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Correctly Using an Electronic Tuner

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The electronic tuner is a practice tool, like buzzing devices, a metronome, and even a mirror. It can have great value if used appropriately. As mentioned before in this thread, it is helpful learning the tendencies of the instrument(s) you play. If you know a particular note is generally flat, for example, you can at least start heading the most likely direction as you seek to tune to the harmonies around you when playing with others. You ear can tell you that your horn has some problem notes, but you can easily be mislead by the timbre of the horn and by our human tendency to get used to the problem notes sounding the way they do. On the older Besson euphoniums I played, for example, the 6th partial was very sharp. The more I tried to pull it down, the more off-center it sounded compared to what the horn would have preferred. The timbre made it sound flat when I bent it down, even though I may not have moved it all the way down to where it should have been. A tuner doesn't care about timbre; it will give you consistent information.

Some players like to use a tuner on their stand during rehearsal, which can also be useful if used with judgment. I have used it off and on. Sometimes you learn more quickly what your tendencies are when playing in different contexts (and at different volumes than you may normally practice). But I found just as much value in knowing what is going on around me. It is useful to know if the trumpets are playing sharp in a passage, for instance. And when I was having trouble finding a comfortable pitch in a chord, I sometimes dropped out to see what else was happening. Often I could see, as the tuner sought to find something to lock onto, that the chord was not in tune regardless of my contribution.

Note that it is important to train your ears in as many ways as possible. Playing along with "drone tones" is a valuable tool as well. (Drone pitches are long tones, usually produced electronically, that you use to learn to match pitch and to make intervals sound true.) Euphoniumist Tom Ball put together a set of drones and a helpful booklet, which I offer for free download on my site:

Drone Tuning Tones and Booklet

We did some experiments in the Coast Guard Band. Two of us would play a major third, each using a tuner and matching absolute pitch. The interval just didn't sound right. One had to stop being "dead right" in order to make the interval sound right.

When you practice with a tuner, don't just play one long tone after another. Also include normal practice while letting the tuner run. Take a look at it now and then. You may find you are doing things to the pitch that you did not intend to do just because of the context. Especially try playing a various dynamics. Your control over a pitch, and even your perception of the pitch center, may change as you get louder or softer.

A major advantage of a tuner is that it ignores your "habits of hearing" and tells you something based on an absolute standard. If you are used to hearing particular notes sharp or flat, that becomes your standard to some extent. But even without a tuner you can work to avoid that kind of perception. Play a familiar melody up a step, or down an octave. You may learn that intervals sound different because the melody now sits in the midst of different sharp/flat notes. It's a handy "reality check" for your ears.

Either a tuner or a metronome can be a useful tool or can become a crutch. Common sense helps a lot, as does a good instructor. Just keep in mind that the goal is making fine music, not playing like a computer!

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