Reconsidering the Tuning Note
We bohemian tubaeuphers are not exempt from the rituals of classical music. We have all sat through the ubiquitous tuning note a million times, from our earliest days in band. But when asked, “care to tune?” by a pianist or member of a small group, I will most often decline. A tuning note takes but a minute, but there are many ways in which a minute can be spent.
In situations with groups of inexperienced wind players, such as student wind or brass ensemble rehearsals, the tuning note is an exercise in futility! For children (or young adults) itching to do something, hopefully to play some music, the sounding of a drone might be the least interesting, least engaging activity imaginable. Not to mention useless. Beginners can’t tune their instruments to a single long pitch. With a good ear they might match the pitch, and that is a good skill in itself, but the activity of tuning is so much more involved than that. The tuning note teaches them to believe in a bad technique from the start. Let’s say that they are able to match their concert F to the player giving the tuning note. It raises umpteen questions. Is their ear developed enough that they “lipped” the note into tune? If so, it means nothing for the tuning of the instrument overall. Did they manage to play with a clear, centered sound, and then move their tuning slide enough to match the concert F? Well then, they have just tuned the instrument substantially flat by pulling the tuning slide out too far. More on that in a moment.
Consider the fact that each student in the group has probably come from a different physical environment. The temperature of each is different. As if the tuning note would help instruments of a constant temperature to magically play in tune, it surely will not help those coming from hyper-air-conditioned rooms, overheated practice rooms, car trunks, and off of concrete floors. Should we even begin to discuss the impact of the “chops” on pitch? Over-worked chops, fresh chops, stale chops-they will all cause inexperienced players to put the pitch in a different place. If a student has an ear developed enough to match a lead player’s (supposedly) on-target pitch and to adjust the tuning slide accordingly, the circumstances outlined above will ensure that the instrument will be out of tune in five minutes. A tuning note at the end of a rehearsal, or maybe ten minutes in, might yield a far more accurate result than the one at the beginning, as the instruments have acclimated to the environment. (This is not a novel idea; many conductors will ask for an additional tuning note well into a rehearsal.)
Many of us were brought up on concert F as a tuning note. Well, for any of us playing a horn with a Bb fundamental, F stinks! The instrument “wants” the pitch to be 10 or 20 cents sharp per the natural tendency of the harmonic series. Blow it right down the middle and pull the slide out until it sounds in tune, and you have tuned the instrument flat. For someone tuning to F on a CC tuba, the bets are really off, as the 3rd partial sharpness is combined with the variable nature of the first valve. An A is even worse, considering the inherent sharp tendency of the 1 and 2 valve combination on a CC horn or the general flatness of 2nd valve A on a BBb tuba or, especially, a euphonium. Remember that valved instrument manufacture is a matter of compromise. The maker must tune the valve tubes a bit low to compensate for the use of valves in combination. (Addition of depressed valves causes increasing sharpness.) Students and teachers need to understand this. It doesn’t matter how much one paid for his/her instrument. Factors as inarguable as physics dictate that the instrument will not play itself in tune, no matter where the tuning slide is positioned!
Matching pitch to a piano, even when sitting immediately next to it, is difficult. The pianist plays the desired pitch, sometimes more than once. Sometimes a minor chord is thought to serve better than our usual Bb, C, or F. Either way we are trying to compare a single, non-melodic pitch to an even less melodic, struck and dying note (or chord) on a percussion instrument. Not an easy tuning scenario. Once we start into the actual music, all bets are off. The just intonation concepts that yield pure harmony, i.e. the adjustment of chord tones, have to somehow meld with the equal temperament of the piano. We do the best we can with this inherently imperfect process, and with practice we sound in tune. With practice! Such practice includes playing, on a regular basis, with a pianist. In the absence of a practice buddy, a Finale, Sibelius, SmartMusic, or Band-in-a-Box-generated piano is beneficial for practice. Practice also includes recording. What we cannot hear in the moment we can more easily hear played back, where piano and tuba are mixed and rendered through two speakers, imitating what might be heard by an audience. One might try recording a SmartMusic session, or simply inputting sections of a piano score into Finale or Sibelius and playing along with its MIDI rendering.
It is not as if an audience enjoys tuning notes. Concerts tend to be too long. No one appreciates the addition of dead time at the beginning. Worse yet, consider that time not to be dead. If the performance begins as the musicians take the stage, then it is in full swing during the tuning note. The audience has a huge advantage in discerning the success of the tuning note as the sound fills the room, resonates, and blends with the piano in a way that it simply cannot do at the proximity of the performer’s seat. Sound a bit sharp on your tuning note? It’s one strike against you before you begin to play. Sound sharp and fail to pull out the tuning slide, and it’s two strikes. Play two tuning notes with an adjustment in between, fail to make a good match, and you’ve struck out. Not to mention that you could have been a minute into your piece by now, and the audience is getting antsy.
