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“True intonation is one thing that the average listener demands of a performer. It is taken for granted that any brass player appearing before an audience will at least play in tune.” Raphael Mendez
Intonation can be a frustrating pursuit for the brass player. We wrestle with several major obstacles as we strive to play in tune. (This may explain why the members of the brass section are usually the first ones at the bar after the concert.) Here is a little insight into what you are up against, and some tips for improving your intonation. To begin, a short history lesson:
Before the invention of valves, trumpet players were limited to notes contained within one harmonic series. Some trumpet players became specialists at playing in the upper register, where there are more available notes. This increased the melodic possibilities, not to mention the risk of hernias. Meanwhile, the trombone players could use the slide in combination with the harmonic series to play any note they fancied. The age of the technically-advantaged trombone player was soon to end, however.
After the invention of valves, brass players gained tremendous technical facility (except the trombonists). Pressing down a valve channels air through a slide, effectively lengthening the horn and creating a new overtone series. By utilizing seven different lengths of tubing, producing seven complete overtone series, the valved instruments could now play a chromatic scale. Everyone started practicing Flight of the Bumblebee.
The Problem With Valves
While a system of three valves does produce all the notes of the chromatic scale, it is not perfect. As tubing is added, the instrument gets increasingly out of tune with itself. What have become known as ‘standard’ fingerings generally are the ones that use the shortest amount of tubing (there are some exceptions). These are usually the most in-tune fingerings, but sometimes an alternate fingering can help the player adjust for intonation.
Slides & Extra Valves
Trumpets have moveable slides on the first and third valves. Even the beginning player soon learns to extend the third slide for low D and C#. Low E and high A will probably sound better with a little first-valve extension, and there are other situations where the slides can help you play in tune.
Some instruments employ a fourth valve, providing more possibilities to adjust intonation by using alternate fingerings. On lower brasses, where the pitch problems are magnified due to the greater lengths of tubing, manufacturers have devised elaborate compensating valve systems. As if carrying around a tuba wasn’t bad enough in itself!
You can raise or lower the pitch with your air and lips, commonly referred to as lipping a note. Fine players lip notes up or down instinctively, adjusting their pitch to the other players around them. Using slides and alternate fingerings helps the player avoid lipping too far away from the center of the note, as tone quality will suffer.
Getting your instrument ‘in tune’ is a study in compromise. Professional brass players find the best overall position for the tuning slide and generally just leave it there, sometimes ‘pretending’ to tune up at the start of the concert. (Don’t tell the conductor.)
Equal Temperament vs. The Overtone Series
Pianos and electronic instruments are tuned on the basis of equal temperament; each octave is divided into 12 semitones. This produces a ‘tempered’ scale, and allows the instrument to play in all keys. Brass instruments, however, are based on the overtone series, and produce a ‘just’ scale. The two systems of intonation are not particularly compatible, and because piano players have historically been too lazy to tune their 88 keys to match anyone else, we brass players are often stuck trying to blend just tuning with equal temperament. Working with an electronic tuner can teach you about the intonation tendencies of your instrument, and help you to hear subtle variations in pitch. The best tuner I have found is the CenterPitch Universal Intonation Tool.
CenterPitch differs from most tuners in that it ‘feels’ the vibrations from the instrument. You can use it in the middle of a loud band or orchestra, and it only responds to the instrument it is attached to. Each musician can get information about his or her own pitch without interference from the other instruments. This could be a godsend for band directors who diligently stand in front of each student with a tuner before the concert, in the hopes that it might make a difference!
CenterPitch is designed for brass, woodwind or bowed string instruments. (The manufacturer, Onboard Research, makes the Intellitouch tuner for guitar and other stringed instruments.) CenterPitch features a clamp that attaches easily to pipes, bells or pegs, and a dual ball-&-socket that allows the user to set it in a position that provides a good view, yet is unobtrusive. It weighs only 2 ounces and operates on two coin cells which provide 60 hours of continuous use. The auto-shutoff is very effective, so the batteries should last a long time. The digital readout is very clear, and the note name is prominently displayed. This is excellent for beginning students who may not always be sure what note they are playing, or in the situation that a note is played so out-of-tune that the tuner reads it a half-step away. It displays notes in concert pitch, or transposed for Bb, Eb or F instruments, and the user can choose between enharmonic sharps or flats.
CenterPitch responds quickly, and is extremely accurate-each half-step is divided into eleven divisions. Six large arrows quickly guide you to the center of the pitch. As you play, it provides instant feedback on the relationship between technique and pitch control, and teaches you to hear and control tiny changes in pitch. I keep CenterPitch clamped to the horn when I practice, and use it on recording sessions, where I am often trying to match the inhuman perfection of electronic pitch. Students and I play long-tone exercises while we observe the display on our own instrument. It is almost eerie to hear the notes move to near-perfect intonation.
Chase Sanborn is a trumpet player