Tuesday, 15 January 2013

The Perils of Tuning

     When you tune at the start of a rehearsal or performance, what are you actually doing?
     It may seem like a stupid question, but in my opinion it is one that is not asked often enough. Woodwind players tend to take tuning for granted, as a formality that must be obeyed before we can get on to the really exciting business of playing. Since our schooldays we've had to sit patiently as everyone tries to get their respective As up to 440 Hz, while the band conductor tells each person to 'pull it off' or 'push it on' that bit further.
     As we grow older, though, it is tempting to stick with this slightly naive view of tuning. The idea that at the beginning of the rehearsal all you have to do is get one note on your instrument in tune with the oboe and then everything will be fine is an appealing one in its simplicity, but sadly it is drastically flawed. We spend years under the impression that if your A is sharp you must pull 'it' off (whether 'it' is a barrel, crook or headjoint) and if it is flat you must push 'it' on. Then once that is done you can relax in the knowledge that you are now in tune and will remain so without having to think about it for the rest of the rehearsal.
     Whilst that's probably the easiest approach for a school band director, there are a number of things wrong with it, and it is important to become aware of these issues if we want to continue to progress to ever higher levels of musicianship. Firstly, if you push on or pull off, that will not bring the whole instrument in tune. It might bring your concert A in tune, but that will be at the expense of other notes because if you only extend an instrument's length at one point then it will not tune evenly. For example, if you pull the barrel of the clarinet out only slightly in an effort to flatten your concert A, you will end up sending the throat notes plummeting into deep wells of flatness. If anything, this creates more problems than it solves, for it is simple enough to flatten your concert A slightly using your embouchure during performance but it is nigh on impossible to sharpen the throat notes by such a degree as would now be required to bring them back into tune. Quickly we see that such an approach to tuning is a poor and very crude method that can be highly detrimental to our performance.
     My point is, if you have a half-decent instrument then it will have been tuned to a fine degree at the factory. The thing will most likely have been designed to be in tune with all of the pieces pushed together fully, and any deviation from that will conjure up a whole new set of problems for the player. If your instrument is not playing quite in tune at the start of a rehearsal then it is probably not something that can be easily fixed by an adjustment of the equipment. In reality things are a lot more subtle.
     For tuning can depend minutely on any number of factors. Foremost among these are atmospheric and environmental conditions such as temperature and humidity. These distort the instrument in highly strange and uneven ways, and because the conditions change constantly whilst playing the tuning of the instrument also shifts all the time.
     The way that you keep in tune, then, is by adjustment of your embouchure, throat and air flow. It is possible to use a combination of those things to change the pitch of a note drastically if need be, as can be heard in the note bending exhibited by jazz musicians. If you listen carefully while playing then you will hear when a note is out of tune and be able to adjust accordingly without having to pull anything off or push anything on. This is something you must be doing all the time as you play - after all, as I have said your instrument is changing constantly too.
     So what is the purpose of comparing our concert A to that of the oboe at the beginning of each rehearsal? If tuning is something you do during performance, why do we need to check it at the start? The way I think of it is this: When you compare your A to that of the oboe, you are getting a rough indication of how your instrument is behaving at that time. You can hear whether it's tending towards flatness or sharpness, and that knowledge will help you to adjust correctly when you are playing.
     In this post I have tended to focus on tuning in an orchestral setting, but you can easily see that all the ideas apply similarly to different ensembles. My point still carries across, that tuning shouldn't be an attempt to fix an instrument but instead it should be an opportunity to find out what sort of things you will need to do to stay in tune during that rehearsal.
     So next time you find yourself  tuning, think about what you are doing. Listen to how your instrument is sounding relative to the oboe. Then when you do start playing, use that knowledge to help you stay in tune.

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