Tuning Technology, Listening, and the Ancient Secret to Intonation

Secret to Intonation

In our previous intonation post we shared tips on building a strong foundation (with proper embouchure and air support), ideas on harmonic and melodic intonation, and ways to help kids remember how to tune. Today we’re going to talk about tuners (and other apps), suggest ways you can encourage students to listen differently,  and share an ancient secret to better intonation.

The Tuner

Thinking back to learning intonation when I was in middle school band conjures up bad memories of everyone patiently waiting their turn to play for the big tuner in the front of the room. Luckily, technology has advanced enough so that those days are gone.

We always start our beginners out with the Bandmate Chromatic Tuner app. We make impassioned pleas to their parents to download the app, especially for beginning brass players, because it actually shows the note that the student is playing for their instrument, not in concert pitch. Once they select their instrument at the top of the screen, all transposition is done automatically. For the very beginning students, just hitting the note a few times in a row is a victory! Many of our middle school students still love to use this app as they are expanding their ranges because it takes the guesswork out of the process.

Another favorite is the TonalEnergy app. The reason that we love this app is that it communicates intonation by showing the pitch above or below the center, rather than left or right of center like most other tuners. Plus, when the student is in tune, the center turns into a smiley face – who doesn’t love that? If students can maintain the correct intonation, the smiley face grows and eventually pops its mouth into a huge smile. It helps promote long tones and steady intonation, and a smiley face looking back at them makes anyone feel good about what they just played. While TonalEnergy also has a transposition function, it is a bit more challenging to navigate than Bandmate for young musicians.

A final technological advancement that has transformed teaching intonation in a group setting is the clip-on tuner. These tuners read the vibration of the instrument rather than using a microphone to tune, making them perfect for large group settings. Even better, they are inexpensive with options starting around $10. Be prepared to have a backup supply of batteries on hand at all times because they don’t always get turned off, but the price of a few batteries is well worth it to make your students quasi-self-sufficient and give them real-time feedback on their tuning.

The downside is that most clip-on tuners still read in concert pitch, but with a bit of research you can find a few brands that will transpose for the students so that you don’t have to constantly remind them that, “A# is the same thing as a Bb which is actually a C on your trumpet” and watch that confused look come over their face.

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And Now, The Ancient Secret to Better Intonation

Tuners are a wonderful and necessary part of any band class, but what we are truly trying to build are independent musicians that are capable of identifying and remedying intonation issues by ear.

Let’s start with the elephant in the room. The mere thought of singing puts fear in the hearts of all middle school band students. After all, that’s why they’re in band, right? Aside from the obvious explanation that all musicians should be able to match pitch with their voices, putting the act itself into practice from day one puts the expectation in place that singing is a part of band.

Start simply. You might have students sing the final note of a chorale or scale, or have half the room sing an interval study while the other half plays. Maybe you have students sing a line, buzz a line, play a line. Once you incorporate it into everyday life, it becomes a tool instead of a giggle-fest.

Beyond Singing

After singing, there are several full-group activities that you can implement fairly easily. Bending pitches away from and then back to being in tune is a quick fix for a certain note that is out of tune. Taking fast passages and playing them in a chorale style causes everyone in the room to listen to the intricacies of the chords and exposes any flaws.

“F around the room” is an activity that is fantastic not only for listening to intonation, but also for building your students’ confidence in identifying discrepancies and areas of excellence. Start your metronome at whatever speed you prefer (we usually stay around 80 bpm). Have a volunteer hold a concert F for 4 counts, for the next 4 counts the person next to them joins in, and during the next 4, the first person drops out and the next person joins in so that there are always two musicians playing and matching pitch. Continue this way until all your students have played.

Afterwards, have the students pinpoint where they heard good intonation and where it needs to be improved. While the exercise itself is great, the discussion is really where the students are developing their sense of intonation.

Small group work is where you take the students’ confidence in identifying issues from “F around the room” and put it into practice. Playing in sectionals and small ensembles gives students a chance to isolate parts and really listen, not just to notes and rhythms, but to more intricate parts of the music. If they hear it in small groups, they’re more likely to listen for it when they get back into the larger ensemble. If your students haven’t done much small group work or if you have a specific concept you want them to focus on, we strongly recommend creating a guide for them to facilitate that independent musicianship.

Listening in Different Ways

While all of these exercises and activities will yield success when building your students’ sense of intonation, perhaps the most powerful tool is to get your musicians out of their environment and listening in a different way than usual.

Changing seats for the day and having volunteers come to the front of the room and listen are two quick ways of implementing this idea. However, recording the band and listening back gets everyone in the ensemble participating at the same time. The activity can be as simple as marking music where they hear areas of excellence and areas that need improvement, or you can have them fill out a guide while you listen. Either way, they’re hearing the music in a new and different way.

VoiceRecordPro (app) and Audacity (software) are two great recording programs. In a pinch, you can use the built-in microphone on your devices, but buying a quality microphone will pay off!

Final Thoughts

Intonation can be tricky and abstract for middle school musicians. Keeping it simple, both for yourself and the students, is key. Start with a great sound and talk about intonation on a very regular basis. Take the process slow and give students small, short chunks of information.

Finally, make it fun! Give lots of analogies and visuals and change up your activities on a daily basis. By using a few of these ideas, you’ll notice an improvement in both the sound quality of the band and your students’ awareness of their pitch, providing them an important step along the path to becoming self-reliant musicians!

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