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.
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.