I wanted to call this “How to Play in Tune the Hard Way,” but I figured no one wants an article on how to do something the hard way. There’s a simple fact that no one wants to admit: there’s no easy way to learn to play in tune.
The slow process of developing intonation takes a long time, and some of the techniques I’ve found most effective are things that most wind instrumentalists don’t want to do.
Let me first issue a word of warning.
If you’re at the beginning or even intermediate stages of learning your instrument, you probably shouldn’t concern yourself with this yet.
Intermediate trombone players can start with my tips on trombone slide positions.
First, your ensembles will be filled with people playing wildly out of tune, so it won’t even make sense to spend a lot of effort trying to do the impossible.
Second, there are other, more fundamental things that are a better use of your time like breath control, clean articulation, sight reading, shaping lines, dynamics, playing in uncomfortable keys, scale and arpeggio technique, opening up tone quality, etc.
Good intonation is possibly the hardest single technique on a wind instrument, especially brass. Brass only have a few valves, so each partial will come with its own set intonation issues.
Once you get your tuning note in tune, no other note on the instrument will be naturally in tune.
I think this is something many people never understand, but it’s a fact that results from basic physics (look this up if you don’t believe me; it would be too far afield to go into it here).
Remember, it’s not the instrument manufacturer’s fault. You can’t go buy a $30,000 super fancy instrument to surpass this. Physics is physics, and no manufacturer can do magic to break the laws of physics.
I literally slap my forehead when I’m in rehearsal and the conductor goes down the line on an E-flat and I see half the section pull their tuning slide out when told they are sharp. Even if that fixed that note, you’ve now messed up every other note on your instrument.
Here’s the process I went through in developing intonation, distilled into the five key steps I found most helpful.
Good news. This step is pretty easy. You just have to do something a bit tedious for one or two practice sessions.
Take a tuner and get your tuning note in tune. Unfortunately, if you play in a band that tunes to B-flat and an orchestra that tunes to A, you may want to do this relative to both notes just to get a better feel for how that affects things.
Now you’re going to go through every note on your instrument and play them as neutrally as possible. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, and you may want to do it once going up and once going down scales. Going up to a note often results in a different pitch than coming down.
You also want to make sure you don’t get fatigued at any point, because this will change the pitch. You should be fully warmed up so that the pitch doesn’t rise as the instrument warms up. It’s good to recheck the tuning note every few readings to make sure nothing has gone awry.
It turns out that people have done this quite extensively, and you can even find their charts of readings online. Do NOT use these, even if it’s the exact make and model of your instrument.
Every individual instrument is different. Your mouthpiece will make a difference. Your embouchure and air control and multiple other factors will all change the readings you get. (See my thoughts on buying an instrument here.)
Learn how to play these notes in tune.
You’re halfway through this step now. First off, you have to learn the tendencies of your instrument. Learn which notes are way, way off and which are pretty close already.
This will seem like an impossible task if you’ve never done it, because there’s a lot of notes. But, I promise you it won’t take all that long if you just keep a tuner on while you play a few practice sessions.
The next step is to learn how to play every note in tune according to the tuner. This might require pulling various notes up or down with your lips if it’s pretty close. Tuba players often move their tuning slide for notes that are way off.
More than likely, though, you’re going to need to resort to alternate fingerings. This is going to seem really strange at first. You might be thinking: if I have to play C above the staff as 1-3 instead of 1 to get it even close to in tune, why was I even taught the other fingering?
Well, every instrument is different! Again, it doesn’t take much time to get used to these new fingerings. My rule of thumb is to use them on anything that lasts longer than a quarter note.
I use the “normal” fingering for faster runs, because the intonation issue won’t be heard at those speeds, and I’ve already ingrained the technique into my fingers.
Don’t forget to do this with a mute if you need to.
Great! You’ve completed a task only 1% of brass players ever do. Okay, I made that number up, but very few people put in this type of work on intonation.
2. Music Theory
I hear the groans. How could there be more? I’ve learned to play my instrument in tune. That was the point of Step 1, wasn’t it?
Nope. Step 1 was to learn the tendencies of your instrument, so that you get close.
Don’t be that person who does step 1 and then sits in rehearsal with a tuner on their stand playing every note perfectly in tune. Every ensemble has one. I get so mad when there’s an intonation problem, and that person chimes in that someone else is flat.
Like, how would you know? You’re looking at a tuner, but that tells you nothing about whether someone is in tune in the context of the ensemble and piece of music.
So, step 2 is music theory.
Half of you have tuned out (see what I did there?) at the mention of theory. You don’t want to think about how to voice-lead figured bass. You just want to play your instrument. What could music theory have to do with any of this?
Bear with me. This is actually the easiest step.
Just Intonation vs Equal Temperament
It turns out that the 12-note scale system we use in Western music comes from considering the harmonic series over a fundamental. This is beautifully explained in the Hindemith’s book The Craft of Musical Composition (Book 1).
But if we go purely off the harmonic series, we get a bunch of weird notes. The first note would be an octave and then roughly a fifth above that and then roughly a major third above the fundamental.
This goes on and on producing infinitely many notes. After the series produces 12 “new” notes, we roughly get all the notes of the chromatic scale.
These aren’t quite the notes as we think of them. For example, if you got your C perfectly in tune and you played a G produced from the harmonic series against a tuner, it would be 2 cents sharp. This is actually the same physical reason a brass instrument can’t ever be made to be in tune.
The way we get the notes of our commonly understood chromatic scale is to just shift each of these notes so that they are defined to be 12 equally spaced steps between an octave. That’s why we call it equal temperament tuning.
Playing Perfectly in Tune
What does this have to do with anything?
