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I play soprano cornet in a UK brass band. Although I think I play in tune, it's often pointed out to me that I don't. Soprano cornet is notorious in this respect - some notes are in tune, others aren't, needing adjustment with alternate fingerings, or throwing first or third valve slides.

Although we'll use a visual electronic tuner to tune up before playing a piece, it's forbidden for individual players to have a visual tuner on their stand to adjust notes during the performance.

So I'd like some suggestions for how my personal practice sessions (on my own) can strengthen my ability to play in tune, but I have to be able to do this using my ears - it's no help using my eyes on a tuning meter to tell me whether I'm in tune or not, as I can't use that technique with the band.

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I've done a little bit of work with junior bands, and I play sax in a concert band, so this is based on my experience there.

The first step to playing in tune is to know when you are out of tune. A tuner is one way to get this information. But it's not ideal for a couple of reasons. For a start, most tuners that I have encountered use equal temperament. Concert bands (and I assume brass bands) often use just intonation. The tuning of a note will subtly change depending on what role that note plays in the overall chord. This took me some time to get my head around.

Another issue is that the tuner is probably fixed to a 440Hz reference. Whilst that's usually our target, it's more important that the whole band plays in tune with each other. Even if the fixed reference is off.

Finally, if you're spending you time staring at a tuner, you're probably not paying attention to the conductor, the music, your tone, etcetera. It's another potential distraction.


So, to your actual question. How can you get better at playing in tune? Here's some thoughts:

  1. Know what it sounds like when you are out of tune. You should be able to hear a beating sound when you're out. If you don't know what this sounds like, ask someone to demonstrate.
  2. Know where your particular instrument has intonation issues. I know that on sax, my C# will need attention, and my high A also tends to be out. This requires personal practice, probably with a tuner or other reference source.
  3. Practice playing in tune as a band. At the end of the day, the band needs to be in tune, not each individual player. In fact, if everyone plays perfectly in tune according to a tuner, it's not going to sound as good. Why? Equal Temperament and Just Intonation again. If you've ever had someone tell you to play thirds a bit flat, and fifths a whisker sharp, they're asking you to play using Just Intonation.

As an extension of the question, here's some exercises that we use to work on tuning in a band context:

  1. Scales. Let's start with the obvious one. A tuning scale is better than a tuning note, because intonation changes as you change notes. You need to subconsciously adjust. Don't just use Bb major; different scales present different tuning challenges. F major gets quite high. Unfamiliar keys are often harder to keep in tune, so practice them.
  2. More scales. Let me expand. We'll do exercisee involving singing a scale interval, and then playing it. The idea is to make sure that you actually know where you are aiming before you try and play it. I'm not a great singer, but the idea is to hear the pitch you are aiming for before you try and play it.
  3. Scales and chords. Have half the band start on the first note, half on the third, and half on the fifth. Play up the scale, and you'll get the diatonic chords. Play them in tune. Or, instead of the playing the same scale, play three different ones. A third of the band plays Bb major, another third plays D major, and the rest play F major. You'll get a different set of chords. Again, do this slowly, and play in tune. Don't move to the next note until you've got the previous one right. Don't be afraid to go back to the beginning if it gets out if hand.
  4. More chords. We often do and exercise we call a 1-3-5-8. Pick a scale. Then, everyone picks a number: 1, 3, 5, or 8. Everyone starts at the root of the scale, and we got up it. When you get to the scale degree that matches your number, you stay there until the rest of the players get to the top, and then come back down again to meet you. So the first note, everyone will be on 1. Then, 1+2, 1+3, 1+3+4, 1+3+5, 1+3+5+6, 1+3+5+7, 1+3+5+8. On the way down, the reverse happens.

I may add to this list, but that's a start. My point is that playing on tune needs to be a whole band thing as much as an individual thing, so you should spend time practicing it as a band. It's the best way I've found to train my ears. Individual practice is required, but it's not sufficient for the entire band to be in tune. Corporate practice is required as well.

  • Most tuners on the market today have the ability to set the "A" frequency up and down off of 440, to allow for different orchestra standards, and playing with fixed tuning instruments that are set differently (old accordions for example). You can practice hearing the "beat" of out of tune notes by playing a unison with another instrument or tone generator (my tuner does this) and deviating the pitch until the beat can be heard. – Alphonso Balvenie Mar 9 '17 at 0:46
  • "Have half the band start on the first note, half on the third, and half on the fifth. Play up the scale, and you'll get the diatonic chords" You mean you need three halves of a band?! :) – user45266 Nov 1 '18 at 5:20
  • @user45266 No, three minims of a band. We don't call them halves in Australia. – endorph Nov 1 '18 at 22:26
  • Fair enough :) +1 – user45266 Nov 1 '18 at 22:53
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So I'd like some suggestions for how my personal practice sessions (on my own) can strengthen my ability to play in tune, but I have to be able to do this using my ears - it's no help using my eyes on a tuning meter to tell me whether I'm in tune or not, as I can't use that technique with the band.

Come again?

Of course it makes sense to work with a tuner at home in order to figure out how to play certain passages so that they end up in tune. That's your homework. Sure, you should not be doing your homework in class. But that doesn't mean that you must not do it all in order to be prepared optimally for classroom conditions.

  • This doesn't really answer the question. In this case "classroom conditions" means there's no tuner on my stand. So my "homework" should also mean there's no tuner on my stand. Like I said, a tuner trains you to tune by what you see not what you hear and I want to improve my listening, not my looking. – Brian THOMAS Mar 8 '17 at 17:35
  • Actually it does answer your question. As you use your eyes to see your pitch, then adjust your lips during long tone practice to get the pitch right, you will develop a feel for where your lips should be in order to get the right pitch. Don't rely too much on your ears; if you can hear yourself clearly then you are playing too loud. – Dave the Sax Mar 8 '17 at 19:22
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I used the audio software Audacity to produce slow in-tune scales and thirds (the wave generator function) for intonation practice on the violin. The tones are slow enough that there is time to re-practice the jump to the next note to reinforce the proper pitch. I burned it to a CD for playback.

You can also find pre-recorded ear training exercises for scale and interval jumps. Some will be listed for vocal training, but can still be used for other ear intonated instruments.

Pitch-matching in used in this type of exercise, taking away the hand-to-eye coordination that using a tuner reinforces.

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I think you've answered your own question. Practice without a tuner. Use your ears. No visuals. Forget visuals. Eliminate visuals.

In general, a good practice for ear-training is the following (courtesy of my uni professor, this is first-hand advice):

Take a tuning fork. The metal one.

1 Strike it and listen to the sound until it fades out. 2 Wait 16 seconds in total silence. 3 Sing the note for 16 seconds. 4 Wait 16 seconds in total silence. 4 Check your self with the tuning fork Repeat until effortless.

The moral of the story is you develop pitch memory. No matter how good your ears are, your memory is what drives your tuning, and is the middleman between sensory input and physical action.

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Prepare some reference tracks using a DAW or a synth/organ keyboard. Slow scales, slow melodies etc. And I MEAN slow. Practice with them, matching the tuning. 'Get your ear in'with correct tuning.

We can argue over temperament etc. But, if you have noticable tuning problems, the synth will be a lot nearer 'right' than what you're currently doing!

Maybe you can also practice unison playing with a friend who DOES play in tune, or who plays a more stable instrument.

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