Category: Band Training
Published on Saturday, 09 January 2010 08:39
Written by Bruce Gale
Value of Electronic Tuning Devices
The Musical Ideal
Unlike the piano and other keyboard instruments, good intonation on wind instruments is dependent as much on the effort of the performer as it is on the quality of the instrument he is playing. This makes ear training an important aspect of a wind band musician's education. Yet many school band directors do not approach the subject in a systematic way. Some students will have quick ears and may only need to be corrected occasionally. The majority, however, will need to be told what to listen for, and for some progress may be quite slow.
With the full band in front of him, the band director has a valuable opportunity to demonstrate exactly what is required. The exercises given here are fairly straightforward and only require the cooperation of one or two of the band’s more advanced musicians.
For the purpose of this exercise we will assume that the band director is a brass player and that he is working with a fairly elementary group. He invites the band’s first chair cornet player to join him on the podium. A quick tune-up follows in which the band director ensures that the pitch of his own cornet matches that of the student. [This exercise, and the ones that follow, generally work best when instruments of a similar timbre are used]. This can be demonstration enough for those with a quick ear. The aim of the exercise, however, is to reach all band members, not simply the more musically gifted.
Band members should be asked to listen for the subtle beating that indicates that the standing waves are out of phase.
The demonstration itself proceeds as follows. The band director announces that he will imitate an instrument that is playing too sharp. The student holds a sustained concert F (G on the second line of the treble clef for the cornet). The band director then joins in on his own instrument. After entering at the correct pitch, he lips up slightly to produce a mildly discordant sound. The procedure is then repeated, this time with the band director lipping down to imitate the sound of an instrument that is playing too flat. In both cases, band members should be asked to listen for the subtle beating that indicates that the standing waves in two instruments are out of phase.
To some readers the whole procedure may seem excessively elementary, but the fact remains that even experienced players sometimes need to be reminded what “too sharp” and “too flat” really mean. The human ear is more tolerant of sharpness in pitch than flatness. Told during a rehearsal that they are out of tune, many players tend to assume (often mistakenly) that they are too flat rather than too sharp.
Long tone studies are often advocated by band directors as a means of developing the embouchure, extending the range, and encouraging students to breathe properly. An equally important goal of such studies, however, is the development of the skills required to maintain a constant pitch. Beginners – as well as quite a few more advanced players -- are often blissfully unaware of their weaknesses in this department and need to have the problem pointed out to them in a way that they can readily understand. Fortunately, this can be easily accomplished through the use of an electronic tuning device.
Try this during sectional practice
The following exercise is best done during sectional practice. The players take turns playing long tones in the middle register while watching the needle or LED indicator on an electronic tuner. The aim, of course, is to ensure that the needle (and therefore the pitch) remains as steady as possible. This exercise works well on at least three levels. It (1) raises awareness of the problem, (2) encourages the sort of fine embouchure control necessary to manipulate subtle pitch variations, and (3) results in a much more sensitive ear.
Having developed the skill of playing long notes at steady pitches, the students then move on to using the tuner to help them deal with the problem of maintaining accurate intonation when playing at varying dynamic levels in the middle register as indicated below:
[Brasses, flutes and double reeds tend to go flat when playing a pianissimo, while clarinets and saxophones go sharp. Conversely, single reed instruments tend to play flat when playing a fortissimo, while other wind instruments go sharp.]
In essence, this is a test of the ability of the player to distinguish between the quantity of air being used and the speed of the air-stream. Thus the music director is provided with a valuable opportunity to point out an important principle that applies to both brass and woodwinds. It is this: the amount of air employed determines the volume, while the speed of the air determines the pitch. [Some argue that volume is also influenced by the size of the mouth cavity. A very loud, high register note is said to require a larger mouth cavity than a soft, low register note].
This exercise serves as a useful introduction to playing block chords of the type encountered in chorales. The band director selects three clarinet players (or three players from any other section of the band for that matter) and instructs them to use an electronic tuner to tune their instruments as precisely as possible to the different pitches of a major triad. They are then asked to play the triad several times so that both they and the whole band can hear what an in-tune chord sounds like. Then the band director adjusts the tuning device on one of the instruments so that it is slightly out of tune. The trio plays the chord again, producing a slightly off colour chord. In this way, everyone gets to hear the difference between good and bad intonation.