Okay. I get it. That music theory lesson seems to be completely unrelated to playing in tune. But the goal of playing in tune is to get those perfect resonances from chords. The point of improving intonation is to sound in tune.
And here’s the thing: our ears want that harmonic series. So if you’re playing the fifth of a chord perfectly in tune, it needs to be 2 cents sharp from where it would be on the tuner. If you’re playing the third of a major chord, it needs to be 4 cents flat from where it would be on a tuner.
You don’t need to understand the derivation of these things, but you have to know that you can’t just make that needle of the tuner hit dead center and think that you’re in tune.
Now you might be starting to see why this is the hardest skill to learn on a wind instrument. Not only is your instrument wildly out of tune by nature, but you can’t even “play in tune” to play in tune.
This brings us to the golden rule of intonation:
The ensemble is always right.
If the oboe player accidentally plays the tuning note at A=444, then that’s where the tuning of the ensemble is going to be that night. If the pitch rises over the course of the rehearsal, you have to go with it.
As much as it pains me to say it, if the person next to you doesn’t know they have to play their high G with 3 instead of 1-2, then you can’t just stubbornly play it in tune, clashing with them. You either kindly help them and try to meet them halfway, or you play the note where they’re playing it.
Sticking to your tuner is the surest way to play out of tune. You must learn to listen and play in tune with the people around you. You must listen to figure out what degree above the root of the chord you are to know how to change the pitch to play the chord in tune.
Now you’ve done all this work, but we’re not even half way. As this section should make clear, everything is about context. So we have to start learning how to hear our context.
3. Ear Training
This is undoubtedly the hardest step. There are two goals we’re aiming at: hear the in-tune note before playing it and understanding the function of the note.
The easiest way I found to do both of these things was singing. Now, before you protest, I’m not talking about going out, booking a stage, and performing Puccini’s “Nessum Dorma.”
So there’s no need for that panic attack you just underwent at the thought of singing. No one will hear you sing except yourself.
Here’s what I’ve found most effective. You can experiment to find something that works for you. I learned solfege. This just puts a word to the degree of the scale you’re on.
I spent something like 5-10 minutes a day at a piano and just picked a random note and played it. This served as the bass or fundamental or key. I would then draw a solfege syllable out of a hat. I’d try to sing the syllable.
(You’ll probably want to just do scales and arpeggios on solfege if singing and/or solfege is 100% new to you).
This meant no matter the bass note, I started to internalize what each scale degree felt like.
I’ve heard that people with perfect pitch understand notes as colors, and that’s how they make the association. I started to associate functions of notes as feelings. It’s kind of hard to describe, and this will probably be different for most people.
The result of doing this was that I’d be in rehearsal, and I’d realize, based on feel, that I was playing the third of the chord or the fifth or the root or the seventh.
This process doesn’t take much effort each day, but it did take quite a few months of consistency to get noticeable results.
Hearing the Correct Tuning
This will be done at the same time as the above. You don’t want to practice just getting close. You want to simultaneously start to hear where to place the fifth to get that perfect resonance.
I did this the same way. I would sing where I thought the fifth was supposed to be, and then I’d check with the piano and a tuner. Of course, the piano doesn’t actually give you the correct note (not only is the piano probably not perfectly in tune, but it’s in equal temperament).
You’ll probably start by sliding into the note. You’ll sing roughly a fifth, and then adjust until you hear it’s right.
This is good practice! Hearing what’s close but wrong by adjusting is a useful part of the process. But there will come a time that you’ll want literally hear the perfectly in-tune pitch and then sing it right on.
This is because you won’t be able to play the note in tune on your instrument without first hearing where it’s supposed to be.
Congratulations! The hardest part is done.
Now it’s time to apply your newfound skills to your instrument. Before you get to your ensemble, you’re going to want to practice a bit. The ensemble is going to have all sorts of crazy things going on that will throw you off.
Pick your favorite slow, lyrical etudes. Turn on your tuner. You aren’t going to look at it. Just let it drone the root of the I chord. Presumably the piece will end on this note (though there are several Rochut studies that do not).
Use your finely-honed ear, together with the knowledge of the tendencies of your instrument to play the piece in tune with respect to the tuner drone.
This isn’t perfect, because the function of most of the notes isn’t actually the function it serves in relation to the fundamental. But this is just a practice exercise.
It will be very hard at first. Getting a brass instrument to produce exactly the sound you have in your head is significantly harder than singing the note. You will need to rely on the knowledge from Step 1, alternate fingerings, changing lip position, and possibly moving a tuning slide when necessary.
(For the record, this is why trumpet is easier than low brass in this regard. Professional quality instruments allow them to move their first and third valve tuning slides with their thumb and pinky. We low brass players must find other methods.)
Now it’s time to put it all together! There’s not much to say here. Once you’ve done the hard work of the previous steps, you’re going to have learn to do this in the heat of the moment.
This step is a lifelong process. It’s going to depend a lot on the ensemble, the piece of music, the place in the piece of music, the instruments playing along with you, how well those people play in tune, etc.
The main thing to get used to in this step is learning to listen all over. It’s easy to listen to the person next to you or your section. But maybe you’re doubling the flute part, or a chord is inverted and the clarinets have the root. You’ll have to base your lowered third on them.
But now you have the tools to hear and understand this. It’s just going to take a lot of time and experience to do it well. Good luck!
This is by no means the only way to do this. Many people I’ve played with have insanely good natural ears, and so after getting comfortable with their instrument, they seem to always hit that sweet spot.
Other people just get better over time with minimal directed practice, because as their ear gets better, and they play with better people, they just start to match pitches.
I don’t claim this is a magic formula. This is the hard way to do it, but I’m pretty sure these steps, done intentionally, will do wonders for any low brass player hoping to improve their intonation.