Intonation: Bane and Grail
By Stephen Colley
The searing power of Bruckners’ 4th
final moments ring out perfectly in tune in Avery Fischer Hall. The
whispered entrance of the clarinet in Tchaikovskys’ 6th, first
movement, followed by low brass chords of which Tchaikovsky could have
only dreamed float through Orchestra Hall. These moments are rare,
almost sacred in their perfection.
Sure precision, accuracy and tone play a great part of these moments,
but it is the fact that these qualities combine with flawless, pure
harmony that imprints them on the heart of the listener.
In these moments we discover “the grail” of musical performance.
The worlds’ finest musicians achieve memorable performances such as
these by making a choice lesser musicians will not endure: they choose
to listen. To really listen.
As the developer of The Tuneup Intonation Training Systems, I have
spent the last 10 years dealing with the subject of fine intonation. My
path began with a realization of my own need for improvement in this
area. Throughout my career as a professional hornist, intonation was a
“taboo” subject. “Don’t say anything about mine and I won’t say
anything about yours” was the unspoken rule. Eventually, as a principal
horn, it was my duty to hold the section together and raise the
standard. My own skills, however, were not strong enough. As a result,
I developed The Tuneup Systems.
I will never forget my introduction to Gene Pokorny, Principal Tubist
with the Chicago Symphony. While exhibiting at a brass workshop in
Phoenix, Gene bounded up the stairs into the exhibit hall and asked
“Who’s playing that pure third?!” Thus began my relationship, first
with the Chicago Symphony low brass, then to other professionals of
almost every instrument in many orchestras.
Much to my surprise, not everyone has the drive and the desire to
subject their own playing to the level of critique that these fine
players do. “Don’t tell the Emperor he’s naked”!
How is it possible that those pursuing an aural art choose to
compromise in an area as crucial as intonation? Even more, how is it
possible that the listener is expected to accept such a poor standard?!
When I tell non-musicians the nature of my business, that of teaching
musicians to play better in tune, often their response is “I thought
that was all part of it” Hmmm. So did I…
Is fine intonation really a skill limited to those fortunate few born
with a natural aptitude for pitch awareness? Are the rest of us out of
luck? Allow me to share some of my experiences over the years. Since
many of the examples I use are not particularly complimentary, I will
refrain from using names of ensembles or individuals. Sadly, most will
not even know I refer to them!
Sitting in the Director of Ensembles’ office at one of the most
prestigious music schools in the country, I was told with a sufficient
amount of disdain that “we have no need for intonation work. By the
time the student arrives here they should know how to play in tune”.
Apparently he had not attended the concert the night before.
In contrast, a small, modest music education school with a Director who
demands fine intonation skills participated in a 30 day trial of the
Tuneup System for his freshman band. Within a few weeks, the intonation
skills of the freshman band exceeded that of the top wind ensemble.
A very fine hornist earns her Bachelors at a top rated music school
under a hornist of international repute. She arrives at another very
fine school with painfully weak intonation skills. Her new teacher,
whose own pitch is outstanding, suggests she obtain a Tuneup: Basic
Training System and in a few weeks, the hornist performs a recital with
The editor of the official journal of an instrumental music society
schedules a review of Tuneup with using a student with several other
students present. The editor rather confidently states that he hears no
improvement in the student’s pitch having worked with the student.
(Outside the teachers’ office, the other students in rather hushed
tones say that the difference they heard was very significant.)
Now, let’s look at these examples. In each of these situations,
it was the director or teacher who either enabled or hindered the
students’ progress. This is not to let the student off the hook; self
motivation is the key to personal excellence. But the role of the
teacher is to teach! But how does one begin to teach such a difficult
In my clinics I use a steady drone pitch against a very slow octave
glissando to demonstrate pure intervals. As the pitch ascends against
the drone, one hears each interval move in and out of tune. At the end
of the example, I ask the question “How did you know when it was in
tune?” Most often a player would say something like “when the beats
stopped” or “when there were no beats”.
My reply to the student is far more simple. “We know it is in tune when
it sounds right!” The heart and the body agree with the ear when the
pitch is right. Nature is at work. So, my question to the director and
teacher is “Do you hear it? Do you hear when your ensemble or student
is out of tune?” The question is a trap.