The embouchure plays and important role in determining pitch
The band director then instructs the players to adjust their embouchures so as to produce the original in-tune chord without altering the instrument’s tuning device. The students play the chord again, this time (hopefully) with considerably better intonation. By approaching the problem in this way rather than fiddling incessantly with the tuning mechanism on the instrument, the band director is able to illustrate yet another point that was made more subtly in the earlier exercise involving the cornets, i.e. the role of the embouchure in determining pitch.
Many band directors express frustration when, having (1) painstakingly tuned the band on a single note or chord and (2) ensured that each player is capable of holding a note at a steady pitch, the ensemble promptly reverts to its old habits when asked to play even the simplest of melodies. I am convinced that at least part of problem lies in the fact that many young players are unable to play in tune with themselves, let alone adjust their pitch to match that of others.
Once again, it is possible to turn to the electronic tuner for salvation. The following studies, transposed to an appropriately comfortable register for each instrument in the ensemble are designed to address this issue. Use them during individual and sectional practice.
The notes should be played very slowly, with the student paying close attention to the tuner to ensure that each interval is played accurately. Once this can be done successfully, students should be encouraged to work in pairs, with one playing the studies and the other holding the tuner in such a way that the performer is unable to see the LED indicator. In this case, a brief record should be kept about which notes the student habitually plays flat or sharp. This should then be followed by united sectional practice. As in the case of exercise #2, the goal is to raise awareness of the problem while training both the ears and the embouchure.
See the 'instant chorale" in the intonation section or another exercise that helps check for tuning and intonation.
Value of Electronic Tuning Devices
Opinions vary on the wisdom of using electronic devices. Some argue that tuning by ear alone is an excellent means of forcing young musicians to get into the habit of listening to each other. Excessive reliance on electronic devices, they insist, trains the eye rather than the ear and should therefore be avoided. This is possible, of course, but I rather suspect that the danger is over-rated. My own view is that electronic tuners can be enormously useful as bio-feedback devices, particularly when used with the sort of ear training exercises given above. Moreover, in cases where band members seem almost tone deaf -- usually the result of habitually playing out of tune under poorly trained or inexperienced leaders – heavy reliance on electronic tuners may be the only way an incoming band director can make any headway at all.
It is often a good idea to ask an inexperienced player whether he thinks he is playing flat or sharp relative to the first chair .
Even so, it is important to avoid getting into the habit of using an electronic tuner to tune the whole band. Most band directors use a system in which the first chair of each section tunes his instrument to an electronic tuner and then assists other members of the section tune to him. In the case of a very poorly trained band, this approach may take considerable time. However, it has far greater educational value. Moving through the band while this process is going on can help a music director gauge the extent to which young players are gaining the necessary listening skills. Often, it is a good idea to ask an inexperienced player whether he thinks he is flat or sharp relative to the first chair. Sometimes, a young student gets into the habit of adjusting the instrument’s tuning mechanism in response to instructions from a more experienced player rather than taking the effort to listen carefully for himself.
Bands that avoid using electronic tuners completely usually attempt to tune to the clarinet, piano or oboe. It would probably be better -- at least in theory -- if the band director insisted that the ensemble tune itself to one of the lower pitched instruments such as the tuba. Getting the lower brass in tune is especially critical because pitches produced on these instruments set up a series of overtones that actually sound in the range of the higher instruments. Thus, even if the lower brasses are only slightly out of tune, the whole band can be affected.
The Musical Ideal
The very best professional musicians go much further than anything we have discussed here, of course, training their ears to detect variations in pitch coming from just about anywhere in the ensemble. For such players, wrong notes are easy to spot. Elizabeth Green [The Dynamic Orchestra, Prentice-hall, 1987] relates the following incident involving the violinist Jacques Gordon:
When Jacques Gordon was concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a guest conductor stopped a rehearsal with “Wrong note in the horns.” The passage was replayed. Again the conductor stopped the musicians and made the same criticism. Once more the passage was repeated. Still the wrong note persisted. For the third time the conductor stopped in exasperation. Whereupon Gordon spoke (as concertmaster, this was his right): “Maestro, why don’t you tell them what the wrong note is?” Disgusted, the conductor asked, “Well, do you know what it is?” Gordon replied, “Certainly. The third horn is playing concert A-flat instead of A-natural.”
It would be unrealistic to expect all secondary school music directors – let alone their students -- to reach this standard of excellence. Even so, it is useful to be reminded from time to time just what the musical ideal is. Bands – and especially band directors! – who are not constantly striving to improve their listening skills are ultimately shortchanging themselves as well as their audience.