Playing in tune: five factors

One of the first “technical” things I wrote on this blog was about playing in tune. I ran across that now-embarrassing post recently and decided it is time to revisit that topic since my thinking about it has crystallized a bit more.

To play a woodwind instrument in tune, there are five factors to address:

Photo, Shaylor
Photo, Shaylor
  1. Ears. If you don’t know what “in tune” sounds like, you probably won’t do it by accident. I still like the Tuning CD (now available as a download) for this. Follow the instructions for your instrument and do a few minutes every day over the long term. Sing, too. Electronic tuners have some uses but ear training doesn’t happen to be one of them.
  2. Equipment. Play the best instruments, mouthpieces, etc. you are able to get. If you are picking out new equipment, intonation should probably be your top priority over sexier things like “tone,” which is both more subjective and more malleable. (Incidentally, this is one of the best arguments for playing new woodwind instruments rather than “vintage,” since, generally speaking, incremental improvements mean that each generation of instruments plays better in tune than the one before.) Sure, you can “play” a lesser instrument in tune, but let your equipment do as much of the work for you as possible.
  3. Playing technique. This includes, for starters, consistent and powerful breath support, accurate and stable voicing, and a well-formed embouchure. Even small weaknesses in any of these areas makes your pitch less steady and predictable, and more significant weaknesses can make good intonation virtually impossible.
  4. Adjustment of the tuning mechanism(s). This means pulling something in or out to slightly adjust the instrument’s length, but it could also include, say, selecting a clarinet barrel or a bassoon bocal. Assuming good equipment and solid playing technique, there will be a “spot” where the mouthpiece/barrel/headjoint/etc. should go for the instrument to play optimally in tune at its intended pitch level (A=440? A=442? etc.). Any deviation from this should be a carefully-considered compromise. For example, if you are playing with an ensemble that tunes a little sharper than you’re used to, you can “push in” to make it a little easier to get up to pitch, but you will find that the instrument’s intonation characteristics change: some notes will get a little sharper, some a lot sharper.
  5. Adjustment of individual notes. Even on the best instruments, some notes have undesirable pitch tendencies. And sometimes you have to play a note a little “out of tune” to match another musician’s pitch, to meet the demands of “just” intonation, for expressive purposes, or for a variety of other reasons. These adjustments are best made by using alternate fingerings or by making slight temporary changes in voicing. Be wary of using any other technique, including things like “rolling” the flute or making any embouchure changes (“dropping the jaw”), which are unwieldy and compromise other aspects of tone production.

Development of good intonation is a cycle of revisiting each of these elements again and again: each improvement to your ears, each equipment change, each change in your technique, each adjustment of a tuning mechanism, and the needs of each individual playing situation may require further refinements of all the other areas. If intonation isn’t something you have tackled seriously before, then start by working on your ears, and be patient.


One response to “Playing in tune: five factors”

  1. You mention “Electronic tuners have some uses but ear training doesn’t happen to be one of them.”

    I always suggest to students that they use a tuner like the good old Korg, having it play a pitch and to play various intervals with it, learning to match. Way too often I see players who use only the meter. I always explain that you are trying to tune your ears, not your eyes.

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