Tuning is something I address often in my teaching, partially because I feel like it was missing in my early music education. With so many things to address in young players, it’s not surprising that intonation gets left for later.
As a young player I knew I didn’t really understand tuning. I could tell if something was really wrong, but I never knew if I was sharp or flat and it took me what felt like forever to remember if you push in to be more sharp or flat. (If you’re reading this and you don’t know: to make the instrument higher push in to be short and high like a piccolo; to make the instrument lower pull the headjoint out so the flute is longer and lower.)
What I did know as a young musician was that if I tried something - rolling in, rolling out, pushing the headjoint in or pulling it out, I could figure out the right way to adjust (it becomes pretty clear if you go the wrong way!)
A few of the tools that truly helped me along the way to develop practical skills and understanding of intonation were playing long tones with the tuner, harmonics, and playing duets with others.
My skill in intonation improved steadily but slowly as I went through high school and college. Along the way I learned the difficult lesson that if we play a note out of tune long enough, our ears memorize that incorrect tuning as where the note belongs.
For example, as flutists we often struggle with the intonation of notes that are quite flexible like C# and high G. Not only does that mean we end up memorizing the placement of those notes out of tune, but also that we memorize the distance of intervals involving those notes incorrectly as well.
As you might guess, one of my major tasks was to correct my ear’s memory. I needed to really understand where each note belonged.
I knew leaving undergrad that I was still facing much of this task, and during my Master’s degree my teacher Stephanie Jutt helped me tremendously with this by catching the places where I had a wrong relationship memorized, and by reinforcing the usefulness of playing with a drone.
Using a drone for practice was not new to me, but making a point to do it consistently was. Like most things that are worthwhile, it takes time and patience to start to hear more intricately what is happening with tuning beyond just the large, glaring discrepancies. Although it may seem mundane, one of the greatest benefits of doing scales and chords with a drone is learning to hear and feel the correct relationships between the notes in a scale, a chord, or a specific interval.
When I was in school we used “The Tuning CD” (yes it was an actual CD) which had midi versions of chords that you could play along with. It worked, but if you’re familiar with earlier midi sounds, it wasn’t the most pleasant thing to listen to for a long period of time.
One of my favorite resources for playing with a drone now in teaching and my own practice is on Spotify (and probably other music services, although I haven't checked): Cello Drones for Tuning and Improvisation.
Playing with the cello sound is not only more pleasant than midi, but I think comparing our tuning to a natural timbre is helpful with providing perspective on how tone color and quality can impact our intonation.
When we practice with a drone, or any time we practice intonation, the activity we’re taking part is a simple and obvious one: listening.
What makes this particular type of listening so different from our day to day listening is the depth we are cultivating. When we intently listen with intonation in mind, we are listening for the slightest variance we can detect in that moment. We are actively growing our capacity to hear smaller and smaller details.
Intonation is all about relationships.
We can’t tell if we’re in tune or not if there is nothing to make a comparison to. When we are playing by ourselves, this means we need those note-to-note relationships to be accurate, and we need to use them as a guide. When we play with others, it means committing to listening without making the assumption that we’re the one who is right and then being willing to adjust as necessary.
A willingness to listen deeply and adjust are the prerequisites for good intonation.
Ultimately, this requires us to get outside of ourselves and experience what we’re hearing both intellectually and physically (Most of us have encountered the physical feelings of dissonance - when you can actually feel the vibration of the notes fighting against each other).
Playing in tune also requires us to let go - to release the previous placement of notes that we committed to if we can learn a new and better way. And, to let go of the need to be right (does it matter if your intonation is right if you sticking to where you put the note makes everyone sound bad?).
Being a musician who plays with good intonation looks a lot like being a human who plays well with others - both require us to learn to trust ourself and our ears fully but not blindly.
As I was sitting here staring at a blank page thinking and thinking about how I didn’t have anything to write, it occurred to me how much time I spend thinking so hard about so many different things that don’t really matter very much, or maybe aren't even real.
