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Idea Exchange: Using a Drone

Sean Murphy | November 2016

    An effective way to teach accurate pitch is with a drone. Often, students do not know how being out of tune sounds. Playing a note against an in-tune drone makes it easy to teach being sharp or flat and is an opportunity to practice altering the pitch to be in tune. Many electronic sources exist with which to stabilize pitch. The Tuning CD by Richard A. Schwartz provides several minutes of a recoded single pitch, allowing plenty of time for intonation exercises. Also, there are many modern keyboard tools that sound a drone and can be hooked up to an amplifier.
    Drones work well for either single players or an entire section of an ensemble. Although sounding a tuning note is a common use is a common use for a drone, it can also be used to sound a desired pitch in advance of its arrival. For example, if the last pitch of a phrase is out of tune, set a drone to that note, then have students play the entire phrase and see whether they hit the correct pitch on the last note.
    Many drones produced by keyboards can be set to just intonation, so, for example, the third of a major chord can be sounded at the exact lowered pitch level necessary for it to be in tune. Students who play the third can then match to the lowered pitch.
    A drone also can help eliminate problematic notes, specific to an instrument. Although a large group of saxophonists playing middle C# together might sound in tune with each other, this note tends to be quite flat, and an in-tune section may still be out of tune with the rest of the ensemble. A drone will keep students honest about their pitch even in section-specific settings.
    Using a drone in rehearsal takes time, energy, and patience. It is likely this new technique may not meet with immediate success or acceptance. In addition, although even the most novice listener can quickly learn to percieve poor intonation, it may take time before students are able to adjust pitch on the fly. However, as students see and hear the results, they will eventually be inspired to seek out the drone during individual practice. The benefits of using a drone are clear.