by legendary euphonium soloist, Arthur Lehman U.S. Marine Band,
edited by David Werden
Lots of us have heard of bands and individual players whose intonation is bad. We often wonder why this bad intonation couldn't have been corrected. Why wasn't it corrected? Sad as it is, many individual players and bands do not know that their intonation is so poor. If they finally learn that it is, they may not care. So there are the two causes of poor intonation - ignorance and indifference – which usually go hand in hand.
The players and bands who do care are slow to learn good intonation because that is the last thing a band or individual player is taught. Many bands play with fine style, are accurate, play all the accents and dynamics, and do well in all other ways, but fall down in the area of intonation. Soloists, too, often perform their solos very well except in the area of intonation.
Secondly, some bands and individuals simply do not possess the talent or capability of producing good intonation. This may seem like a brutally unkind statement to make, but none the less it is true. Those not capable of learning good intonation are saddled forever with their poor intonation.
Thirdly, bands and individuals who really want to develop good intonation must learn from someone. In the case of a band, the conductor must teach them. In the case of individual players, they must study it on their own, preferably with the aid of a good teacher. Too often conductors and teachers do not know enough about intonation to help very much. Certainly any conductor or teacher who goes through many band rehearsals and many individual lessons with no mention of intonation is not doing anything to help matters.
Carrying this on one step further, any conductor or teacher who knows about intonation and knows how to correct poor intonation, yet does nothing, is simply ignoring the problem. Ignoring it won't make it go away. Probably many such conductors and teachers exist.
Finally, less prevalent causes of poor intonation include:
- Faulty or inferior instruments (reeds, brasses, percussion)
- Improper mouthpieces (all brasses)
- Hearing problems
- Never listening to bands or individual players with good intonation
- Failure to really listen
Some aids toward achieving good intonation are:
- A good teacher
- An electronic chromatic tuner
- Good equipment (instruments and mouthpieces)
- A good conductor
- Always using A-440 as the tuning base
- A strong desire to learn
Of the list of causes of poor intonation directly above, probably the most prevalent are faulty equipment and failure to listen. Of the list of aids above, probably the most important are a good teacher and a strong desire to learn. In fact there is nothing to beat these two in learning anything about playing a musical instrument – a good teacher and a strong desire to learn.
Once you have a B-flat instrument’s middle B-flat into perfect agreement with the strobe, check the B-flat an octave lower. If it is O.K. do not mark it. If it is a bit sharp put a small arrow above the note. If it is a bit flat put a small arrow below the note. (Remember, if a note is sharp, the arrow points up, and if it is flat, the arrow points down.)
Then, check the B-flat an octave higher than your tuning note. On euphoniums this note is usually pretty sharp. Continue to check all notes on your scale, marking each note that is sharp or flat. If it is very sharp, write a big arrow. If very flat, a big arrow. If it is only slightly off, use small arrows.
The above is only part of the process of learning to play your instrument in tune. First, you must memorize whether each note in the scale is sharp, flat, or in tune. But before you do that, and before you set your electronic tuner aside, you must start correcting each note on the scale that is either sharp or flat. You will soon find that those notes with small arrows will be easy to push up or pull down. Make a mental note of how much you must push or pull each note (what effort it takes) and keep it in mind at all times when you play your instrument. So, when you memorize the scale you have written out, and which notes are sharp and flat and by how much, you will also be memorizing how much you must push and pull to get them into correct pitch.
Not every note with a big arrow will be difficult to push or pull into tune, but most will be. Some will seem to be unyielding. Just continue working with the note until you finally learn to bring it into correct pitch. Naturally, you will see this on the tuner. You will need to work with the tuner for quite a while until you have memorized all of the notes of your scale - which ones are off, by how much, and the amount of correction each requires.
There is more. What if, no matter how strongly you push or pull and how long you work with a certain note, it cannot be brought into correct pitch? You start working with the valve tuning slides. You will have been checking on your tuning note again and again, against that note on the tuner, so that you are positive that you are right in tune with the tuner. Now try pulling out a bit on the valve tuning slide affecting the note in question - the one giving you so much trouble. You will be able to get that sharp note in tune quite well by this method. But what about the notes an octave higher and an octave lower? Often you will find that, while you have corrected the first note, the note either an octave higher or lower has been worsened. Or it could be another note produced by using the same valve which the tuning slide affects is worsened. Then what? You will have to compromise. The worst note may need correction by pulling out the tuning slide for a partial correction, so that by further pulling down with your lip, you can get it into tune - while the note an octave lower, although worsened, is easy to correct with the lip.
By trial and error, pushing in and pulling out the tuning slides, checking all notes by using the affected valve, and by compromise whenever conflicts occur - you will finally learn the intonation of your instrument thoroughly. You will also learn completely how to set your tuning slides and exactly how to push and pull each note until, finally, you will be playing well in tune.
It is doubtful that any player of a valved brass instrument can ever learn his instrument as well as possible - as far as playing with very good intonation is concerned - without much study and work with an electronic tuner. Do use it!
Written by Arthur Lehman for Robert Hoe, April 14, 1983