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The Case of the Disappearing Intonation

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Intonation can be a frustrating thing, especially on low brass instruments. The larger the instrument, the more dramatic are the pitch inconsistencies from note to note. It's a little worse than it might be because of the cost of making a larger instrument - that can discourage a manufacturer from making too many experimental horns in a quest for improved intonation.


If that weren't bad enough, a large brass instrument has a lot of exposed sheet metal that is affected by the slightest cool breeze in a room. If the temperature of the horn changes it will affect the pitch, and pitch discrepancies may get even worse when one part of the horn is cold and another part is warm.


There are some things you can do to cope - don't worry! First, there is a free tool you can download from this site. Tom Ball has generously provided a series of tuning tones to help you train your ear. First you can learn to play perfectly in tune with each of the 12 chromatic tones. You try to match the pitch, and if you are off either way (sharp or flat) you will hear "beats" in the combined sound of your tone and the recorded tone. The beats are a vibrato-like pulsing that happens when two pitches don't quite agree. The pulses are produced because of the mathematical difference between the frequency of the two pitches, and they get faster as the pitcher are further apart. So you adjust your pitch until the beats slow more and more and finally stop. You can find the free downloadable tones on this page:


Euphonium Resources


As you get more comfortable playing in unison with these tones, then try to play good-sounding intervals with the tone. Perhaps you want to start with a 5th, which is a fairly pure-sounding interval. A major 3rd is also a good interval for your practice. Major 3rd's don't sound quite right if both pitches are perfectly in tune with an electronic tuner. As you get better, you can learn to tune closer intervals such as a major 2nd.


Perhaps the most popular way to correct intonation is via an electronic tuner. These are devices that are anywhere from pocket-sized to the size of a medium boom box. Most tuners can read any pitch you play, tell you what pitch it is, and tell you the degree to which it is sharp or flat. Some can also play tones for you to match by ear and a few even have a built-in metronome to work on your tempo (but that's a topic for another article). I suggest the Korg TM-40 (which also includes a metronome), which you can find on:


Amazon Tuba-Euphonium Store, Tuner Section


Such a tuner can pick up other instruments in the band if you leave it running on your music stand. If you watch it for a while you can get a sense of where some of the other folks are centering their tuning.


Also, the human ear/psychology seems to want to be a little sharper than those around us. This lets us hear ourselves better. And/or you may be pushing your own pitch up because the way you blow the horn.


Perhaps the most confusing factor is the changing temperature of the horn as you warm up. When your horn is cold, its metal cools the air inside, and cold air vibrates more slowly than warm air. The result is that your horn plays flat when it is cold. It is crucial that you be aware of this, and also that you be aware of how long it can take to get the horn properly warmed up if you practice in a cool room. In my first year in The U.S. Coast Guard Band we had no electronic tuner available. I encouraged the Band to get one, which they did (a Conn Strobotuner). Even though we had some very fine players from Eastman and other great music schools, most were not used to working with a tuner (they were not nearly as common then as they are now). One player tuned very carefully before rehearsal started. Then after an hour, when we took a break, he went back to the tuner and pronounced that it was useless because now it showed him as sharp. Of course the reason was that his instrument had warmed up after an hour of hard playing so his pitch had risen. But our ears may not tell us this! It happens gradually and happens to the whole ensemble, so nothing seems different.


During your own practice it is important that you check some pitch reference to make sure you are not pushing more and more sharp as you play. I think the process goes something like this:
  • When you start to practice/rehearse your horn is cold, which makes it flat

    Because your ear wants to hear a "normal" pitch, you lip the horn sharper
  • As the horn warms up its pitch goes up too, but your body is now in the mode of pushing the pitch higher, so you keep doing that
  • At some point you may realize you are now sharp, so you pull out your slide
  • The end result of this process is that you MAY be pulling the slide out to compensate for your habit of pushing the pitch up


Once you have a tuner, get used to using the main tuning slide as much as possible to establish the basic pitch. Push it in when you first take the horn out to practice. Play a few notes to get your chops working. Turn on your tuner. Play your B-flat with your eyes closed, trying to find the horn's own center regardless of what your ears are telling you - try to "feel" the center of the tone physically. Then open your eyes as you are playing your tuning note and see what the tuner says. Adjust your slide to fix the pitch. Then go through the same process after 5 or 10 minutes of playing, when your horn has gotten warmer. Do it again after another 5-10 minutes. You may be surprised how much the pitch has changed as you warm up. But each time you tune, make sure you are not blowing sharp, so look for the horn's center with your eyes closed, then open them to check the pitch.


