Intonation

Words by Celia Craig

Intonation – a particularly hot topic for wind players. Good intonation makes the difference between audition and trial success or failure – and is a skill that sometimes passes unnoticed, because one is often only aware of the absence of intonation! Here are eight tools which can be kept in the intonation ‘toolkit’…

1. Know your instrument

It’s important to start off perfectly in tune – playing comfortably at A440. Warm up properly, allowing for temperature differences, to make sure you’ve really ‘nailed’ your own pitch. It makes life so much easier when everyone really is in tune from the start! Play in tune with yourself – be aware of your instrument and its intonation strengths and weaknesses. Practice intervals at home and check tuning with that most ‘unforgiving’ of instruments, piano.  Try not to let difficult notes on your own instrument be an excuse while practicing. Arpeggios are the best! Support the high notes! Make middle and low range super reliable. Do work on intonation itself in your personal practice.

2. Know the tonic

Most works (except the most modern) have a pitch centre/key. Feel the tonic- practice identifying it, remember it throughout. The key will change throughout episodes in the piece. You need to know what the current tonic is, in order to know what degree of the scale you are playing, and to be aware when you are ‘home’… (i.e. returning to the original tonic). If everyone does this, intonation is easy! The harmony is the truth of the music, whether it is properly grounded or not, and a stable pitch is its foundation. Try to stay constant during the piece (especially as your embouchure gets tired), as we can sometimes gradually go out of tune. Tuners are good, essential even, but know their limitations and keep using your ears and brain. Oboists have a particular responsibility for intonation- and not only because the conductor is likely to refer back to you for a reference without warning: don’t be caught off guard! Practice pays many dividends when you know your instrument really well.

Oboes - detail

3. Feel the harmony

Not just the tonic: acknowledging which degree of the scale you are on and tuning intervals accordingly, e.g. wide fifths, low major thirds and so on. Get into the habit of checking every note as you play for whether you are consonant or dissonant. This eventually becomes second nature and really influences the way you can phrase.  My favourite thing! In a wind section, some keys can be particularly hard –  A and E major for example, as the number of instruments playing crucial major thirds on difficult notes often make these keys harder to tune and as a trap for the unwary, easy to let intonation slip as the piece goes on. It takes some discipline and team work for entire sections to play consistently in tune. Second players often find themselves playing at an interval of a third with their respective firsts, one example when intonation is really crucial for the thirds to stay in tune, and when both second players are a long way apart, making it harder for them to hear each other than for the principals. This is when personal intonation discipline becomes really vital. If you can get to know your colleagues, this is a luxury and what makes regular wind sections sound unified, as everyone grows to know everyone else’s playing (and instruments).

4. Voice the chords – to hide or not to hide?

When tuning a larger chord, vital work for wind sections, be aware of the relative importance of your note within the chord, or a wrong balance could mean that the chord may never sound in tune. The tonic needs to be heard – not necessarily the loudest – but everyone needs to be aware what it is. It’s vital that every note is focussed, that the player is aiming for a pitch which is in their head. It’s great to work in a wind section where everyone is thinking. Don’t be afraid to experiment with balance as this has often solved chords that were proving really hard to tune.

Tancibudek wind quintet

Tancibudek Wind Quintet

5. Listen actively without blame

Sounds obvious, but do keep listening all the time and on every note. Try switching your attention from yourself to everyone else and back again. It’s important to be able to listen in an active sense, analytically, and adjust but without judging or blame. If it’s out of tune, don’t panic, use the toolkit and if it’s balanced, nicely voiced, matching vibrato, and musical, nothing will sound too bad! Positive mind set, clear and active observation: great skills to develop.

6. Immerse yourself in the music

It’s a mistake to focus solely on intonation. Even if something is perfectly in tune, it won’t sound good if the players have worked entirely on tuning and expression has gone out of the equation. Tuning a tricky octave or interval or chord also entails matching sounds, vibrato, balance and expression, and not being afraid. If all else fails, think of the music, articulation, expression and vibrato and perhaps the intonation will solve itself. Immersing oneself in the music solves many issues, including nerves. You’re only acting – if it’s a scary quiet bit for example – think of acting scared but not being scared. It’s a performance. You did your homework. Trust yourself.

Onstage with Boulez - cropped

Onstage with Boulez & the BBCSO – 80th birthday celebrations

7. Good ensemble playing

Employ all the skills: ensemble, expression, matching sound and articulation, being led by your principal – and being aware of the ensemble style of the whole orchestra. Really good ensemble players are good team members and can support each other discreetly; a little shuffle or quiet acknowledgement after a tricky part, voicing the octaves so that the lower one is slightly louder for hearing intonation… tiny variations can make things easier and more successful and the really switched on players can predict what might be useful through their active listening. Being aware of the breathing of the section helps you to match articulation and expression – follow body language and in-breaths, which indicate how loud, how to articulate, etc. This is something you will probably have learnt in youth orchestra training at various levels. It’s likely you are already doing all of these things to some degree, if so; great stuff, keep it up!

8. Finally – Enjoy!

A great team effort can make the difference between agony and fun! Remember that it’s great to relish the challenges of your work, and develop skills to conquer them. Relax, use your intonation toolkit and enjoy overcoming the challenges!

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