TUNING - trust what you hear!

28/02/2021

Have you received proper training when it comes to how to tune your instrument? Has it been talked thoroughly about? I believe good, useable advice regarding tuning isn't handed out often enough. A hole in many wind players' training. So let's talk about tuning.

We've all experienced things seeming more obvious when the conductor was working on someone else's tuning than ours.

As I wrote in my previous article about intonation, good musical hearing is very much related to self-confidence. We've all experienced things seeming more obvious when the conductor was working on someone else's tuning than ours. "OMG, how can that saxophonist not hear that they're way too sharp?" you think to yourself, obvious as it is, "du-uh!".

A lil' later the conductor is working with you and all of a sudden the tuning is not so obvious anymore. You feel ashamed for struggling while the rest of the ensemble is listening closely. And you get sweaty, nervous and shaky and start thinking all kinds of derogatory thoughts about yourself: Stupid. Useless. Can you relate?

Hey! You're not stupid and useless: I can promise you that your hearing is better than you think, and that it among other things depends a lot on your attitude towards the concept of tuning. The main problem is the way you judge yourself and your colleagues; instead of focusing on the task itself, you think too much about wether or not you're a "good musician". Good hearing is so accepted as the Litmus test for that and that's why you're so scared of not managing. Trust me!

After you've let your own note sound, you decide how it compares to the reference note.

Listen, I often observe that people (even music students in prestigious institutions) play their own note in an introverted kind of way and that they intonate as best they can towards the reference note ( or "tuning note"). Playing out of tune clearly is so shameful that even before tuning people worry about being too flat or too sharp. 🤷🏻‍♂️ A big misunderstanding and a counter productive way of thinking. The end result of "tuning" this way is actually being way too sharp. On the flute you get flat when you hold back and play introvertedly, thus you're logically going to be sharper when you play comfortably and use a lot of air. You didn't tune: you fooled yourself. 🙀 Eeeek!!

Dear flute friend, if you want to be able to tune properly, you have to stop with the judging. Instead, observe. Observation is key. Objective observation sans judgement. E.g. a violinist who is tuning an open string would never judge themselves for having to make certain adjustments. In the same way we're not gonna do that either. When you hear the tuning note, you're gonna want to play your own note as "an open string", confidently, meaty and with the same volume as you're intending to have when you play your piece. After you've let your own note sound, you decide how it compares to the reference note. As the tuning of your instrument is very much affected by how loud you play, it's crucial that you don't hold back or use your embouchure to adjust. Notice: When someone hits the bull's eye directly, it's a mix of pure luck and knowing how far out one usually pulls out. It's not a goal in itself.

A very experienced wind player will also have developed the ability to adjust the intonation already before the sound comes, and hence I'll argue that there's such a thing as "biased tuning"; you know the tuning note well from before and therefore you're affected by that when playing your own note. 

When tuning with a piano, organ or similar there's actually a way to avoid biased tuning and here's a great trick: Play your A before the reference note. That's it. That was the whole trick! Hah! 😅 You're now playing your tone without judging it beforehand. You'll get a realistic answer to where you're at and as a result you'll be sure wether you're in tune or not. Voilà!

 A little bit goes a long way and Youtube is your best friend

Your hearing is a bit like your balance. The same way it varies from day to day how long you can stand on one leg with your eyes shut (try it!!) it varies how accurately you can hear. Factors like being tired or rested and how you feel mentally play in massively. Both your hearing and the balance nerve are located in your ears btw (Random? I think NOT! I have no science backing me here, it's just a lil' theory 😅). I've good friends with perfect pitch who have confirmed that even their hearing works better on some days than others. Many of those who have that super natural ability that is called perfect pitch, can ,as us normal mortals, also get insecure if they're pushed and made uncomfortable. A good friend from my time at the Norwegian Academy of Music experienced that someone managed to "prove" that she doesn't have perfect pitch by bullying her. How mean btw. 😔🔫

To build your confidence in regards to tuning, it can be smart/necessary to practice it a little bit at home. Then you'll feel safer when it comes to knowing how it sounds when you're too sharp, and how it sounds when you're too flat. Don't decide that it's impossible and give up before you've practiced it over a period of time. A little bit goes a long way and Youtube is your best friend:

The note A: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=buimPG01gcs

The note B: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=brwlTZybE8A

I've had over 6500 (!!) unique visitors

You can also partner up with an orchestra buddy you feel safe with and meet to practice it together. I cannot be clear enough about the advantage of practicing both INtonation and OUTonation. If you've built up good control of how too sharp and too flat feels, you'll know wether to pull out or push in. Then you can trust what you hear and tune your instrument effectively!

Remember that even if you've tuned your A (or Bb) well, this is merely to have an optimal starting point for intonation after (and so that everyone who's playing together have the same starting point). It's not instead of intonation and you have to sharpen your ears and be ready to adjust at all times. 

I want to finish by saying thank you so much to everyone who's read, commented, shared and sent me lovely messages. The response to my blog has been overwhelming. My website's stats show that I've had over 6500 (!!) unique visitors. I would've never thought that a newborn blog about flute technique would do so well. It's really incredible!

I hope everyone's doing OK during this hard time. I try to stay optimistic and believe that we'll be back to normal soon and can play together again. Just a liiiiittle more! Hang in there! ❤️

Feel free to use the contact form if you have suggestions to topics I can shed some light on.

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Love,

Eirik