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The History of the Tuning A

Robert Stephenson and Lisa Byrnes | October 2011

    As an oboist, over the years I may have given a tuning A as many as 50,000 times. Before each concert or rehearsal, I arrive at least 30 minutes early to begin my preparation for giving the A. I put the finishing touches on my reed, explore its level of resistance, check that the oboe is properly adjusted, and practice several exercises that keep my embouchure both firm and flexible. I have my tuning fork at hand and check the pitch several times to be sure at the right moment, the A will be perfect. As I do all this, I often think about why the oboist gives the A.
    The tradition goes back to the French court of the Sun King, Louis XIV (1643-1715) at Versailles He had built Versailles to get away from the noise of Paris, to construct an elegant home for himself and his court, and to provide close residences for his nobles so he could keep a watchful eye on them. Louis XIV also was interested in music, dance and theater. He danced on stage for the first time when he was 13. After dancing in Paris with Giovanni Battista Lully, Louis XIV appointed him to become composer of instrumental music to the king. Besides composing, singing and dancing, Lully often combined the 16 petite violons and the 24 violons du Roi for court ballet performances. Sometimes other groups in the king’s employ, such as the winds and brass of the Grande Ecurie, joined the court performances.
    King Louis XIV was fond of the shawm, a double reed instrument that was used to call armies into battle during times of war, and asked that the instrument be modified for indoor performance. Members of the famous instrument-making Hotteterre family narrowed the bore of a treble shawm, redesigned the reed mechanism so the reed was now in direct contact with the lips, added two keys and modified the bell. The pitch was lowered to concert C.
    This new instrument, the hautbois or high wood, made its orchestral debut in Lully’s ballet L’amour malade (1657). The success of its debut and later performances, gained the attention of other courts across Europe. If an oboist was willing to travel, he would be well-paid for his services and the popularity of the oboe increased.
    Although the new hautbois was softer than the shawm, the sound was still penetrating. More than likely, this penetrating sound was the reason that the oboist was given the job of tuning the ensemble.
    More than 350 years later the oboe is still a treasured member of the orchestra, and tuning has come a long way. Science, craftsmanship, and artistic achievement have all played roles. Perhaps the most important change was when they adopted a worldwide standard for the tuning A. For many years the pitch standard was a hotly debated topic. The same written note could vary in pitch as much as a half-step from one orchestra or country to the next. In 1917 the American Federation of Musicians adopted
A-440 Hertz (440 cycles per second) as the standard, and in 1939 the International Standards Association also adopted this standard.
    People often ask why musicians tune to the A. The most obvious reason is that it is a note all string instruments have in common as an open string. Because of the overtone series, it is a note that enables string players to successfully tune the other strings.
There are many reasons why the oboist has the responsibility for giving the A. Tradition is one reason, but the distinct oboe tone also allows other musicians to hear it clearly. The oboist’s chair is centrally located within the orchestra, and the instrument’s pitch is more stable than other woodwinds because it is less affected by hot or cold temperatures.
    It is a challenge for oboists to give the A. For flutists and other members of the orchestra, understanding the process may help them tune more accurately. The oboist should give a consistent note that sounds the same each time. The dynamic should not be too loud, and the tone quality should be good. If the oboist plays with no vibrato, the note can sound like a tuning machine and with too much vibrato, the variations in pitch gives those tuning too many options. The orchestra members should not “pick an A” because the vibrato cycle is too wide. If the oboist uses vibrato, it should be subtle and warm.
    John Mack, renowned Cleveland Orchestra principal oboe and pedagogue, said, “Make it beautiful.” My teacher, John de Lancie, legendary Philadelphia Orchestra principal oboe and the Curtis Institute professor of oboe, instructed, “Play your most beautiful long tone.”
    Producing a consistent A is easier today than it was during Lully’s time with better instruments, reeds and technical skills. The goal is to give an A that is straight on the pitch. Many inexperienced oboists fluctuate around the pitch. If fellow musicians race to be the first to play before the pitch has been centered (a common occurrence), they will have tuned incorrectly.
    Instead of relying on a tuner, I prefer a tuning fork. This simple instrument was invented by trumpeter John Shore in 1711. A tuning fork is an acoustic resonator, shaped like a two-pronged fork, made of steel. When struck, the prongs vibrate a pure tone. Before giving the A, I strike the turning fork and place the end next to my ear.
    The question of how many tuning notes to play often depends on the level of the orchestra and the situation. Recently I played at a music festival and was asked to give three tuning notes (one for brass, one for woodwinds and one for strings) for six concerto soloists on the program because of the personnel changes in the accompanying orchestra, so I played the tuning A 18 times that evening. Tuning goes more quickly if the orchestral players immediately become quiet when the tuning note begins, then listen carefully, tune quietly and refrain from playing other repertoire.
    Some musicians hold the opinion that playing the tuning note sharp is a good idea because they think it sounds more brilliant or carries better. However, to me sharp is just out of tune. It is hard work playing in tune, but one of the powerful and magical things about an orchestra is that there are so many individuals striving for a common goal. All members of an orchestra should know the intonation tendencies of their instruments and adjust appropriately to the tuning A. For some specifics for tuning flutes, see below.

Tuning Flutes

By Lisa Byrnes

1. Check the headjoint cork placement. The line on the cleaning rod should appear in the center of the embouchure hole.
2. Pull the headjoint out from the body of the flute about one quarter to one half inch depending on whether the instrument is pitched at A=440 or 442.
3. Align the flute carefully the same way each day.
4. Be sure you have properly warmed up before the A is given.
5. Do not take the A from the oboe until you have listened for the core and center of the pitch.
6. Tune softly to find a good blend, and then ease into a mp-mf dynamic. Avoid playing too loudly for the consideration of others.
7. Remember the A above the staff on most flutes is a flat note. If you tune this A to the oboe, the rest of your notes may be sharp. With a tuner explore how flat this A must be so the other notes are in tune.
8. When you adjust your headjoint, make small adjustments.
9. Select a headjoint tuning spot that allows for equal flexibility between p and f dynamics.
10. When you find a good spot, consider marking the position on the headjoint with a Sharpie pen.
11. Work with a tuner at home so you know what the pitch tendencies are on your instrument.
12. If you have a long rest in the middle of a piece, blow slow hot air through your flute before the next entrance so the flute will not be cold and flat.
13. Just because you are in tune on the tuning note, does not mean you are in tune for the rest of the rehearsal or concert. Listen and adjust. Tuning is a variable; analyze every note you play for good intonation.
14. Be collegial. If a colleague has a challenging note to tune, resolve the issue with professional diplomacy.