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  • Writer's pictureCallum Rookes

Get a Grip of Your Intonation and Tuning: A Self Help Guide

Updated: Apr 14, 2021

So, your Musical Director has been nagging you, lambasting you even, with comments like “listen to your tuning”, “sort your tuning out”, or “you’re sounding bright”. “Bright”? what does that even mean? Do I sound Intelligent, happy, luminous? Spit it out, man!

Ok, I’m just being facetious, but we’ve all been there receiving such comments, and not really knowing how to resolve the issue, or even being unable to hear if there is an issue. Worse still, in my experience, often those telling you whether you’re sharp or flat aren’t actually sure themselves, and I’ve seen it right up to professional levels. I too struggle sometimes. Why? Because it is actually quite hard to tell which way of the pitch-pendulum you are and there are a number of reasons for it. When we tune an orchestra, instruments play at different octaves, instruments have different timbres, and in some cases, those who are playing an instrument may have such a poor tone quality that it can easily be mistaken for being out of tune. It’s all a bit of a mine field, but fear not, my friend, here’s a quick guide to help you out and point you in the right direction!

Intonation Vs Tuning.

Sadly, in the amateur orchestra world, it would seem that many people assume that once they’ve had the tuning note go around the room, and they’ve tuned, it’s clear sailing from then on. It’s assumed that once you’ve tuned, everything is in tune. WRONG! A tuning note is your reference point from where you then Intonate from.

So, what do I mean with intonation? Intonation is the ability to navigate from one note to another in tune. Imagine every note you play is a floor in a skyscraper, and you’re using the lift to get to your chosen floor. The lift doesn’t stop half way between floors to let you out, it knows precisely where to stop to let you out. Intonation is the same. Good intonation is the ability to play one pitch to another in tune, just like a lift precisely positions itself to let you off at the right floor.

“But Cal, I don’t know if I’m sharp or flat?”. And you know what? It doesn’t matter if you know if you’re sharp or flat, but it does matter that you can tell if you are out of tune. People get a little shocked when I say this, but it’s true. It’s useful if you know if you’re sharp or flat, but it’s more important to know when something is off with your pitch. We must train and develop our ear to hear consonance (in tune), and dissonance (out of tune). But before I get on to a few tips and tricks with training your ear, let’s talk first about some tips for tuning.

I find that when I get an amateur orchestra to start tuning, I’m met with some anxiety and trepidation, and it stems from a lack of experience in tuning, and uncertainty. Firstly,hear the tuning note, sing the tuning note in your head and then articulate your tuning note clearly at a good mf dynamic, and not creep in sheepishly like a cat about to pounce on a bird! Be confident, clear, and assertive with that tuning note. There are two reasons for this, firstly you are more likely to be in tune off-the-bat, and secondly, if you’re doing a concert, you look and sound like you know what you’re doing. Remember that when you perform a concert, the performance starts from the moment the tuning note is sounded, and not once you’ve tuned! Imagine the LSO creeping in with their tuning note in a very uncertain fashion? You as an audience will probably close off to the performance, and also question the price of the ticket you’ve paid!

“Cal, I’m not sure what being out of tune sounds like”. No problem! Let today be the day you start learning to hear dissonance. Get yourself a tuner that can sound a tone for you. Set it to any note, but perhaps start with Bb or A. Now, pull out your tuning slide, or pull out your mouthpiece so that you know you are flat. Now play the note you chose on the tuner. Listen to the clash; listen closely. What qualities of that clash can you hear? Can you imagine a colour? Most importantly, can you hear a ‘pulse’ or a 'wave'? Can you hear the “friction” in the sound? Now, push in your tuning slide, or mouthpiece a little, and play the note again. The things should be sounding a little smoother, almost like the ‘creases’ in the sound have been ironed out a little. The ‘pulse’ or ‘wave’ has gotten slower. Now push in your tuning slide or mouthpiece a little further. Hopefully you will now be in tune, and if it is the sound will be smooth, there will be no pulse, the pitch will sound resonant. Repeat this a few times with different notes, and really listen keenly and intently, but please, please, please don’t use a digital tuner that has a needle telling you if you’re in tune! If you use one of them, you’re only training your eyes to see if you’re in tune, you’re not using your ears. Remember, the right way to do things are often the hardest.

