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Performance and Pedagogy Blog

A blog about the performance and pedagogy of music.

Filtering by Tag: intonation

Intonation is Relative

Andrew Hitz

"It is okay to play out of tune. It is not okay to stay out of tune."

-Michael Davis of (Hip-Bone Music and Former Trombone Player for the Rolling Stones)

This also brings to mind one of my favorite phrases: "Intonation is a social skill."

If two people are playing together and are not in tune with each other it doesn't matter what the tuner says. One is not flat and the other sharp. "They" are out of tune.

Whether you are "right" or "wrong", when you notice you are out of tune, fix it.

Intonation is a Social Skill

Andrew Hitz

"Intonation is a social skill."

I posted this quote on my Facebook Page a couple of days ago and it got over 100 likes.  I believe I first heard this said by Rex Martin but I'm not sure.  Playing in tune with others has just as much to do with social skills as it does with the length of your instrument.

We have all played with "that guy" who thinks he has a pretty incredible ear and yet always seems to have trouble playing in tune with others.  Sometimes "that guy" blames others with their words and other times they simply convey their disappointment with those around them through their body language, eye rolls or any of a plethora of non-verbal communications.  No matter how great that player is, no one ever wants to play with "that guy."

You have to be flexible with your intonation always in all situations.  100% of the time.  No exceptions.  You can have a PHD in intonation and if you are "in tune" and the other four members of a quintet are all equally "sharp" you've got a problem.  No audience member would ever hear you as in tune and the others as all sharp.  You are flat.  End of story.

The best set of ears I've ever played with belong to a trumpet player and my former colleague in Boston Brass, Rich Kelley.  I describe him as having "beyond perfect pitch."  He is blessed (cursed?) with the ability to exactly identify whether any note is sharp, flat or in tune and by exactly how much.  Every single time.  I know he is not unique in this regard but he is as good as I've ever seen.

Coincidentally, playing in tune with Rich is easier than with anyone I've ever played with.  And that's not because he tries to steer the intonation ship from the top of an ensemble.  He agrees with Pythagoras on this one and listens down.  It's because he has one goal and one goal only: for the music to sound in tune.  He is incredibly helpful with rehearsing and being able to identify immediately whether a player is sharp or flat in any given chord.  But in the moment, he will do whatever it takes to make a chord sound in tune, which is the only goal any of us should ever have.

A very important part of playing in tune is also playing well with others.

My dog plays well with others and would probably play very in tune. © 2013 Andrew Hitz

Rex Martin's Tips to Playing In Tune (Part 1 of 3)

Andrew Hitz

My senior year at Northwestern University, my tuba professor, Rex Martin, gave the studio a handout he had written titled "A More Natural Intonation." This article is packed full of really useful tips for playing in tune.  I'm really glad that I still have it laying around over 15 years later.  There's enough great stuff in this article that I'll break it up into three posts.

"It is counterproductive to think in terms of intervals being lipped up or down.  If we do so, we are reacting to something we have already done wrong and are trying to fix it, instead of simply hearing what to sound like beforehand.  It is important to imagine the sound as a specific quality of tone, not simply a pitch.  If we hear the sound in our head as we play, our instrument will resonate those pitches and produce that tone, as long as we have the correct valve combination or slide position."

- Rex Martin

The above passage underscores the importance of clearly hearing exactly what you are trying to sound like in your head while you are playing.  When working off of a clear mental image, absolutely every aspect of your playing is taken care of.  Articulation, tone quality, musicality, note endings, and yes, intonation.

More often than not, when you are playing a note out of tune it is with a less than ideal tone quality.  This is why imagining a specific quality of tone in our heads is very important.  You can be blowing a pitch sharp on a brass instrument that is the proper length while either lipping it down or pulling a slide to make it in tune.  While it is certainly possible to play a note in tune in this scenario it is not possible to do so with a good sound.  Imagining the note in your head with a great tone in the first place would have fixed this scenario immediately.

Hearing the sound you are striving for in your head goes for brass, woodwind, percussion, strings, vocalists, everyone.  All of the greats hear a world class version of what they are performing in their heads as they play or sing and everything else, intonation included, takes care of itself.

Tonal Energy Tuner - The best tuner I've ever used.