By Chris M. Bernotas
Playing in tune is one of the most important concepts of ensemble performance. It is also one of the most challenging to teach and accomplish. There are many ways to tune as an individual performer and as an ensemble member. Tuning presents a challenge because there are many variables that affect the performance. Some of those variables include the level of development of the student, the quality of the instrument, types of reeds and mouthpieces, the temperature of the hall, and even the harmonic voicing of the music.
Establish Awareness of Pitch
I find that the most valuable tool in teaching students to play in tune is to simply make them aware of the concept. I rarely, if ever, tell a student if they are sharp or flat. If I tell them, how will they ever be able to figure it out on their own? Simply telling students, or better yet, asking them, “Does that sound in tune to you?” or phrasing it differently, “Does your pitch sound the same as….” I also like to use other descriptors when bringing a student’s attention to tuning, “Does this sound clear or pure to you?” Coming up with words to describe what sounding in tune means is helpful for students.
Supplement with a Digital Tuner
The electronic/digital tuner is a wonderful tool. Directors are fortunate to have tuning aids available at their fingertips with many tuning apps. They are terrific for finding a reference pitch or for having students use with their individual practice to find out their particular instrument’s tuning tendencies. As terrific as they are, I encourage students to look away from the tuner while they are playing a note and then look only after establishing their natural pitch. If students are staring at the tuner immediately as they play, they often adjust to the visual element and aren’t developing their aural analysis. Once a student establishes a quality, natural sound they can then look at the visual meter and make adjustments to center the pitch. In an ensemble setting, beyond the reference pitch, I rarely use a tuner. Encourage students to listen, analyze and adjust. Encourage them to listen to pitch horizontally (as in a melodic/intervallic way) as well as vertically (harmonically).
Provide Options for Fixing Notes
Often we tell students to “adjust the tuning” or “fix that note” and many times that student will empty their water key, push and pull slides, or look at their instrument like there is something wrong with it. Part of learning to play in tune is learning what to do when you are out of tune. I like to give students a partial list of options: for example, a brass player may need to speed up the air, or slow it down. Maybe a clarinetist or other reed player needs to use more mouthpiece, or less, etc. I find that the tuning slide should be adjusted from time to time, but that is not always the first course of action. Giving students several options will again encourage them to take an active role in their tuning. Encourage students to individually experiment with their tuning adjustments. Let them try to figure it out–they are either sharp, flat or in-tune. Sometimes the right adjustment is no adjustment.
Reinforce the Concept
Constant reinforcement of the concept that tuning is an ongoing process is important. I have found that by maintaining a consistent focus on in-tune playing, there is much less need for having a student play a note and having the ensemble then match as with the familiar tuning procedure. Ways of reinforcing tuning would include spot-checking unison/octave pitches by sections and instrument families, checking chord tuning, passing notes from section to section. I also vary the timing of tuning reinforcement, if we only talk about tuning at the beginning of the rehearsal students may think that after that part of rehearsal tuning is over.
Student awareness of tuning concepts, understanding appropriate ways to use an electronic/digital tuner, sharing the knowledge of how to fix tuning issues, and consistent reinforcement that tuning is a never-ending process will help your students be active participants in your ensemble that is performing at its best.
Chris Bernotas is co-author of the revolutionary Sound Innovations series. An active composer and arranger of concert band music, his music has been performed at the Midwest Clinic and appeared on J.W. Pepper’s Editor’s Choice list and numerous state lists. Chris has been an instrumental music teacher in the Mountain Lakes School District in New Jersey for over 20 years.