Mind Over Machine – Mastering Intonation

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Happy Flute Friday! In recent years I have performed in groups that relied heavily on tuners and metronomes to collectively establish pitch and rhythm. I am sure we have all at some point sat patiently through a group rehearsal where a well-meaning conductor has held up a tuner and asked each performer individually to correct their pitch based on the all-hearing magical line on the screen. Often these conductors come from a performance backgrounds on instruments vastly different from our own or are leading sectionals with multiple types of instruments (woodwind/brass) and do not specifically know how to offer practical suggestions to improve pitch for each instrument without Big Brother Tuning Machine painting a stark right/wrong reality. The problem with this technique, aside from the fact that it is extremely time consuming and really freaks out the more introverted performers, is that it does not adequately help the group agree on a central pitch nor does it take into account the pitch changes that occur in different octaves and at different dynamics across different instruments. Most importantly, it does not help us to listen and adjust. Practicing intonation involves constant evaluation and matching pitch to other performers regardless of whether they may be “right” or “wrong” and an understanding the pitch tendencies associated with our instruments. The following simple exercises are intended to improve intonation with and without the use of the tuner and sharpen our listening skills to help us to easily adjust and match pitch between other instruments. A machine can only give you a diagnosis. Your ears can help you fix the problems.

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Sing the pitch, then play. This is the most straight-forward way to practice intonation. You may simply use a piano or chromatic tuner to momentarily sustain a pitch. Hum that pitch and attempt to match the same pitch on your instrument. Adjust accordingly* based on what your ears tell you about the rate of frequency between the hummed pitch and the performed tone. This is a very useful technique for larger group rehearsals. Sustain a pitch (concert A is the traditional orchestral tuning note but wind ensembles may prefer a concert Bb) and ask that the group hum the pitch before attempting to match. This is how to properly train our ears.

Play the tuning pitch with a full, supported sound. Introverted musicians and younger students often change the quality of their sound when they are put on the spot. This may result in a weak, timid sound that may read as flat on the Magic Tuner but naturally raises in pitch when added to the larger group. Conversely, an overconfident musician may treat tuning time as their own personal solo recital and overplay a pitch to the tuner that lowers as they rejoin the group. Whenever you are practicing intonation you must remember to use a full, supported sound representing how you normally and confidently play your instrument. Tuning with a group alleviates the pressure of the “step right up” tuner approach. Musicians may practice intonation in the confines of their own practice room using the same approach.

If you normally play with vibrato within the group, use vibrato when tuning. A tuning pitch must be a representation of your standard quality of sound. Adding vibrato slightly raises a pitch and therefore should be added to your tuning pitch to emulate the sound you use in performance.

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Check your posture. Bad posture leads to a bad sound and a flat pitch. Are you standing/sitting with your head up and forward? Are your feet placed on the ground? Are you lifting your arms and properly supporting your instrument? Are you leaning too far forward? Too far back? Practice tuning in a mirror and take note of any movements you may unconsciously be applying that hinder your breathing or embouchure position.

Practice pitch bends. This is a great way to work on intonation during daily practice sessions but you can also practice this at group rehearsals. Find a pitch that your tuner considers “in tune” and, using your embouchure and air stream (bringing the upper lip slightly over the lower, dropping the jaw and slowing the speed of air), bend the pitch down and back up again This will train your ear to easily compare the difference between in tune and out of tune pitches.

Tuning dynamics. Another technique that uses the tuner for good and not evil! Tune a middle A to your tuner and adjust the pitch with your embouchure as you play the sustained tone softer and louder creating a <> effect. You will immediately notice pitch tendencies as you change dynamics. Make a note of these and work on correcting these tendencies when performing with larger groups. Repeat the tuning process on a Bb, B, C and so on until you have a list of pitch tendencies for each pitch and each dynamic range.

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Harmonics. An easy way to work on intonation between octaves is to tune harmonics. Play a lower C, overblowing to achieve the middle C harmonic. Compare the pitch to the same middle C using the standard fingering. An instrument that is “in tune” should sound identical between the harmonic and standard fingering. Adjust accordingly*. Repeat this process on a low C# and D.

*General tuning procedures for the flute. First and foremost be sure to check the placement of the cork. A misaligned cork will create overall sharpness or flatness throughout the octaves. Next adjust the headjoint, pulling out to lower the pitch and pushing in to raise the pitch. You may also roll the flute out to raise a pitch and in to lower but keep in mind that this is not a permanent solution. A better approach is to experiment with the angle of your lips and the speed of your air stream. A slower airstream will lower a pitch while a faster airstream will raise the pitch.

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The next time your conductor takes out the tuner, you may want to suggest any of the above exercises to work on collective intonation and essentially tune with our ears and not our machines. Intonation is not a simple, mechanical procedure but one full of changing circumstances. We must learn to adjust according to the sensitivity of our instruments and the pitches of those around us. Tuners have a time and place but our ears are our greatest teachers.

Do you have exercises of your own to practice intonation? Have any of the above techniques worked for you? How do you teach your students to practice intonation? Please comment below!

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