INTONATION - No one cares about the tuner on your music stand, Taylor!
Intonation on flute. Pffft! Difficult, huh? Flautists are loved and hated. Loved? Because the flute is the most beautiful instrument of all times when it sounds good. Hated? Mostly because of bad intonation. The reason is often lack of good control of hearing, embouchure technique, self-confidence and concrete knowledge of the instrument. Let's talk intonation! Let's equip YOU with tools to master these things better! Here goes:
Good intonation is in fact not something you see on a machine, it's something you hear with your human ears.
We've all met Tuner-Taylor. That person in the rehearsal who's offering expert opinions on other people's intonation based on an electronic gadget she's got on her music stand. "You're flat. You're flat! I have a tuner here!" she says a bit complacently in a confronting know-it-all kinda tone, while you and a couple of others are trying to tune a chord. She feels extra serious having invested in a tuner which is "randomly" placed visibly on her stand for everyone to see (How else will people know how conscientious she is?). It's probably well intended, but in a quite annoying goody-two-shoes manner, right? (Whew, I'm glad you agree! 😚💨). The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, a smart person has said, and that goes here too: For the person who gives the tuning A, the tuner is a good tool, but when that's done it's useless and only standing in the way.
Can everyone just stuff this knowledge into their brains right now: A single note standing alone can not be false or out of tune.
Good intonation is in fact not something you see on a machine, it's something you hear with your human ears. Let that be crystal clear. And the sentence "A well-intonated D" (random example) is in practice an incomplete sentence. "What is missing?" you ask. Well, "... compared to (...)". Can everyone just stuff this knowledge into their brains right now: A single note standing alone can not be false or out of tune. If we're to be able to discuss too sharp or too flat we need at least two notes. Intonation is the relation between those two (or more) notes, either melodically (played after one another) or harmonically (played simultaneously) where one of them is the reference. A piece will NEVER in its entirety be played within the green light of a tuner, nor is that the goal or the point.
A gruesome, paralyzing feeling muggles will never be able to comprehend.
Intonation is challenging for every musician. The feeling of someone, e.g. a conductor, calling you out for bad intonation in front of the whole orchestra is... awful! If you're not able to correct it rapidly your self-confidence can suffer a real punch: you feel like a useless, Paria musician who for the sake of humanity should be kept away from music performance in all forms. A gruesome, paralyzing feeling muggles will never be able to comprehend.
You are of course not useless, and you should obviously not be kept away from music performance. If anyone's made you feel small or stupid because of intonation they're a big stupid doodoo head themselves. Intonation is 🦆ing difficult, especially for woodwinds (the heterogeneous woodwind sounds taken into consideration, plus the fact that the notes are closer the further up in the register you get, leaving less slack, really makes it more challenging for us!!) and nothing gets better from ridiculing anybody. Have you never before been introduced to ways of practicing intonation, you're furthermore also inexperienced, and no wonder intonation can seem like a nearly impossible task at times. Know this: even if we always should be humble, good musical hearing has a lot to do with confidence and trusting yourself too. Start doubting yourself = you've already lost.
The first thing I think every serious musician with ambitions of achieving good intonation control should do, is getting well acquainted with what notes are naturally sharp and flat on the instrument.
Have you ever been in a big ensemble rehearsal and the conductor has worked on tuning, one and one musician, and you've dreaded when the time comes for you, teeeeerribly? And when it was your turn and the tuning wasn't right, you couldn't even hear if you were sharp or flat? Well, for sure I have. Many times! Even after entering prestigious music education institutions that has happened to me. Even while playing in a professional ensemble I've sometimes experienced knowing I was out of tune, but not having the slightest idea if I was sharp or flat. So relax, dear flute friend, you're not alone. It happens to the best of us.
The first thing I think every serious musician with ambitions of achieving good intonation control should do, is getting well acquainted with what notes are naturally sharp and flat on the instrument. Be aware of this: No instruments are perfect and there are a lot of necessary compromises which have to be done when making a flute. Or else it wouldn't be possible to comfortably play in all the different keys. There are always variations from instrument to instrument and from person to person, but here you have a guide to how it approximately is on the flute:
The arrows indicate in what direction you must intonate. Meaning, ⬆️ = notes which are flat on the instrument, and ⬇️ = notes which are sharp on the instrument.
Learn this well so that you remember it without flinching. When hearing that the intonation is no good, you'll rapidly be able to guess wether you are sharp or flat and your chances of guessing correctly are BIG. PRO TIP, ladies and gentlemen!
A very cool way to work on intonation and tuning is to use a drone. I'm obviously not talking about a flying camera that interrupts air traffic, but a long, static reference tone. Youtube has many alternatives, so just use the search words "Drone in [note name]" and press Enter. Personally, I really love a cello drone (search words: "Cello drone in [note name]") but you obviously choose your own favourite.
One of my very best mates is the world famous flute soloist Stephen Clark from Scotland. A couple of years ago he introduced me to an ✨ingenious✨ way of working with a drone. I've since then used it a lot (!) in my own practice and when teaching others. Stephen GENEROUSLY allowed me to share a little exercise from his fabulous book.
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And now we're gonna have some fun! Look up a drone in F on Youtube and play it relatively loudly (This one for example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cC4DzsV4ivs). Follow these instructions:
- Practice playing the melody purposely too flat: way too flat, quite flat, a little bit flat. Repeat several times and notice what it sounds like and how it feels when you are flat.
- Practice playing the melody purposely too sharp: way too sharp, quite sharp, a little bit sharp. Repeat several times and notice what it sounds like and how it feels when you are sharp.
Finally you're going to play in tune. You'll discover that intonation is a lot easier after working with outonation first! Ingenious, huh? Are you feeling it?! I'm feeling it! Woop woop! 🕺🏻
You can use this way of practicing on any melody. Just look up a drone in the same key as the melody you're working on.
A final little thing I simply cannot recommend enough (I'm insisting actually!), is to include "note bending" in your daily practice. The consequence of gettin' good at note bending is that you get a flexible embouchure and the necessary technique in order to face the intonation challenges in your musical life. Play any note and work on bending it upwards and downwards. Use your lips and resonance chambers in your head and body. It's possible to bend the notes QUITE far both up and down. Do it with a drone! How far can you bend e.g. a second octave C? Pretty far, I'm certain!
In this article you've learned
- about the flute's natural tendency regarding sharp and flat notes,
- working with intonation and outonation together with a drone to activate your musical hearing
- a way of practicing that enables intonation in practice, in the form of embouchure technique.
Don't be like Tuner-Taylor, guys: Use your ears!