You can also use the tuner during band rehearsals. First, it might give you insight into the tendencies of the band in general or of individual players/sections. The loudest instrument is usually the one it finds, but not always. The electronic tuner probably has an indication of what note it is picking up, so you can make a good guess who it is picking up. If you want to be sure it picks you up instead of those playing around you, a clip-on microphone is the only good answer. You will find one on this page:


Tuba-Euphonium Store Home Page


Then there is the zig-zag vs. zag-zig syndrome when you are playing in an ensemble. You've probably experienced this one many times. You get to a note with another instrument or group of instruments, and the more you try to tune it (in either direction) the worse it seems to get. This happens when both players are searching for the note and the pass each other in the middle as they continue on their quest for the "beatless" unison. If you really work with a tuner you get to learn how far each note is off and in whether it is off in the flat or sharp direction. About 90% of the time you can lessen the "pitch searching" by just adjusting the note the way you have learned it should be. And if you are confident that you have mastered that note's pitch, you might try staying put and letting the other player(s) find you (but don't be stubborn about it, and be sure you know what you are doing).


Long-term bad habits can sneak in if you are not careful. Just as during a day's practice you can, without realizing, start to blow the pitch above where the horn actually is, the same thing can happen over days or weeks. You may gradually start to feel normal when you are playing higher than the horn "wants" to. (You may have noticed I don't address playing under the horn's pitch. This is because in my experience playing under pitch is not the natural tendency for most people.)


One would think it normal to play under the horn's pitch when the chops aren't in good shape. The logic would say that when your chops aren't strong, they will have trouble maintaining the center of each note and the overall pitch will droop. But the opposite seems to happen. My personal theory is that when you are not in good shape, your chops are less supple and you have to force them to do their job. Our bodies compensate for that type of thing automatically, so you are likely not to be aware of it.


So how do you know if you are blowing sharp? The tuner won't necessarily tell you because it will just register the (sharp) result without complaining. Your tone will be thinner than it could be, but since that happened over time you probably won't have noticed that, either. There are a couple techniques you can use to fight/cure this.


1) As you play a note, move the pitch from sharp to flat to sharp, etc. based on where the pitch started. Keep doing that for several cycles. As you listen to your tone, pay attention to the tone quality. You will probably notice a "sweet spot" as you pass through the middle of the pitch. When your chops agree with the horn's own placement of a note, your sound will be the best, so try to hear where that happens. By the time you have bent the pitch around several times your ear will have forgotten where you started, so you have a better chance of playing that note without the habit of blowing it sharp. Now play the pitch with your eyes closed and try to find that sweet spot, where your tone sounds the richest and most relaxed. Open your eyes and see what the tuner says.


2) You can also purposely practice playing flatter than the horn is set. My old colleague, Denis Winter, was instructed to do this in college to help him develop a richer sound (and it worked!). So push your tuning slide all the way in but still try to match the tuner as you play some simple melodies. You probably want to do this for several minutes. Several benefits may develop. First, you will get stronger chops that are more able to control a pitch. Second, you will help to throw off your (possible) sense of wanting to play too sharp. Third, you may improve your tone. And you will also learn better where your horn is sharp and flat. The notes that are hardest to hold down to pitch when your slide is all the way in are probably the ones that are sharpest to begin with. Your ear is not going to be much help at this because when playing so far under where the horn is set, you hear funny effects. That's why you really want to have a tuner at your disposal.

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Comments

  1. ChristianeSparkle's Avatar
    Hi Sir,

    I have a question in regards 1) and the part in http://www.dwerden.com/eu-articles-l...Intonation.cfm where Mr. Lehman mentioned about marking every notes while tuning to a tuner to get a feel of what the tendencies of each notes.

    Do do both of those exercises with all the valve slides fully in, with only the main tuning slide tuned to Bb?

    I am trying to understand all of these exercises before I do them in case I do them wrongly and make things worse for me.

    Thank you!