When I was a second year Master’s student, I went through something that perplexed me at the time. All of a sudden, I was flat. In pitch. All the time. Up to that point, I’d mostly received praise for my pitch control and sense of intonation, but for a few months in the spring of 2000, I was just…out. To this day, I’m still not 100% sure what was going on, but to solve the problem, I had to let go of the idea that I knew where my headjoint should go. I also had to let go of the shame I felt for having such a public problem.
I see this same sort of shame in my students sometimes, and people, we MUST do away with the moral implications of playing out of tune. It’s just physics, and good intonation is a skill set that can be learned. Just think of all the things that can affect it: breath support, headjoint angle, posture, flute maintenance, room temperature, etc., etc., etc.
Our tween and teenaged musicians are also at such a vulnerable age, where criticism seems harsh no matter the tone in which it’s offered, and where something that might have a simple solution can still feel like a referendum on self-worth and talent. So let’s talk about a few healthy ways to learn to play in tune and to deal with ourselves when we don’t!
1. There are two types of intonation. Kids are taught from middle school on to pay attention to how their pitch relates to other people in the room, but not so much to themselves, and learning to play in tune with ourselves is a critical skill. We would do so well to teach our students about intervals, to add humming or singing them to our standard practice, and through that to teach our students to hear themselves.
2. Use a tuner…but not all the time. Tuners can be such a useful tool! I like to practice long tones with one on, to practice holding my pitches still as my dynamics change, or to practice slow scales over a drone. They can help us understand when we are in the ballpark, generally speaking, but in an ensemble full of live people, pitch is also alive, and the group may wander from what a tuner would designate as perfection. And then it doesn’t matter if we’re in tune with a tuner because we are no longer in tune with the group. So I think it’s important not to become too dependent on our tuning devices. The best tuner in the world, once it’s trained up, is the one between your ears!
3. Make yourself a tuning chart. The summer I was 16, my high school sent our piccolo to orchestra camp with me for the summer. It was a sweet sounding, easy to play…corroded, silver plated Artley. I had zero experience, and the very first week, I was assigned piccolo on Von Suppe’s Poet and Peasant Overture. It was trial by fire, in the biggest way! After about ten minutes of rehearsal, the orchestra director suggested that I make a tuning chart—that I tune my A as I would in rehearsal and then play each note throughout the range of the instrument, notating what the tendencies were when my A was in tune. I kept that chart on my stand for the rest of the summer, and it made a world of difference to my comfort level.
4. Stay calm and learn to make quick changes. No one plays perfectly in tune all the time. When it seems like someone does, they are very likely just really fast to diagnose the issue and adjust, and that, friends, is the golden ring we’re all jumping toward. Stay calm, listen, and adjust as quickly as possible. Remember, it’s just physics. You need to vibrate faster or slower, and giving in to emotion about it doesn’t help you. Clear your mind out, listen, and figure out if you’re sharp or flat in that moment. And then quickly adjust!
Is this list of ideas exhaustive? Absolutely not! I do hope that they’ll give you a jumping off point if you’re facing an intonation dark night of the soul, or some ideas for incorporating into your teaching if you are hearing all kinds of crazy things, and if you have ideas of your own, please drop them in the comments!