try it on every string, and even with each finger.
Now what are you waiting for? Go practice!