Brass Intonation Review

Due to the nature of the trombone (the slide), we have the unique ability to adjust pitch to almost any degree without sacrificing tone. Thus the trombone has the potential to be the most in-tune instrument in the band and the most in-tune wind instrument in the orchestra. The other side of the coin, of course, is that the trombone, if played sloppily, can also be (and often is) the most out-of-tune instrument. In addition, I have noticed over and over as I work with brass chamber groups that intonation is one of the most glaring and consistent problems in college chamber groups; intonation problems are just much more glaring in small groups than in large ensembles. With these things in mind, a few year ago I put together this brief handout for my trombone students, later adapting it to all brass for Brass Pedagogy, Brass Workshop, and Brass Chamber Music classes. Hope it helps in some small way!

BRASS INTONATION REVIEW

Will Kimball, Brigham Young University

Partials:

•Seventh partial is very flat—30 cents, or approximately one third of a half step. For B-flat trumpets, B-flat tubas, trombones, and euphoniums, seventh-partial concert A-flat (open or first position) is unusable. Change the fingering or adjust the position.

•Sixth partial is sharp—20 cents, or one fifth of a half step. Change the fingering, extend extra tubing, or adjust the trombone position.

•Third partial is a little sharp—5 cents, or one twentieth of a half step. Adjust only in combination with other factors (e.g., also playing the third of major chord).

Mutes:

•Mutes make you go sharp. The tighter the mute, the sharper you go. (Bucket mute, the exception, generally makes you go flat.)

•Note: This tendency is dramatic enough to warrant adjusting the tuning slide, especially with a really tight mute like a harmon with the stem out, but remember to move the slide back in afterwards!

Volume:

•Loud passages tend to go sharp. Relax.

•Soft passages tend to go flat.

Temperature:

•Cold makes you flat.

•Warm makes you sharp.

•Note #1: This tendency is dramatic enough to warrant adjusting the tuning slide, particularly in a long piece, and definitely through the course of a recital. It is also useful to know that pianos go the opposite direction—flat—as a room warms up. Adjust!

•Note #2: This pitch tendency varies according to mass. Tubas, for example, will fluctuate much more than trumpets. Thus a brass quintet does not go equally sharp as it warms up.

Harmony:

•Major triad—lower the third approximately 15 cents.

•Minor triad—raise the third approximately 15 cents.

•Fifth—raise (very slightly—adjust fingering/slide only in combination with other factors)

•Unisons and octaves—Tune these first. If they’re not in tune, forget it!

•Half steps and whole steps—the tendency is to make the interval too small (and try to resolve to a unison). Maintain a true half step or whole step.

•Note: Do not make harmonic adjustments when playing with keyboard, which uses equal temperament. If you lower the major third and you’re accompanied by a piano chord, it won’t work! Instead, focus on matching unisons with keyboard.

Range Extremes:

•High range tends to be sharp (because of pinching).

•Low range tends to be sharp (because of not opening up or relaxing enough).

Timbre and Balance:

•Lack of blend because of timbre/tone differences is sometimes confused with intonation problems. While this is a misconception, it is still important from a listener’s standpoint. Play in tune and blend your sound.

•Poor balance can also make a chord sound out of tune. In terms of priority, the root should always dominate, the fifth should be next in volume, then the third, then the seventh (if any). This remains true with inversions.

Practice:

•With an electronic tuner, play slow 2-octave scales. At the beginning of every note, try to be at least within 20 cents sharp/flat (on many tuners, this will activate a light). Also check extremes of range and dynamics.

Stephen C. Colley’s TuneUp is an excellent tool for practicing intonation. It comes with a CD that produces both drones and purely-tuned chords in all keys. You practice with the CD by playing various members of the chords, scales, etc.

•Duets are great for working on intonation. Some people even practice intonation by recording one part of a duet, then playing the other against it (this has the added benefit of highlighting your own intonation faults).

•In an ensemble, have everybody but one person sustain a drone or a major chord. The player not sustaining then plays a slow 2-octave major scale against this held note/chord. Rotate the person playing the scale. Vary keys, dynamics, etc.

•In an ensemble, practice slow chorales, focusing exclusively on tuning. Bach chorales are excellent for this if you can find arrangements for your particular ensemble.

Comments

  1. Really useful read; Clears up a lot of confusion for me. Honestly, all brass teachers should print something like this out for their students. This would make a great poster too.

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