3 Exercises for Improving Intonation with Drones

improving intonation

Everyone who plays a wind instrument can probably remember a teacher saying, “Just work on long tones.” It’s easy for a teacher to see the advantages of building range, strengthening endurance, and developing tone quality with one exercise. Playing long tones along with a drone takes things to the next level, helping make the exercises more interesting and, more importantly, opening the door to improving intonation.

You can find drone tracks on a variety of media (stand-alone audio tracks, YouTube, etc.), or make your own. In general, drone tracks should be simple and l-o-n-g. You want the students to have time to fully internalize what’s going on with their ears and air stream once they make the proper adjustments, something that’s difficult to do if the track (or each individual done note) is too short. No matter where you get your drone, here are three exercises that can help students develop intonation.

1.     Unison Matching

The most basic drone exercise is simple unison matching. Rather than depending on a peer to provide a steady tone (which can be challenging for young players), a student can make adjustments knowing that their “partner” is always right. This is a better option than a tuner because students are forced to use their ears to evaluate their pitch instead of just aiming for the green light.

2.     Interval Training

Once a student can comfortably match pitch with the drones, they can apply a scale to the drone pitch. Playing a (very, very slow) scale does 5 things:

  • Improves intonation accuracy when moving step-wise
  • Helps students hear intervals
  • Teaches pitch tendencies for a student’s instrument
  • Teaches pitch tendencies based on scale degree
  • Helps students learn the scale!

Students will get to hear what each interval sounds like when tuned correctly by practicing hitting proper intervals against the constant tonic. They can hear that major 3rds should be lowered to sound in tune and that the F partials on low brass run sharp and should be adjusted. This is perhaps the most productive drone exercise.

3.     Theory Practice

Drones can also be used to help with music theory. A drone track could move around the circle of 5ths to help students understand dominant-tonic relationships and more. Ask students working with such a track, “When the drone moves up a 4th, what happens to the key signature?” This practical application will help to drive some of these concepts home. Similarly, have students switch between major and minor thirds along with a drone track that includes an open 5th; this kind of exercise can help students make this distinction in audible, hands-on way.

Making Your Own

Like the idea, but can’t find the right drone tracks for your students to use? I’ve built custom drone files for my students using Finale. This gives me another level of flexibility and helps make sure that my exercises fit the backing tracks more closely. I often use organ, cello sections, and the MIDI sound “bottle blow” (a better sound than you’d think!) with many tied whole notes in octaves. These can be saved as audio files and used by anyone.

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