Buy intonation, not tone

How exciting to try out new instruments (or mouthpieces or headjoints or barrels or…) and to find one that really has a great sound! It’s a rite of passage for the young woodwind player, trying out a parade of shiny new possibilities, surrounded by parents, a private teacher, friends, and a salesperson with dollar signs in their eyes. “That one has such beautiful tone!” everybody will sigh.

I suggest that you do not buy that one.

photo, themusicgrove

“Good” tone is a fluid, fleeting thing. That clarinet might have better tone than a half-dozen of the same model because its pads currently leak less than the others. That mouthpiece might sound like a winner because the reed you brought with you happens to mate with it better at the moment.

And your tone will shift as you adapt to your purchases. That new piece of gear might make you sound like somebody else right now, but as you get accustomed to it you’ll start to sound like you again. (Don’t like sounding like you? Develop your tone concept.)

Rather than splitting hairs about tone, break out a chromatic tuner, or, better, a drone, and pick out the one that is easiest to play in tune. Bring along a teacher or professional colleague who has high-level proficiency on the instrument, and have them listen and watch the tuner while you play, then play while you listen and watch the tuner. (This is especially crucial if you are a student-level player!)

An instrument or accessory with great tone but poor pitch will be a constant exhausting struggle to play in tune, and its problems are harder to fix in the repair shop. Gear with rock-solid pitch will do a fair amount of the work for you, and “its” tone (your tone) will improve with practice, listening, and some TLC from a good technician. Shop with your priorities in order, and you will get an instrument that will serve you well for many years.

Pushing in and pulling out

A simplistic view of “tuning” is that “pulling out” makes the instrument play a little flatter and “pushing in” makes it play a little sharper. One of the problems is that not all notes are affected equally.

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: … Read more

Playing flat on the clarinet

The correct solution to this problem is to take at least a few lessons with an excellent clarinet teacher. A good teacher faced with this problem will review the fundamentals of tone production with you: breath support, voicing, and embouchure formation. With some dedicated practice, you will almost certainly see your pitch improve (as well as your tone, response, and more).

Getting an “outsider” opinion

Photo, Pirate Scott

Saxophones, more than many other instruments, have a tendency toward mechanical noise: clicks and clanks are a hazard of the relatively large keys and articulated mechanisms and of the relative popularity of “vintage” instruments. Much of the noisiness can be solved by a good technician, but it’s sometimes surprising how much key noise saxophonists tolerate on their otherwise pristine recording projects.

The oboe has a particularly sensitive mechanism involving the right index finger and a linkage between the upper and lower joints. It requires a great deal of finger precision to avoid unwanted “blips” (brief, unintended notes) when moving between, say, A and C. If you are listening for that sound, you will find that it is not uncommon, even on recordings that are technically impressive in other ways.

I think a lot of saxophonists would be scandalized by “blips” in each other’s playing, and oboists would be equally appalled by rattling, clanking keywork. But it is easy to become accustomed to hearing those sounds in our own playing, and to stop really noticing them.

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Balancing voicing and breath support

My oboe students frequently have this problem: These notes don’t respond well These notes are sharp and thin-sounding (Okay, sometimes I also have this problem.) The solution, in most cases, is quite simple. Step 1: Use the correct voicing. For oboe it should be low and open, like blowing very warm air. This is usually … Read more

Why tune to the oboe?

Photo, nobleviola

Why do orchestras tune to the oboe?

Well, because it’s tradition, I suppose. But, realistically, in a professional group the pitch standard is likely determined in advance, and the oboist will use an electronic tuner to be sure they are giving precisely the correct pitch, so it could just as well be anyone.

But the principal oboist is almost always the keeper of the A. It seems like there are a lot of theories floating around as to why, none of which make the slightest bit of sense. I found all of these professed as gospel truth in less than five minutes of Googling:

  • Because the oboe can’t be tuned. Firstly: hogwash. (True, the oboe doesn’t have a built-in tuning slide. But an oboist can “tune” by switching reeds, and can humor individual notes sharper or flatter on the fly, just like any wind player.) Secondly: if we tune to the principal oboe because it can’t be tuned, then what is the second oboist expected to do? Or the harpist? Or the pianist?
  • Because the oboe’s pitch is the most reliable. More reliable than, say, the glockenspiel? Given a high-quality instrument, an excellent reed, a fine oboist, and a 72.0°F room, then yes, the oboe’s pitch ought to be pretty solid. But on a stage full of trained musicians, I can’t see any reason to expect it to be more reliable than anyone else’s.
  • Because the oboe can be heard better through the group, because of its volume or tone or something. If that’s the criteria for selecting a tuning instrument, then I suggest that we consider the trumpet, or perhaps the piccolo. The Wikipedia article on the oboe, incidentally, mentions both stability and “penetrating” tone as reasons for oboe tuning, but cites an online article that no longer exists.
  • Because the oboe warms up to pitch faster than the other winds. This could be true, but how much longer does it really take to warm a flute or clarinet or trombone up to pitch? Hopefully the other musicians aren’t tuning before their instruments are thoroughly warmed.

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Using autotune in your practice sessions

Autotune has been getting a lot of attention lately. Whether you use it in recording or in performance is between you and your sound guy, but I think it also has useful application in the practice room. Here’s how to use it to shed some light on your own intonation. (I’m using all free Windows … Read more

Playing in tune

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:

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