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Finding Faulty Intonation

Instrumentalist Editors | June 2011

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   The type, size, ability, and maturity of the group as well as the severity of the problem determine how to solve this. Sometimes it is easy to pick out an out-of-tune section or individual based on what (and how many) people are playing at any given time. Sometimes simply pointing out the problem to certain individuals can make the entire ensemble more aware of individual and section intonation. Other times, you just have to resort to the age-old system of going down the row and having each student play, although doing too much of that during rehearsal should be avoided if possible.
   I often remind students that tuning is a lifelong process, and just because we have checked one note doesn’t guarantee that any player is in tune. I also constantly remind them of the importance of critical listening rather than casual listening, and being acutely aware of every sound in the room – theirs and others.
– Chris Harmon, Lake Central High School, St. John, Indiana

   The best thing teachers can do is to help students know when they are out of tune. Conductors find out-of-tune players by hearing waves in the sound or an uncentered pitch, but we try to put the responsibility for catching that back on the students.
   In the beginning of the year we spend more time on tuning to help freshmen get their bearings. We turn on a drone and go one by one down each row to help students hear whether they’re off and figure out how to fix it. We also play long tone exercises based on chords, so students are accustomed to hearing how they are supposed to sound when in tune. Sometimes students struggle with color tones like sevenths or ninths, but they become good at listening while they play.
   We try to demonstrate for students how it sounds to be out of tune by having two students play the same note or comparing one player’s sound against a drone. If the waves get faster they are going further out of tune, and even a student who cannot identify whether he is sharp or flat can listen for waves. We tell them that if the waves are getting faster they’re going the wrong way, but if the waves slow down they’re getting closer to the target.
   If a section is out of tune, we first make sure they are in balance. Sometimes a section may be out of balance, with some players playing too loudly. Separating a section to play a line will help students match dynamics and also reveal whether someone within the section is out of tune. Individuals in a section have to be in tune and in balance first before an entire ensemble can be in tune top to bottom. When we tune, we first fix horizontal intonation and balance within sections and then vertical balance from top to bottom of the band.
   Some people subscribe to the tuner-on-every-stand method, but I’m a big proponent of students using their ears. Depending too much on tuners strengthens the eyes rather than the ears.
– Alyson Keller, Liberty High School, Frisco, Texas

   In hunting down the strange noise in the fabric of the ensemble sound during the course of rehearsal, I would start by isolating the likely offenders. If it is a chord that fails to lock, I start by tuning the octaves and fifths before adding the third. For complex chords, I add the additional notes after the primary triad is established.
   Knowing your students’ pitch tendencies will speed up the process. If one student is consistently flat on a register while another student on the same instrument is consistently sharp, I know to watch out for problems and may even warn students beforehand. Sometimes intonation will take care of itself if the balance is addressed. For example, brass players playing too loudly may force woodwinds to feel they have to play even louder to be heard. Having students know their function at any given section of the music minimizes out-of-tune moments.
– Gabe Musella, Spring High School, Spring, Texas

   Identifying intonation discrepancies require both conductor and students to have fundamental listening skills. It is imperative that a pitch center be identified within both fundamental efforts and in musical context. This can be done with an amplified electronic tone or a student musician with a steady, characteristic tone and solid pitch center. A student musician who provides the pitch center should have access to an external reference to verify accuracy – even if he has perfect pitch.
   The conductor should help identify these references and offer students the opportunity to try to match pitch through various methods of isolation, such as playing unisons, octaves, and fifths, or individual and section performance. It may also be helpful to isolate all first chair players, then all second chairs and onward down the row to get students listening across the ensemble. Another trick is to have every other student play. Any method that draws students into listening and adjustment is more effective and efficient than having the conductor issue corrective information at every turn.
   Finally, conductors should be aware that the primary cause for intonation problems is rooted within the specific sound production pedagogy for each instrument, as well as the equipment itself. The conductor should make sure air flow, embouchure, and equipment are all satisfactory prior to having students adjust tuning slides.
– Amanda Drinkwater, Marcus High School, Flower Mound, Texas

   Over the past few years, our program has been focusing on sound matching within the ensemble. Students are guided to determine the characteristics of a good tone not just on their instrument but throughout the other sections of the ensemble as well.
   We have students determine which instrument or section is leading the way through a musical phrase or passage, then work on having students fit their sounds inside the leading instrument or section. When this leading sound has been identified, the students determine whether their sound fits. If it does not, students consider three questions in the following order:

1. Am I in Balance?
2. Am I in Blend?
3. Am I in Tune?

   Students are encouraged to take a chance and make an adjustment following this simple three point checklist. Most of the time, the students do a great job of adjusting correctly.
   In determining which student or section is out of tune, I gravitate to the sound that is most out of line with the leading instruments. Most of the time, this is the instrument or section that is also out of tune.
   We remind our students to play with a characteristic sound and have incorporated weekly listening assignments for which students listen to professional recordings of their instrument, chamber groups, and full ensembles. These are extremely helpful in improving our overall ensemble sound, intonation, and musicianship. Stu-dents must first hear these characteristic sounds either through performances or recordings before they can replicate them. We also remind them that a bad sound cannot be tuned.
– Todd Nichols, Roxbury High School, Succasunna, New Jersey

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