Semester Project: Intonation

In Monday’s Fall 2012 preview, I neglected to mention one other long-term project, working on intonation. In general I have fairly good intonation, but noticed my pitch starting to creep up this summer. It was particularly noticeable during a recording session with organ at the beginning of August. The organ was tuned to A=440, and I was consistently higher than it through most of the day. I was able to compensate by simply pulling the slides a bit more than their normal settings, but it bugged me that I wasn’t settling right into the pitch already. Whether this was due to not playing regularly in an ensemble for several weeks, or somehow altering my practice habits which resulted in playing sharp, I’m not sure (although I have some suspicions, posted below). At any rate, I’ve been working steadily over the last week and will continue to do so in coming weeks to get the pitch down into the center of each note. If you have encountered a similar issue in your playing, perhaps some of these ideas will be of use to you. First, here are some possible reasons for the rise in pitch.

1. Excess tension, particularly at beginnings of notes: I have noticed that it is very easy to work yourself up into a tense state just prior to an entrance, especially if it requires a delicate articulation. I find that if I do that the note begins sharp and then I have to bring the pitch down after the initial attack.

2. Stretching/over-tightening the embouchure in the middle register: Obviously this issue is related to the first one, and probably has the same root cause-too much tension.

3. Too high a vowel sound/tongue position for the middle register: Probably caused by excess tension as well, though it is a little difficult for me to pinpoint exactly where the tension is. Ideally the tongue should probably be in a fairly neutral position for the middle register, as when saying the syllable “ahh.”

4. A false sense of where the center of each note is: As many players will attest, if you play sharp (or flat) for long enough, your ear will begin to hear the out of tune pitch as being in tune, and the embouchure will react accordingly. The problem hasn’t gotten too severe for me (yet), and thankfully after only a week of re-focusing on intonation I can already tell a difference in where I place certain notes.

There are certainly more reasons for less than acceptable intonation, but these seem to be the main ones I’m confronting right now. Ok, so what steps am I taking to improve upon it?

For Number 1 (and 2), breathing and relaxation work have been helpful, paying careful attention to avoid any hesitation between the inhale and attack. Air attacks are useful as well. For Number 3, I am working to reinforce a relaxed tongue and vowel sound for the mid-range (ahh, not eee). Number 4 is a work in progress, just like the rest, but is already showing some improvement after regular work with drones. I have worked with drones in the past, but not as intensely as in recent days. Right now I am spending more time playing with a tonic drone than without! I think drones (like those included with the Tune Up Intonation System) are much more beneficial than tuners, as they train the ear and not the eye. Do you have any other techniques for improving intonation? Feel free to comment below.

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