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A Practical Path to Better Tuning

James Barnes | May 2010

    In over 30 years of working with bands, I have seen everything imaginable as far as tuning procedures. Some schemes work well, but most don’t make a bit of sense. The least effective thing I witnessed was directors running all over a stage with a tuner just before a concert. This does no good. I have also never understood why some directors tune only to F. With the exception of horns and trombones, this is not a good note for tuning an entire ensemble because it is G4 (open G) on the clarinet and bass clarinet and that devilish D5 on the alto and baritone sax. It is inconsequential on flute and oboe, and it is a horrible note with which to tune the bassoon – the worst you could possibly pick.
     Tuning an entire band to A is good for woodwinds (it’s their favorite note) but is of little use to the brass section. B flat is the reverse; it works well with trumpets, trombones, euphoniums, and BB-flat tubas; but it is a useless tuning note for the horns (1st valve). From an acoustical standpoint, B flat doesn’t work that well for the woodwinds.
     Over a 25-year period of working with bands at the University of Kansas and many honor bands, I eventually concluded that all of these notes – F, B flat, and A – are good and should be included during tuning so that different instruments in the ensemble have the best chance to tune well. Blaring out a B flat and then starting on the first piece in the folder is absolutely the worst way to begin a rehearsal. Players need to get into a standard, comfortable routine that they will appreciate after a using it a few times.

Some Preliminary Observations
     In my experience most high school students have no idea how to tune or understand why they should do it. Directors should explain that tuning refers to each player comparing his pitch to that of a reference pitch, then adjusting the length of his instrument so his pitch correctly matches the reference pitch; the result makes it easier to play with good intonation. A musician doesn’t tune to one note; he tunes every note he plays by comparing each pitch to those of all the musicians around him as they play. Tuning is a continuous process.
     I cannot tell you how often I have seen high school saxophone sections playing with little or no cork showing on any of their lead pipes; equally problematic are the many times I’ve seen trombone, tuba, and trumpet players with their slides pushed all the way in during rehearsals. All brass instruments are designed to play sharp with the slides pushed all the way in. The musician pulls the slides to get a brass instrument down to pitch. Reed instruments are designed exactly opposite: when a musician positions the mouthpiece barely on the end of the instrument, it will play flat; he has to push in the mouthpiece or reed to get the sound up to pitch.
     Most bands play with poor intonation because the brass pitch is so high (with slides not extended far enough) that the woodwind players cannot push the mouthpiece far enough in to match the very sharp brass pitch.
     Electronic tuners should be used only for generating a reference note for students to adjust the pitch of their instrument. Tuners are useful for producing a reference note because most young oboists, who traditionally provide the tuning note, cannot sustain a consistent pitch for the two minutes it takes to complete my tuning routine.
     Electronic tuners are useful in studio teaching to help students learn the natural acoustical tendencies of the different notes throughout their different registers, but in large ensembles, musicians and directors have to depend on their ears and not a machine. Music teachers who can’t tell if students are playing sharp or flat should find a different line of work. My attitude is old school, but I sincerely believe it to be true.
     When a band is tuning, no percussion should play. The wind players have trouble hearing themselves when covered up by the sounds of drums. The snare drummer and timpanist should warm up on practice pads as the rest of the percussionists quietly set up for the first piece.
     Conductors love to make everyone do the same thing at the same time, but having everyone play the same tuning note simultaneously is a poor idea. Orchestral musicians would refuse to do this and for good reason. Musicians should be allowed to enter at their own discretion, so they can hear themselves play. It is impossible to play in tune if you can’t hear yourself.
     I frequently see students seated too close together, which is often the result of cramped rehearsal rooms and small stages. If you have the space, spread players out so they can hear themselves play. You will be amazed at how much better the sound will be. Sitting close together makes the band look better in the annual school photograph, but it does nothing for overall tone or intonation.
     This is the most important thing to consider: for the band to play with excellent intonation, each musician has to play with good, characteristic sound. These factors are inseparable. Better individual tones will improve the overall sound. Students need frequent reminders never to play with a rehearsal sound. They should always strive to play with their best sound at all times.

Practical Tuning for Bands
     The tuning routine I use is only two minutes long. Once students learn it, use hand signals, your eyes, and nods of the head as cues, avoiding the temptation to talk during tuning. Students quickly learn they will become completely lost if they don’t pay attention. After using this silent system over time, you will be amazed at how your players’ concentration improves.
     After the players warm up, cut off the band. Have the tuner set to B flat (A# on some tuners) at A=440. The only sound on the stage or in the band room should be the Bb sounding from the tuner. If there is still noise from the players, just stand until they quiet down.

