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

As a follow-up to last month’s post on playing in tune, I would like to revisit the idea of adjusting woodwind tuning mechanisms (generally by the “pushing in” or “pulling out” of some joint of the instrument). Note that this information is probably of most value to advanced players; beginning and intermediate players should be focusing their intonation efforts on breath support and voicing.

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. The problem is that not all notes are affected equally.

For example, let’s keep the math simple and imagine an instrument that is 100cm long with its tuning mechanism pushed all the way in. And let’s imagine that instrument has a tonehole that can be opened to give the tube an effective length of 50cm.


Now suppose that you pull the tuning mechanism out by 1cm. The lengths of the tube for the notes are now 101cm and 51cm.


They have changed by the same absolute length, but not by the same percentage. The shorter-tube notes (those with more open toneholes) are more dramatically affected by changes in the tuning mechanism than the long-tube notes are.

This is a problem without a tidy solution. A high-quality instrument is built to play at a specific pitch standard (A=440, A=442, etc.) with the tuning mechanism adjusted to a precise location and at a specific temperature. The “easiest” way to play in tune is to own an instrument built to your preferred pitch standard (such as the one your ensemble tunes to), play only in spaces having a suitable temperature, and adjust the tuning mechanism to that precise spot every time. In reality, of course, we need the flexibility of a moveable tuning mechanism to adapt to a variety of circumstances, but we have to be aware of the consequences of pushing in and pulling out.

An additional wrinkle, so to speak, is that adjusting tuning mechanisms can introduce perturbations to the instrument’s bore. Skilled instrument makers can purposefully create perturbations to improve an instrument’s intonation, but undesirable perturbations can have non-intuitive effects on the instrument’s scale.

Here’s what I mean by the tuning mechanism creating a perturbation. Notice how when the tuning mechanism is pushed in the bore is a consistent width, but when the tuning mechanism is pulled out, there is a wider spot in the bore:


This is one of the benefits of tuning a clarinet or bassoon flatter by switching to a longer barrel or bocal: you get the additional length you need without creating a bore perturbation (though remember, notes are still affected unequally). A workaround for clarinetists is to use tuning rings, preferably matched to the instrument’s bore size at that joint, to fill in the perturbation.

Most of getting tuned up has to do with obtaining a high-quality instrument and playing it with high-quality basic technique (good breath support, voicing, and embouchure). That last little bit of improvement is complex and elusive, and understanding some of the reasons for that can help you get there.

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.

Playing flat on the clarinet

I frequently see this kind of question asked on online message boards:

I have a Nabisco clarinet with a Palmolive C43 mouthpiece and Marlboro 3¾ reeds. I am 30 cents flat all the time. What piece of equipment should I buy to solve this problem?

The answers are always varied (harder reeds, softer reeds, someone else’s favorite brand of reeds, an expensive mouthpiece, an abnormally short barrel, a specific model of clarinet) and generally completely off base.

On further prodding, the clarinetist with the flatness problem invariably turns out to be self-“taught,” sometimes with some degree of prior achievement on another wind instrument. This is a huge red flag that we are dealing with operator error.

Photo, matsuyuki
Photo, matsuyuki

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).

On the rare occasion that I do see this course of action advised, the poor flat clarinetist often has a number of excuses at the ready:

  • “I don’t have money for lessons.” (You should be able to get at least one and probably several lessons for what you would have spent on that new mouthpiece or barrel.)
  • “There aren’t any teachers near me.” (Have you really checked? The world, sadly, is full of very talented musicians who are underemployed and very much available for lessons. Check in with your nearest university music department, consult a school band director, or even try “Skype” or other online live-video lessons if you must, which are being offered more and more frequently by qualified teachers.)
  • “I already play a different instrument really well, so I’m pretty sure I can figure the clarinet out by myself.” (Learning a new instrument requires much more than a fingering chart and brash confidence. In particular, the clarinet’s voicing technique is unique among the major, modern wind instruments, and doing it wrong will result in—you guessed it—significantly flat pitch.)

Message boards and other text-based communication methods (even books) have their uses, but they aren’t a viable substitute for having a real, experienced clarinet teacher diagnose the problem and make some suggestions. Even if it does turn out that an equipment purchase is in order, do it under a teacher’s guidance—the money you spend on lessons is an investment in avoiding mistakes that are much more expensive.

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 wellThese 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 the result:

These notes respond beautifullyThese notes are flat and tubby-sounding

Step 2: Use powerful abdominal breath support. Voilà:

These notes respond beautifullyThese notes are in tune and full-sounding

I find that once voicing and breath support are balanced against each other, a good oboe with a good reed is one of the easiest woodwinds to play in tune, and responds easily in all registers.

This is, generally speaking, true of all of the woodwinds: solid breath support plus a stable voicing appropriate to the instrument are the recipe for reliable, in-tune notes from low to high.

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 software: Audacity and the GSnap plugin. You can also do it with Garage Band if you’re a Mac person.)

  1. Record yourself playing something you would like to get better in tune. Slow scales and arpeggios work great for general intonation practice, but you can also use a repertoire piece.

    Record yourself

  2. Make a duplicate copy of the track.

    Duplicate the track

  3. Dial up some fairly rigorous autotune settings. The simplest way to do this is to use equal temperament settings, but depending on your software and your practicing goals, you can also adapt this to other tuning systems. This is just for practice, so don’t worry about making things sound unnatural. Go a little T-Pain on it.

    Autotune settings

  4. Apply autotune to one of the tracks.

    Autotune one track

  5. Play both tracks back together. The notes that make you wince the most are the ones that are most out of tune. Are there certain notes, registers, or dynamic levels that are consistently a problem?

  6. Try muting the original track and playing along with the tuned one.

I like this method because it’s aural rather than visual (unlike using a chromatic tuner) and because it’s very results-focused. Try it over a few days or weeks and see how quickly you correct the pitch issues in your playing.

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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