Orchestras tune to A. But a trombone in 1st position can only play Bb or F. A trombone would need to be in 2nd position to play that A. How does the trombonist know whether to adjust the tuning slide or adjust his/her usage of 2nd position?

Likewise for a C or F tuba: In a wind ensemble or brass band tuning to Bb, the C or F tuba will need to hold the 1st valve. How does the tuba player know whether to adjust the main tuning slide or the 1st valve slide?

  • I have a feeling that both the trombonist and the tuba player would rather be tuning to (the concert band choice of) Bb than A, and any attempts to tune to A result in a high risk of the easier-to-play Bb being out of tune. – Dekkadeci Jan 16 at 15:31
  • I've never heard an Oboe play a Bb before the conductor arrives at an orchestra. Is it likely that the brass section tunes the Bb before arriving in the concert hall? – Stewart Jan 16 at 15:37
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    My experience with school concert band is that the conductor whips out a tuner, then gets everyone in tune with the Bb (but the percussionists not playing timpani), starting with the oboist(s). This takes a few minutes but may require multiple pass-throughs. I believe this even happened on stage in school recitals (and maybe even out-of-town festivals and contests). I don't know how brass band tuning processes work, sorry. – Dekkadeci Jan 16 at 15:42
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    @Dekkadeci - usually, in the big bands I play in, the conductor will ask me (on keys) to play Bb. Sometimes he goes round individually with an electronic tuner. And it's always Bb, not A. – Tim Jan 16 at 15:52
  • Bb makes complete sense for that type of band (any band without bowed strings would use Bb), but it still poses the problem for the C or F tuba player. – Stewart Jan 16 at 15:56

Orchestral trombonists happily tune to A. We can refer it to the 1st position D, in much the same way that a violinist doesn't need to be given different notes for his other three strings! And we know where 2nd position A is on our slides.

Also, our tuning slides aren't reset to zero when the instrument goes in the case. If it was in the right place for A=440 yesterday, it still will be today.

Don't argue unless you've BEEN an orchestral trombonist. I have 😀.

  • Ah, tuning to the fourth! I also didn't think about tuning that high. The F-tubist could natively tune to the 5th of a Bb even easier than the fourth and has access to the A higher up. The C-tubist might still have a tough time tuning to Bb. Would only having access to the 2nd (C), 6th (G), and tritone (E) be too dissident for tuning? – Stewart Jan 16 at 17:19
  • Tuning a violin to a, say, C♯ reference would definitely be pretty problematic. Tuning to the fingered note would be very unreliable (sure the position is well-trained, but on-the-fly adjustments to intonation are anyway common. For tuning the string, you would be messed up. And tuning to the major third down would open a can of just-vs-12edo-vs-Pythagorean worms, as well as cause major distraction in the string section.The reason for “a violinist doesn't need to be given different notes for his other three strings” is that they're in fiftths (though even that is a meantone minefield). – leftaroundabout Jan 17 at 1:26
  • Yes. That's why A to D works so well on trombone. Though, to be honest, we could learn to use any other interval from any other note. – Laurence Payne Jan 17 at 1:56
  • I think the 4th and 5th are particularly easy to tune on because of their resonance. The easiest thing to tune is obviously the octave (2:1), but the fifth is (3:2) and the fourth is (4:3). Other notes get quite dissident (2nd = 9:8), so it takes longer for the wavelengths to align making it harder to hear the "wah wah"s and that makes them tough to compare to the tonic. I think asking someone to tune the 2nd would be asking too much. – Stewart Jan 17 at 8:47

In Brass bands the instruments are tuned by a given Bb => playing C or G (Eb instruments).

In the orchestra I actually don’t know:

  • The oboist can give them a Bb or F to tune their zero position or they will be able to take the Bb by ear a semitone higher than the given A.

  • They can tune with the trumpets giving them an concert Bb

  • For brass bands, neither a C nor an F tuba can play a concert-Bb without pressing a valve (hence the second part of the question). – Stewart Jan 16 at 15:42
  • Yes, that‘s what I mean, trumpets play 2nd valve to tune with A and then play zero to tune with trombones the Bb. – Albrecht Hügli Jan 16 at 16:03
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    Oh, I never thought of the trumpets relaying a note to the trombones! The 2nd valve is super short and doesn't have much room to move so I can see how there would be not much error introduced here. It's very plausible. I wonder if this really happens. – Stewart Jan 16 at 16:06
  • I‘ve never played in an orchestra, but that‘s the way I would tune them. – Albrecht Hügli Jan 16 at 16:11

In a symphony orchestra almost every every player is able to fine-tune the pitch of notes while playing. The absolute exceptions are the piano (if used), harp, open notes on stringed instruments, and tuned percussion. The oboeist gets to maintain a stable note (A) for everyone else to tune to. String players tune open notes. Wind players including brass players know what concert A 'feels' like when it is centred.

On brass instruments the valve tuning slides generally don't need much adjustment, especially if players are always playing at the same pitch in an air-conditioned concert hall. If it is not quite right the player would be able to 'lip' it into tune. A good trombonist knows where the positions of the instrument are and will be able to get A reliably. If the tuning slide is not quite right a good player will use lip and slide to adjust.

When I played in junior orchestras many years ago, some conductors used the oboe to give a B-flat for the brass, and some expected all players to tune to A. Some would check by asking all brass players to play (concert) B-flat. I never came across a conductor who would do anything special to help the player of the G bass trombone.

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    Blimey! In what sort of orchestra (and how long ago) did you encounter a G bass trombone? – Laurence Payne Jan 17 at 16:26
  • This was a student orchestra in Melbourne (AU) in the early 1970s. The bass trombone may have belonged to the player's school. – Peter Jan 18 at 6:20
  • @LaurencePayne - off topic, but I'm curious: heve you ever encountered a BBb bass trombone, an octave lower than a normal tenor, with a doubled slide? I saw one once at a Renaissance Faire many years ago. – Scott Wallace Jan 18 at 8:33

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