Why did that one G come out so funny in rehearsal last week? Why do I feel so disorganized about what I need to practice? Why can’t I remember to water my plants? Why didn’t I plan better before I went grocery shopping this week?
I would guess not everyone does this to the same extremes, but I’m also pretty sure I’m not alone in the amount of brain space and time I can spend considering a lot of important (and unimportant) things ad nauseam.
A few days ago I caught myself doing this while I was practicing. I’ve written about different scenarios of this before, but for some reason it sparked a light bulb moment this week, even though I’ve already experienced similar realizations. (We keep being given the same messages until we learn what we need from them, I think.)
When I’ve written about this before it was about overthinking that happens when we have so much on our to-do lists that we catastrophize all of it to the point of not being able to get started. My experience this week was different in a subtle, but important way.
As I was practicing, I was honed in on something that felt a little weird or “off” in my playing - something that, I kept thinking, I should be able to do effortlessly and that I shouldn’t ever have to think about at this point. I caught myself thinking that this particular aspect of my playing was so solid and easy before, how could I have regressed so that it wasn’t?
As I was ruminating, out of nowhere and for a brief moment, I had a sliver of outside perspective. I remembered the reality of previous practice sessions days, months, and even years ago. I realized that I might not have been paying much attention to this aspect of my playing before, but that wasn’t because it was perfect. I remembered clearly other times that I had off-days with this particular skill.
This tiny moment of clarity allowed the thought fog to lift and reminded me that we really can’t believe everything we think.
I had been understandably frustrated with something that doesn’t usually require my attention, but in allowing my frustration to run rampant I had started telling myself stories that went well beyond the actual experience at hand about my abilities, approach, and playing without even realizing how far into the fabricated future I was letting my thoughts travel.
Even though this experience was subtle, it felt like a huge step forward. How long would I have created unnecessary frustration and distraction over this issue in my practice if I hadn’t been able to see what was happening with a wider perspective?
I believe whole heartedly that mindfulness meditation is what has created an increasing number of these very subtle “ah-ha” moments for me both in music and life.
Much like practicing our instruments, practicing mindfulness can seem slow to progress and sometimes tedious, but the growth is always available to you if you are willing to stick with the practice.
How aware are you of your thoughts in the practice room?
Can you really see where the division is between what’s happening now in the moment and what you’re predicting about the future?
How could you strengthen your mind to see the moment clearly?
I had a great conversation with a friend this week where we were discussing right effort, the way our thoughts shape our actions, and specifically, how we use our thinking to avoid challenges and challenging work.
It was a little light bulb moment for me about how what might feel like a persistent self-critical train of thought might actually be a sneaky method of avoidance.
Think about how often we make critical statements about ourselves in our thoughts. We see someone performing well and think we can’t, or we look at someone who is in shape and think we could never manage the self discipline. Perhaps when you are practicing you have thoughts that some aspect of your playing will just never be very strong.
In some ways these thoughts can feel helpful, even productive. It feels like we are identifying the places we are deficient, that we are creating a laundry list of ways we’d like to be better, and selecting things we will work on later (probably).
But are we really creating a productive task list? Or are we repeating a predictable, easy list of “things to do” that makes us feel like we’re getting somewhere, substituting it for actionable steps or objectives?
Being a good musician requires us to think critically, but the quality of the feedback we are giving ourself matters.
The next time you catch yourself thinking a generic critical statement in the practice room, see if you can catch it and challenge yourself to go deeper. Not just identifying what is bad, but really naming the specifics - what do you want to change and how you could do that. Even if you don't land on the right solution on the first try, which we usually don't, you're moving in a productive direction.
Do your best to keep seeing the moment in depth, and try to stop those generic critical thoughts from pulling you off track.
Have a clear intention for your actions and keep looking close to avoid getting caught up in generalities.
Of course this isn’t as easy as just saying something needs work and moving on like we regularly might. Our usual laundry list of critiques does serve a purpose - it lets us feel like we are accomplishing something.
