Playing in tune

June 20, 2008

I’ve been working on improving my pitch this summer. Why is it so difficult to play a woodwind instrument in tune? I believe there are three reasons:

  1. The instruments are, of necessity, built in a hopelessly compromised manner. A flute or bassoon or whatever that plays perfectly “in tune” doesn’t exist. (“In tune” is in quotation marks because of #3, below.)
  2. The human element is full of variables that affect pitch: a little change in embouchure, a little variation in breath support, and the intonation suffers.
  3. Woodwind players (like string players, vocalists, and others) have to meet the sometimes-confusing standard of just intonation, meaning that the “right” pitch for a given note depends very much on the context. This, of course, has to be tempered somewhat when playing with equal-tempered instruments such as the piano. We’ll call all of this intonation, referring to the precise pitch relationships of one note to another.

To play in tune, I’m working on addressing each of these problems. Some notes-to-self:

1. Instrument problems

  • While it’s true that there aren’t any perfectly in-tune instruments, some are clearly better than others. It’s possible to play a poor instrument in tune, but only in the same way that it’s possible to draw a straight line with a warped ruler. Play the best instruments you can afford. Same thing goes for mouthpieces, reeds, bocals, and other instrument parts that can affect pitch. And remember that you’re assembling a complete system; the best barrel for one clarinet might not be as good for another.
  • Even the highest-quality instruments may benefit from some adjustments. This might mean anything from a piece of tape in a tonehole, to adjustment of pad height, to reboring or tone hole undercutting. (Tape is easy to experiment with; undercutting is expensive, specialized, and permanent work.) If you do something to your instrument that seems to improve one note, remember that the experiment isn’t complete until you understand how that change affects every note on the horn.
  • Adjustments like pulling the mouthpiece, barrel, or headjoint in or out, or dimensions or your handmade double reeds, are important but shouldn’t change much from day to day once you’ve found something that works. When I see students making frequent tuning adjustments on an already warmed-up instrument, the problem usually isn’t the position of the mouthpiece on the cork–it’s the player.
  • Know the pitch tendencies of EVERY note on the instrument, including every alternate fingering. Know how the pitch of the note changes from pianissimo to fortissimo. When you think you thoroughly know the instrument’s tendencies, check again.

2. Human physical problems

  • Make embouchure- and breath-support-developing exercises part of your daily warmup: whistle tones, overtones, mouthpiece pitch, playing just on the (double) reed, or any other favorites. Or non-favorites; if you hate that one exercise, maybe there’s a reason! Do exercises that reveal your worst flaws. Remember that embouchure “exercises,” for intermediate or advanced players, aren’t so much about developing strength as about developing consistency.
  • A good support/embouchure system should, without any note-to-note adjustments, allow every note on the instrument to respond easily and as in-tune as the instrument’s manufacture permits. Check this nicely-aged IDRS article for an oboe-specific approach. Or check out this video–notice that the tone and intonation, though certainly not perfect, are surprisingly good, considering. If you could put such consistent air into your instrument, you’d be well on your way.

3. Intonation problems

  • I’ve been using The Tuning CD to improve my ability to hear intervals accurately in just intonation. For me, The Tuning CD makes it easier to hear pitch discrepancies, but you certainly could do similar exercises with a drone from an electronic tuner or other reference pitch. The basic instructions are here; they require a little extrapolation to cover your instrument’s full range and to cover notes outside a major scale.
  • Using an electronic tuner isn’t useful for practicing just intonation, but it’s fine for working on equal temperament. Try using a tuner that will detect the note you’re playing and play it back at you perfectly in tune, so that you can use your ears instead of your eyes to make necessary adjustments.

Some final thoughts

  • Although I have had a number of very fine teachers on a number of different instruments, I’ve never had one really push a multipronged approach to improving in-tuneness. The pedagogical literature also seems to be lacking in this department. I think that as teachers we’re afraid to try to teach such a seemingly overwhelming topic. Breaking the larger problem of “playing in tune” into its components has been helpful for me.
  • It’s a mistake to think that ear training alone can make you play in tune. It can definitely help you recognize when you’re out of tune, but by then you’ve already spoiled the interval. You have to know what note is coming next, precisely how high or low it should be according to just or equal temperament as appropriate, precisely how high or low it will tend to be on your instrument at this dynamic level, and what small adjustments (embouchure, voicing, special fingering, etc.) to make so that the note will start right on pitch. Ultimately, all of this needs to become instinctive and automatic.
  • For rapid passages, it may be impossible to adjust individual notes–this is where your consistent air and fine instrument will do most of the magic for you.
  • I find that this three-pronged approach feeds itself. As my ear for intervals gets better, I become dissatisfied with my pitch, work harder at playing with a correct embouchure and air support, and become more aware of the deficiencies of my equipment. As I solve those problems, my ear gets better again.

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