Begin with Humming
     Point to your ear and have the students hum the B flat. Then allow each player to enter individually, at his own discretion, comparing the reference pitch to the pitch of his instrument at that moment. Allow ten seconds to adjust the instruments, and then cut off the playing with a gesture from your hand.
     Woodwinds. Next change the tuner to generate an A4 for the woodwinds. Just change the pitch; don’t say a thing. Have the students listen, hum, then tune. Use the same procedure with each player entering individually. Be sure each person has time to adjust, and then come back in to compare his A to the tuner’s. This should take 10-15 seconds.
     Change the tuner to an F4 so the clarinets can tune (their open G). They should adjust only their barrels to comply with this reference pitch. Next sound a low D3 for the clarinets, which is their low E3. This is the note for adjusting the bell. Do not fool with the middle joint; the best clarinetists say that tuning with the middle joint opens up a Pandora’s box of acoustical problems on the instrument.
     After all the clarinetists are playing a satisfactory low E3, use your left thumb to indicate that they should press down their register key. The instruments will immediately sound B4, the middle concert A on the instrument. This B and the low E3 are the only two notes where the sound vibrations go all the way through the instrument.
     Tubas. Turn to the tubas next. Without speaking, sound a
B flat on the generator and have them play low B flat 1. If the pitch is awful, gesture for the players to stop and tune them individually so they can hear themselves. Be sure to do this with hand signals.
     Low Woodwinds. When you are satisfied with the pitch in the tubas, add the low woodwinds – bass clarinet, contralto or contrabass clarinet, baritone saxophone, and bassoon. When teaching this system, explain that be­cause the tubas establish the fundamental pitch in a band, the low woodwinds have to tune to the tubas. Have all the tubas and low woodwinds continue to play the low
B flat, and add euphoniums and tenor saxophone on Bb3. Everyone continues to play.
     Trombones. Add trombones on F, which is a stable note for the instrument. I use F instead of the customary
B flat because it provides an excellent reference pitch for the horns, who enter next. Everyone continues to play.
     Horns. Bring in the horns on C4, which is the same F the trombones are playing. With your left thumb, indicate that they should tune both sides of their double horns to this note, comparing the F on the F side to the F on the Bb side. Have them adjust both tuning slides until these two notes match up. Everyone continues to play.
     Trumpets. Next, bring in the trumpets on G4, sounding F an octave higher than the horns. As they play insist they listen to the horns and the trombones, who are an open 5th above the tubas, euphoniums, and low woodwinds, instruments that are continuing to play their tuning note.
     The trumpets follow, slowly playing G, A, B, C (transposed pitches); indicate the fingerings for the notes with your right hand: O, 1-2, 2, and O. Don’t talk; make the students watch and do it together. This takes them to concert Bb, three octaves above the tubas, which helps them learn to match their note with the tubas. Everyone continues to play.
     Woodwinds. Finally look around at the clarinets, oboes, and alto saxophones. Motion them to repeat the concert F, G, A, and
B flat that the trumpets just played. Next the flutes and piccolo slowly play F, G, A, B flat an octave higher.
     By this point the entire band should be playing. As each instrument enters, they should play Bb or F as assigned, so that the sound and balance builds from the bottom up.

Tuning Notes
     While teaching this warm-up procedure, the players should be assigned the following notes for a tuning chord:

     Tubas, low B flat
     Double basses, low B flat

     Bass clarinet, C4
     Contralto clarinet, G3
     Contrabass clarinet, C4
     Bari sax, G3
     Bassoon, low Bb  and middle
B flat

B flat  3
     Tenor sax, C4
     Trombone 3, low
B flat
     Trombone 2, F3
     Trombone 1, D4

     1st, 3rd horns, C5
     2nd, 4th horns, C4

     Trumpet 3, C4
     Trumpet 2, G4
     Trumpet 1, C5

     Alto sax 2, G4
     Alto sax 1, B4

     Clarinets 3, C5
     Clarinets 2, E5
     Clarinets 1, G5

     Oboe 2, B flat 4
     Oboe 1, D5

     Flutes 3, B flat 4
     Flutes 2, F5
     Flutes 1,
B flat 5
B flat 5

     This will sound a B flat  major chord with every brass instrument on an open note, plus a fully registered woodwind sound with each student playing an excellent tuning note.

More Hand Signals
     After you bring every section in playing B flat and F, hold out your hand with the palm horizontal to the ground. Teach students to understand that this is the signal for their memorized B flat major chord. Once this chord sounds balanced and in tune, revolve your wrist so that your thumb motions down. This indicates that everyone should play their note down a half step, producing in an A major chord to help the woodwinds.
     Next shift your hand back up to the horizontal position to return to the Bb chord. Once the ensemble solidifies a
B flat chord, turn your thumb up, indicating students play their assigned pitch up a half step, resulting in a B major chord. This is a difficult chord to tune, but students who do this every day start listening and adjusting, which is my point in the first place.

Knowing The Routine
     Believe it or not, this procedure takes little time to teach. I use it with two-day honor bands all the time, and they invariably pick it up quickly. Once they know the whole routine and understand your hand motions and facial expressions, it only takes about two minutes each rehearsal to complete the entire sequence.
     I see several benefits from this approach:

     1. Improved concentration – it keeps students focused on the task at hand and gets them into the habit of really listening to what is going on from the very beginning of the rehearsal.

     2. It tunes the band from the bottom up, not the top down, which is far too frequent a practice.

     3. It gives players time to adjust their instrument so they have a better chance of playing in tune.

     4. Students are tricked into playing long tones for two to three minutes every day. (Normally, you could never get them to do this.)

     5. The more time ensembles spend on individual tone, the better the overall sound.

     If you daily include this procedure with your students over a semester, your band will play with better intonation and a more resonant sound. Two or three minutes each day is a small investment for improved intonation and sonority.