Ok, you’re tuning up and you know something is off with your pitch, but not sure which way, what then? Well, you’re either gonna be sharp or flat. If the temperature is hot, then you can make an educated guess that you’re going to be sharp, and vice versa if it’s cold (different story for string instruments). If you’re sharp, then pull out some plumbing, or pull out your mouthpiece, or slacken some string! If you find that things are sounding worse then you’ve gone the wrong way with your tuning slide, or mouthpiece, and your need to go the other way. Don’t be frightened to take a little extra time to do this when tuning up.

So how can we improve the intonation of a band? More often than not, in amateur ensembles many don’t have regular lessons, or they are adult learners picking up their instrument again after thirty years out, so it can be forgiven that intonation and tuning are a little haphazard. Therefore, it’s of paramount importance for any musical director to take a little time to instil good habits and help develop the ensembles musicianship. Here’s a couple of exercises I do to help improve the orchestra’s ear.

1) I like to surprise a random member of the band to give a tuning note, and for the rest of the band to tune to that person. It trains the ear to tune to different timbres, and also gives our dear ol’ oboist the opportunity to train their ear also. 10/10 recommended for every orchestra to try.

2) ‘F’ around the room. This is a good one to try, and I learnt it from the great conductor Timothy Reynish. Get someone to play a concert F, and then as if it were a baton race, point at someone to take over playing the F - maintaining the pitch and sound quality - and then point at someone else to take over etc etc. I find that to start with it’s easier to get someone playing an F, then point at someone to join in, and then another, and build it like a pyramid, rather than treat it like a baton race. As MD, don’t point to someone else until that F is in tune.

3) Get everyone to play any note they want, at a comfortable register, mf, and then on your command get them to slur to a note of your choice, preferably a tuning note. This is a great one because the band can very clearly hear dissonance, and then consonance. Repeat again with a different note and play around with dynamics to instil pitch control with crescendos and diminuendos.

4) Divide the band into two teams, team one and team two. Both teams are going to do a Bb major scale ascending and descending, with each note of the scale lasting for the duration of a semibreve. We’re now going to set each team off at different times. Give team one a bar of four lead in, and then get team two to play on the following third beat. What you will notice is that we will achieve a scale of dissonance followed by resolution. Make sure that your ensemble focusses intently on the resolution, and then swap the teams round. On paper, it looks like this:

5) Scales in thirds. The interval of a third is important in music. Thirds are what give music major or minor tonality and it makes sense to make sure we can play thirds in tune. Again, split the ensemble into two teams, and get them to play a scale of your choosing – Bb or F being good choices for wind bands. Set both teams off together, however, have one team start the scale on the third note of the scale. In the case of concert Bb, start on concert D but adhering to the key signature of Bb (in essence, one team is playing a phrygian mode!). Every note to be played a semibreve in length, and tempo to be a slow crotchet = 60. Get them to really listen to the tuning as they traverse the scale. Play one octave up and down (team one Bb to Bb, team two D to D), and then swap the teams over.

Tuning is something that we regularly need to have a crack at and practice, so it improves and becomes second nature. The weird thing is that everywhere it’s expected that tuning is a doddle, but actually, it can be one of the trickiest things in the world for the above-mentioned reasons; but keep at it, persist, and always be critical of your pitch.

Finally, it’s crucially important to remember that once you’ve tuned at the start of the concert, it’s very likely that the ensemble will get sharper as the concert progresses due to the room warming up. Keep listening to the ensemble and be flexible, move in pitch with them. If you stay at the pitch you tuned to, then you will be out of tune as the concert progresses.

Phew, this has been a long-winded write, and one that has been written in a hipster-esque coffee shop (they serve a lot of avocado stuffs, so one assumes!) but I hope it helps you to improve your tuning. Keep at it, friends!

Callum, over and out!

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