Building a stronger foundation in good pitch!
Today I want to take about working on our sense of pitch as well as strengthening our ears by practicing while using a constant pitch “droning” out of a loud speaker. All musicians feel a lot of pressure to play perfectly in tune. As a tuba player, I think I feel even more pressure to be perfect on this as most of us are taught by our school band director to “listen down” to get the pitch. Of course, that generally means “listen to your tuba player to get the pitch.” While part of me says, “well yes, of course you should listen to me and my tuba playing friends,” another part of me says “uh oh, you need to make sure this is right.”
Playing in tune is often a give and take situation, but sometimes it is necessary to be insistent with the pitch. Here’s where it gets scary: I’m not a machine and neither are you, unless you’re one of those google search bots looking to see if this post is going to be generated in someone’s search results.
For most of us, the first thing we do when we want to make sure our pitch is good is to grab
our favorite tuner or tuner app and make attempts to fix any notes that we feel aren’t agreeing with our ensemble. I believe there’s a time and a place for a tuner, but for the most part they aren’t really anything more than a temporary solution for a brass player. Unlike other instrument’s (looking at you string players who have 4 rock solid pitches on the open strings of their instruments) it’s so easy to move pitch around on any given note including the fundamental tuning note because we use our lips and air to buzz a pitch and the instrument amplifies this buzz. Certainly, we have specific lengths of tubing to help influence our pitch, but we definitely don’t have the consistency of a pipe organ.
My biggest issue with a tuner is we can look at the tuner and tune notes, but we automatically make subconscious adjustments as soon as our sound starts registering on the tuner to play the note with the needle exactly in the center of the tuner. As soon as we stop looking at that needle and play that note again, our tuning often changes because we’re back to just singing in our heads only being aware of our sound as it leaves our instrument without the visual stimulus of our subconscious control on pitch.
I will give one practice tip here: if a visual tuner is the only tool you have to work with, the best way to work with it is close your eyes and play your note. After you have your best sound, open your eyes and see where you are with the tuner. Right on? Great! Not so much? Now it’s time to make an adjustment with your slides. This is the only way to get around your subconscious/human computer tendencies that are constantly making adjustments to your playing to get your ideal sound.
Here’s where my practice with a visual tuner ends and the drone practice begins. Working with a drone gives you a solid fundamental pitch that you can use to really hear how your sounds are blending with the absolute pitch. There are several ways to approach practicing this way. As a starting point I encourage my students to spend a lot of time with the Perfect 4th, Perfect 5th and Octave intervals as they will be the easiest to tune to the fundamental pitch drone. As more comfort develops, expand your focus to other notes in the major scale, especially 3rds and 6ths, but keep going back and to your fundamental drone note, 4ths, and 5ths. While we could get into technical aspects of tuning chords and intervals with “raising your 5ths and lowering your 3rds” here’s a good place to start: the best sounds you hear will also be your most in tune sound. If you’re completely lost at this point of playing with the drone, grab your visual tuner and try to work in the area of in tune to find that best sound. By spending time playing with the fundamental pitch drone, you will start to develop a real comfort with your own pitch by using your ears and it will be much more easily retained than by spending time blowing your horn at tuner. On a side note, regularly working with a metronome does this in a similar way with your sense of time. The last part of this is getting comfortable and specific with the sound of the dissonance of your 2nds and 7ths. Spend time referencing these notes to your fundamental pitch as well as your 4ths and 5ths.
Be sure to get a loud speaker for this to be effective. I have my phone connected through Bluetooth to my Bose Sound Touch 20 speaker. It puts out plenty of sound. Without a comparably loud sound to your typical dynamic level, you won’t be able to work on this in the most beneficial manner. As it is often said, practice the way you would perform.
The next step would be to expand your tuning practice from long tones and intervals to etudes and ensemble excerpts. Determine the key of your piece and use that as your drone. As the pitch modulates in the song it may be necessary to change your drone note for your most effective practice. Also, I highly encourage doing all of this on all the keys you play music in. Depending on your level of experience, that could be anywhere from 3 keys (ie Bb, F, and Eb) to all of them. Doing this in multiple keys will strengthen your ear whereas confining your practice to Bb will cause issues with playing in other keys. For example, an Eb is not always an Eb depending on what key your playing in and what part of the chord you are playing (meaning Root, 3rd, or 5th). The goal is not to know every little detail of why, the goal is to hear your best sound against the drone and make yourself not only confident when needed, but flexible when necessary. In my personal practice, I spend time doing a scale based exercises that goes through all the keys while playing with my drone.
Regular practice with a drone will help you feel more secure with your own pitch as well as with how your pitch fits into the sounds other players are playing around you. Not only will you be happier with your comfort level, but it is contagious. When players around you hear your good pitch, and consequently good sound, they will be more likely to latch onto your good sounds and start producing more good sounds of their own.
-Jim Langenberg, Alliance Brass