Changing our habits and getting to the root of our critical thoughts doesn’t have to be painful, though. In fact, I think it should be the opposite. As we start to see the results of employing truly critical thinking, we’re motivated to keep up the good work. You might even feel less bad overall because you are no longer simply identifying things you don’t like about yourself or your habits.
Creating a healthier approach to critical thinking comes from right effort, curiosity, mindfulness, and a willingness to sit with some discomfort. By making our efforts more intentional we can have a more equanimous approach to ourselves and the things that are important to us.
Have you ever heard your teachers say their goal is for you to “teach yourself”?
It’s a common goal in music for teachers to discuss this concept, because at some point every student steps out on their own without a teacher they see each week to keep them on track. Although we can always choose to work with a teacher, no one knows us better than ourself. We all become independent learners at some point.
When we’re a student, growing the ability to teach ourself can look like taking our teacher’s advice about practice techniques, time management, listening, etc., and learning how to apply it appropriately in the practice room. During this time in our development, we still get to check in each week to make sure we’ve applied the tools correctly and are moving in the appropriate direction.
What about after school? We don't all go into teaching, but I've learned a lot about teaching myself from teaching others. I view my students very objectively - my goal is always to really see and hear what they are doing, notice what is holding them back, and find creative solutions that work for them specifically. (i.e. My mean inner critic never comes out when I’m listening to a student the way it does when I’m “teaching” myself.)
Beyond the reality that we are much meaner to ourselves than we are to others, there’s also the fact that we usually learn to guide ourselves at the same time we lose both our access to private lessons and the structure of music school. When it’s up to us to create our learning structure, that can prove a large hurdle in itself.
So when we really get down to practicing and improving on our own, how can we balance (or just plain shush) the inner critic who always has a lot of mean and distracting things to say but not nearly enough productive feedback to give?
I think there’s something missing from the whole process of the way that we are taught to approach teaching ourselves, and how we are taught to manage our fear and self criticism from the beginning.
This is a recent realization for me, brought on by a truly inspirational session of George Mumford’s mindful athlete course. During that particular session, it came up for a few people that they still feel so much doubt or anxiety doing the things they are skilled at. That as we build skill and expertise, we can often feel even more susceptible to outer judgement, and especially to self criticism.
In these scenarios where we know that we are able to do something, but afraid to realize our inner masterpiece (as George calls it), we can feel paralyzed. How do we keep moving toward our goals without getting distracted from right effort by our doubt and self criticism?
When we’re really being vulnerable and pushing ourselves it can often feel like our faith or trust in ourselves, and what we’re doing, has vanished. We can be distracted by the difficulty and demand of what we are trying to do. What we need is to cultivate trust in ourselves, our performance, our message, and our ability to show up in the way we need to.
Personally, I can feel overwhelmed by perfectionist thoughts, and this understanding that the mental barrier is arising from vulnerability and trying something challenging makes it easier to address.
How do we address it exactly, though? How do we cultivate trust?
See the moment in depth:
* Either reflect back on when you challenged yourself and felt vulnerable or try to experience that moment deeply in real time.
* Were you scared the entire time? As you look deeper, you will realize that there is a lot more nuance to it than that.
* Are you self critical the entire time? Or can you look with more intention to see beyond the self criticism and notice all the ways you know to help yourself practice well and grow your playing.
* As you start to see the truth in depth, see your fear and your inner critic, and also see how they intertwine with the entirety of your experience.
As you start to become aware of the truth - the depth of your experience - you will become more relaxed and observant which allows you to move forward moment by moment, doing what you know to do. You can focus on right effort.
Teaching ourselves is an exercise in mindfulness - how are we speaking to ourselves? What are we paying attention to, and do we need to shift our attention? How are deeply are we experiencing the moment?
The objective is not to remove our doubt, but to make doubt the tool for learning. Know that doubt shows you where you can grow.
At some point during the same session of the Mindful Athlete George said, “when you want to learn something, teach it.”
What better way could there be to grow as a musician than to learn to mindfully teach ourself?
Hi, I'm Morgann! A flutist, teacher, meditator, aspiring yogini, and life long learner figuring out how to create my way through life one crazy idea at a time.