Good tuning or good intonation?

R Hammond1“The first thing I do is tune the band!” 

That’s what most band directors do – but what does that mean? Everyone plays a Bb (that’s not so good for the flutes, alto saxes, oboes, bassoons and a few others) and then we hear the Bb major scale.

That’s what happened last week (or yesterday) and the week before that, and no doubt we’ll hear it again at the next rehearsal and the one after that and so on.

Wasn’t it Albert Einstein who said “The definition of insanity is doing that same thing over and over again and expecting a different result”?

It gets worse! 

After the Bb major scale and a few other well-worn musical clichés, we get right into the music because we have a performance coming up and ‘yes sir – we’re going to nail it’! So we’ve tuned up (but in fact most people actually tune down) but we haven’t heard anything about intonation yet and what’s more, we’re probably not going to hear anything about it during the next fifty minutes or however long this rehearsal is intended to go on. So how come it all sounds so bad? It’s out of tune, and yet we’ve just heard the ‘tune-up’ and the ‘warm-up’.

Something is wrong here – something isn’t working.

Let’s try dividing this whole ‘tuning’ thing in two? 

  1. Tuning
  2. Intonation

The first thing we must accept is that the instrument doesn’t make any sound at all. It doesn’t matter how long you spend trying to get the instrument ‘in tune’, or how many wiz-bang gadgets are used in trying to achieve that, the sound the instrument makes depends solely on it being played. So it’s not the instrument that makes the sound, it’s the player – and this is very difficult for some people to understand.

Let’s define tuning as ‘making the instrument the correct length so as to allow the player to PLAY it in tune’ – or to put it another way –‘to allow them to play with good intonation’.

Let’s talk tuning first! What is it supposed to be in tune with? An electronic tuning device? Is it such a great achievement for a student to be able to watch a needle or a strobe and SEE that they are in tune?

Some teachers spend an inordinate amount of time making sure their students can play in tune with one of these devices but spend little or no time making sure they can play in tune with other players. Oh – so they can play a note at A440! That’s great, but the rest of the group and/or the piano that’s being used isn’t necessarily at A440. So does that mean you should stick steadfastly to your guns and play at YOUR pitch regardless of what the rest of the band is doing?

Wouldn’t it be better to play IN TUNE with the rest of the group? THAT’S called INTONATION. 

So, If ‘tuning’ is making sure the instrument is the correct length, ‘intonation’ is playing the instrument in tune with the other players.

This means that

  1. Tuning requires a physical adjustment to the instrument.
  2. Intonation can ONLY be achieved by listening.

The next question has to be – Listening to who? 

That’s a question that no one ever asks, and students should be asked if they know who they should be listening to, and if they don’t know, they need to be taught how to figure out who they should listen to – and that’s the job of the conductor. Perhaps the question is not asked because the conductor doesn’t know the score well enough to provide the answer. Even the simplest of scores need to be studied, but it’s seems to be quite common for conductors to think they don’t need to study level 1 and level 2 scores. They could not be more wrong!

This really needs to be addressed at length, but we’ll leave that for the moment and perhaps make that the subject of another article.

How long should the warm-up and tune-up take? 

ANSWER: – It should start at the commencement of the rehearsal and it should conclude when the rehearsal concludes. In other words, it is something that should continue throughout the entire rehearsal.

Some people would like to argue that very young students cannot be expected to play in tune. This has been proven beyond any doubt to be quite incorrect. Students generally have great hearing skills – what they lack is being taught HOW to listen so they can tell when they’re out of tune.

This is not the student’s fault – it is the teacher’s/conductor’s fault. If they are not made aware of it right from the beginning, they will never start to understand it. It’s not something that can be introduced later. The bad habits have already been formed by then and would have to be broken. It’s best to avoid the bad habits in the first place.

How many times have you listened to the warm-up (which includes the tune-up) of the band or orchestra but then heard absolutely nothing about intonation (or tuning) for the remainder of the rehearsal?

Is it any wonder that the students think that once they have ‘tuned up’ everything is OK? Is it any wonder they think they can spend the rest of the rehearsal on other things because the ‘tuning’ has all been taken care of?

The other thing that absolutely kills intonation is the conductor who tells the students they are sharp or flat – or worse still, adjusts the instrument for them while they play a ‘tuning’ note.

What about all the other notes? Who’s going to adjust them?

Why not just tell the student they are out of tune then stay on their case until they fix it? Most of them have probably figured out for themselves that they are out of tune but they are not sure if they are flat or sharp, and because in the past someone has always told them, they have never had to worry about it, so why should they worry about it now?

“If the learner hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught!” 

The situation with young string players is another story but that’s an article for another day.

Your students probably have better ears than you do but they won’t know how to use them if you don’t teach them how to use them.

It’s time to teach them to start using their ears and stop relying on yours.

© Russell Hammond 2013 Optimo Software Pty Ltd – Sydney – Australia

Featured image: (Creative Commons License)


2 responses to “Good tuning or good intonation?

  1. Great article Russell, with some reminders in regard to ensemble training that we should never forget & cannot be reminded if too many times.

    In relation to a similar type of thing, someone told me this week that I shouldn’t expect students in year 7-9 to be able to play root notes or chords around the cycle. Even with the cycle in front of them. Ed Lisk has a lot of explaining to do!

  2. Russell. As a ex-MYSB member back in the 80’s this advice rings as true now as it did then. Listening up and down is something we all should do in music and life. Expecting… no demanding that from us then was the bridge to help us share your passion, professionalism and appreciation for wind music. All the best and thank-you!

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