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Intonation Precision: A Guide to Enhancing Brass Player Tuning Skills

For this blog post, I will share with you a brilliant exercise that I use to help me and my students with tuning.

Tuning brass

In music, when we hear the word 'tuning' or 'intonation' it can lead to confusion.

I see 'tuning' as being something you do to your instrument to ensure every note is at precisely the correct pitch.

I see 'intonation' as being how the pitch of the note you are playing (or singing) interacts with other instruments or other notes that you play.

For this article, I will just use the word 'tuning' from now on, and we can take that to cover both of the above.

Introduction to Tuning Brass Instruments

As a conductor and teacher, especially with brass bands, and even more with youth bands, I find tuning problems can first be tackled by getting players to understand how to make a good sound and in ensembles, how to play with the correct balance.

Some people, sorry to say, are tone deaf. They have no clue whether they are out of tune. So the exercise below is very valuable to counter any potential tuning problems before they happen in rehearsals or performance. It will help you know your instrument and not have to worry about using your ears so much in rehearsals, especially if this is something you struggle with.

Just like anything, you get good at what you practice, and you get good very fast when you practice correctly. The exercise in this post won't completely allow you to perfect playing in tune, I don't think that is even possible, but it will certainly help.

It is YOUR responsibility to be in tune. Don't rely on your conductor or teacher to tell you all the time. Unless you are a pianist, you should always be thinking about tuning. If you play the trombone then you should be an expert in tuning, because your slide is effectively one big tuning slide, so no excuses for you!

Tuning brass
Make sure your tuning slides move freely!

Brass instruments have come a long way in design and nowadays, the look and 'added extras' that an instrument is marketed with, can have a massive impact on sales, but not always be what you need. Always ask yourself, am I buying this instrument because it will allow me to make music easier? Things like tuning slide triggers, which are useful for sure, should not be relied upon or set in stone to be used the same way all the time.

A good example of this is my solo CD - Hustle. Only days before the recording, the strap broke on my case, causing my instrument to fall to the ground and get damaged to the point that my main tuning slide could not move at all. I still completed the recording, without any major tuning problems.

The Impact of Temperature on Tuning Brass Instruments ❄

Weather and temperature also have a massive impact on tuning and people forget this. If you do not warm up and your instrument is cold, it will be flat. If it is winter, you are likely to be flatter than you are in the summer months. Also, mutes have a big impact on tuning but I am not going to go into that here.

I have just completed part of a recording project with the Grimethorpe Colliery Band. It was recorded in a very cold church and tuning was something that needed constant focus, so much so that for some pieces, I kept my phone with tuning app on my stand.

Here is a clip from the recording.

Tuning Exercise

This exercise is actually an adapted version of a long note exercise I was taught by the brilliant euphonium soloist, Steven Mead.

As a long note exercise, it does wonders for your playing. All brass players should try it, not just euphonium players. If you have never tried anything like this, I advise you to do it every day for a few weeks and if done correctly, you will notice positive benefits to your sound and general control. I still do this exercise maybe once every month, as part of my monthly practice plan.

As a tuning exercise, all it requires is a tuning app on your phone or any tuning device.

The goal is to learn which notes are naturally out of tune and how to fix them.

Here is a video I created as a demonstration of part 1. Bare in mind, you may need to hold your notes longer or shorter, depending on your breath control. You will see some markings on the sheet. This should be a working document, scribble on it and write whatever you need to help you become consistent. Try adding some dynamics once you have been doing it a while.

It was actually a good time for me to do this exercise because my Custom Sterling euphonium was in for repair and I was borrowing a different instrument. The exercise helped me find a lot out about this instrument. If I had recorded it with my Sterling euphonium, I would have been a great deal more accurate in tuning, not because the instrument is better, just because through doing this exercise in the past, I know what to expect.

Here are the rules and instructions for the exercise written out with treble clef (Bb) notation below. If you cannot read treble clef, using this exercise is also a great way of learning how.

  • Deep relaxed full breath before each note, remain relaxed at all times.

  • Hold each note as long as possible, maintaining a quality sound, supporting with the stomach muscles, especially as you run out of air.

  • Experiment with your sound.

  • Use a metronome set to crotchet = 60, to measure note length.

  • Experiment with vibrato and holding perfectly straight tones.

  • Articulate each note cleanly, with a perfect start, tongue release.

  • Don't rush through it, take rests. This exercise should not tire you out.

  • Warm up well before doing this and rest for at least an hour after.

  • Use a tuner and after a few days doing the exercise, start writing down if the note is often flat or sharp. This will help you know your instrument better.

  • Fix all the tuning issues you encounter, using the tuner as your guide.

  • Move tuning slides or use your lips to get the notes in tune.

  • Mark any alternative valves/positions used or use of trigger.

Tuning exercise

If you need help with alternative fingerings, you might find this video useful.

For any real euphonium geeks out there you can find David Werden's interactive tuning guide here.

I hope this post can help brass players with tuning. If you like it, please help me share with others and consider signing up to be notified of new blog updates.

You can also see blog posts shared on my Facebook Alchemy For Musicians page - Facebook

Thank you for reading. ❤

Mark Glover


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