If the director or teacher that allows poor intonation says “No”, their
qualifications should be questioned. But, if they say “Yes”, their
standard of excellence should be questioned. Harsh? I guess that
depends on your standard.
I submit that fine intonation is not optional. It is the “grail” to be
pursued with almost religious zeal. I doubt many would disagree openly,
but the difficulty of such a pursuit is daunting. The subject is
fraught with insecurity, ego and intimidation, not to mention a
ravenous consumer of rehearsal time. Fine intonation, while the grail
of the musician, is also the bane. Many are not even convinced
that all can achieve fine intonation. Where does aptitude come in? Are
there those who simply cannot hear pitch discrepancy?
In my years of training intonation skills, I have developed a theory
that may verbalize the experience of many. If we consider the ability
to hear perfect intervals as “grooves” in ones’ hearing, those with
strong, natural abilities would have distinct, deep grooves. Those with
poor pitch awareness would have very shallow grooves.
It is my experience, much to the contrary of far too many influential
teachers, that these grooves can be deepened, improving the ability to
hear pitch discrepancy. So, the player with poor pitch discrepancy does
have the ability to improve their skill, provided with the right
conditions. In a sense, this is the “Gospel of Tuneup”; one can improve
I consider performing with fine intonation a three step process. First,
the player must be aware of and be able to correct pitch discrepancy.
The second step is to become aware of the intonation challenges of
their own particular instrument. Finally, the player must be able to
hear their pitch in relation to the various timbre and octaves in the
The key, of course, is step one; the ability to identify and correct
pitch discrepancy. This is where some believe that aptitude is in
complete control. Fortunately, my work with intonation has blown that
concept to kingdom come…
I believe the problem lies in the “process”. The typical director or
teacher spends a few moments telling the player he/she is out of tune,
followed by lots of “pointing”. The player watches for the teacher to
quit pointing and maintains that pitch. Next, the player goes to the
local music store and buys a digital tuner, maybe even one that clips
on their instrument. Pretty soon, they’ve got the best tuned set of
eyes in the band; all without engaging the ears at all. And it is
through this process that we determine the aptitude of a student?
The skill that must be taught (and can be taught!) is that of awareness
of pitch discrepancy, or “the beats”. This is an aural skill! Using my
“glissando” example, it is my experience that everyone can detect the
flaws and the correction in the Perfect 5th (P5) and other intervals.
In other words, most everyone has a certain depth of “groove” for a P5.
The challenge is to hear the more complex intervals. In my clinics I
point out that each interval has a different “feel” or texture
depending on the resultant tones produced. The P5 is very placid and
still while the P4 is very slippery and tentative.
Quite often it is sufficient enough to focus the student with low
aptitude on the strength of the P5 to begin the process of raising
pitch awareness. Nothing is more satisfying for me than to see the eyes
widen, the eyebrows raise and the student say “Oh! That?” when they
first become aware of the beats! They are like a child who has just
learned to ride a bike who takes off down the street on their own.
But even then, awareness of pitch discrepancy, especially only on the
P5, does not translate into the ability to play in beautiful harmony.
It is the development of familiarity with the character of each
interval that leads to this skill. This is where opportunity becomes
Whereas one player will quickly identify most every interval both in
their ear and on their instrument, the player with a lower aptitude
will require more time to “deepen the groove” in their hearing. This is
done by humming or singing intervals perfectly in tune for extended
periods. As the player becomes sensitized to the disturbance between
their voice and the drone or other player, the ability to identify
dissonance and consonance is developed. This is where opportunity and
proper conditions even the playing field.
The challenge, of course, before the director/teacher is to find
enough hours in a day to insure that each student develops pitch
awareness. Practically, it is simply impossible for the
director/teacher to spend the time necessary for each player to develop
a “working” sense of pitch awareness. This is where the individual must
take personal responsibility. But first, they must be equipped to
In the next installment of this four part series on Intonation, I will
address what I consider to be the most important aspect the player must
learn, not only to play in tune, but to be a fine musician: Opening
“The Ears of the Heart”…
For more information, please visit: www.tuneupsystems.com
Stephen Colley 2005
to Stephen Colley for letting me print this great article! Here is an
interview we had about the TuneUp System