Tuning to a piano takes practice, and often it is attempted without practice, without planning, and without consideration for the dynamics of a real performance situation. The piano used in a performance is usually available for dress rehearsals or for at least a quick check before a performance. One might try sitting down on the bench, putting a foot on the sustaining pedal, and just playing for a while with the left hand on the keyboard, simple tones and melodies against notes and chords in the piano. Just a few minutes as such might serve far better than a single tuning note in front of the audience. For those situations when there is no such opportunity, skill in getting information from the piano’s pitch is essential. Skill comes with practice. Pianos are available to nearly all musicians. Practice is a simple matter of discipline. On a daily basis, students can practice matching a piano’s pitch as discussed above.
One should keep in mind that an out-of-tune piano is out of tune with itself. That is, either from use or disuse, its strings are not tuned properly to each other. Therefore, the tuning note pitch may or may not actually reflect the overall tuning of the instrument-yet another reason not to make adjustments based upon that one note. If the piano is well tuned, it is almost certainly tuned within a few cents north or south of A=440, which keeps us well within the realm of “normal playing” where no tuning slide adjustment should be necessary.
None of these points are intended to argue against tuning, but rather against prevailing beliefs and practices regarding the process of sounding a tuning note. So many teachers would do well to reinvent their philosophy of, and techniques used for, tuning. The entire act of playing an instrument is an exercise in tuning, just as is singing. One cannot see that a car pulls to the right by glancing at it parked in the driveway. Nor can a person sitting in a chair be said to favor one leg or the other when walking. Students should learn that tuning is a horizontal activity as well as a vertical one. It is not static; it changes with the harmonic motion of the music. Playing in tune is about not only the placement of a pitch within a chord but the distance between one note and the next, and the distance between our pitch and the one being played by a fellow ensemble member. It is decidedly not about the reading on a tuner. Whether you and your ensemble plays a pitch at A=440, A=444, or A=450, the next note and chord must be tuned likewise in order to sound good-not just consonant with itself but the correct “diagonal” distance from the previous pitch. When a fabulous orchestra in a sweltering concert hall arrives at the end of a symphony, a bystander with a tuner might gauge that the orchestra has risen dramatically in overall pitch. But the musicians are still playing in tune!
Trying to match a single concert pitch (or a couple of them) does nothing to engage the ears harmonically. Just intonation (by which we adjust chord members to sound in tune) is too advanced a concept for a beginner, but emphasis on a tuning note likely delays the listening process rather than helping it. A teacher could easily eschew the tuning note for a simple exercise in open fifths, or a combination of fifths and thirds, teaching students to discern the difference between a consonant interval that sounds pure and smooth and one that is laden with beats, quivering with the discomfort of bad tuning. A simple chorale is real music, and it provides a fantastic framework for intonation practice. It can be easily picked apart into individual phrases, or unisons, or octaves, or specific harmonic intervals for practice. A tuner should be used sparingly with an ensemble; it’s all relative! The ears are the tuners that matter in an ensemble, not the light bulb on the electronic device.
The electronic device IS, however, an indispensable tool. A musician practicing alone with a tuner handy can keep a consistent idea of where their pitch center lies and learn the tendencies of their instrument. They will learn, over time, where the “home” positions of the tuning slides should be. The tuner might even help to instruct the ear on what a perfect interval sounds like. There are a million good ways to use a tuner. The key is to learn from the tuner, to use it to open the ears and learn about the instrument. Producing a tuner in the middle of an ensemble rehearsal and ignoring the sounds around oneself while trying to get the little light to the middle is not one of the million ways. Many of us know that person who refuses to adjust a chord tone because they’ve checked the tuner and they are “in tune.”
The tuning slide, to an experienced player, is a bit like the mouthpiece. It’s there and you can change it if necessary, but it rarely is necessary. A seasoned player (with a good ear and a good sense of intonation) will move their slide only in consideration of a wealth of experience concerning different ensembles and their tendencies, temperature, condition of the chops, or the key center of a piece. A beginner to intermediate student understands few of these things, yet they move their tuning slide all the time. It seems that whenever I utter the worth “pitch” to a student they start fiddling with the tuning slide. Such “searching” might seem like a positive learning experience but it is almost always misguided, as if moving the slide around will earn them better intonation. It just doesn’t work that way. Moving a car’s steering wheel doesn’t drive the car unless you look at the road and know where you want to go.
The tuning note probably won’t disappear, and that’s not all bad. It is a point at which the ensemble comes together, perhaps focuses their attention and their ears, and lets the audience get ready to listen. In any case, we would do well to dispel the myth that it really “tunes” anything, and to teach our students tuning concepts on a far more meaningful level.