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Full Band Intonation Improvement Teaching Strategies

Intonation Improvement Strategies
Full band intonation improvement teaching strategies are always something that I look for whenever I need inspiration to get my group to the next level before a performance. As a middle school band director I know that one size does not fit all and I wanted to share a few techniques and strategies that have worked for me in my teaching.

Full Band Singing Exercises

I have said this before and I’ll say it again, singing helps instrumental musicians improve their abilities in a variety of ways. As a fellow music educator you may be able to relate to this. Often you will find that band students who are also in choir tend to be more sensitive to intonation efforts and are better at tuning their instruments than others.

If you consider what choirs often work on to make their performances beautiful, there is a hyper-focus on phrasing, tone quality, interval accuracy and much, much more. All of these elements are needed for great instrumental performances however, many music educators find themselves knee deep in the mechanics of the music rather than the big picture musicianship of the desired end result. Therefore it makes perfect sense to incorporate singing into our rehearsals.
In this article we will be focusing on techniques to help you, as the music educator and musician, to improve the intonation of your group in a large group setting. These would include:
  • Using the audible tuning pitch and humming the pitch before playing.
  • Isolating specific notes, or in some cases chords, and sequentially play it, sing it, play it.

Using a Tuning Drone

bassoon drone

Using this singing technique be sure to have either a pitch specific tuning device, synthesizer or a stable “tenor instrument” sound such as a bassoon to sustain a Bb drone. Then: 

  1. Have students hum the pitch the drone is playing while at the same time plugging one ear with their free hand. This action naturally amplifies the internal hearing and allows the musician to better hear the difference between the voice and the drone.
  2. The next steps is to have the student musician play the same pitch on their instrument. This is done while still plugging his or her ear with their free hand. Again, the student musician’s internal hearing is transferred through the bones of the player thus being able to more noticeably hear the need for making adjustments to the pitch or be able to confidently assure themselves that they are balancing with the ensemble. 

Techniques to Improve Large-Ensemble Intonation

Pitch Bending

One popular technique for improving large-ensemble intonation is to practice pitch bending exercises. As a result of this activity groups can help center their pitch more accurately.

Start this activity by establishing a series of hand-signals or cues to represent “in-tune”, Out-of-tune” and “unison.” Remind students that no mater how they manipulate their sound they must always play with their personal best-tone. Practice having students bend their pitch up and down as a group and end the experience with the musicians settling on a sustained unison. As students become more focused on the listening component of this exercise the improvements with the unison playing will become quite noticeable.

Mouthpiece-Buzzing

Mouthpiece-buzzing is known to help brass players improve their intonation and tone quality. A careful word of caution is to limit mouthpiece-buzzing from 2-5 minutes and avoid exercising using it in the extreme high and low ranges.

  1. To start, introduce mouthpiece-buzz in a comfortable and acceptable way. Some may find the sheer sound of the buzz funny and without monitoring reactions this activity can quickly lose its focus.
  2. Next, have the brass players buzz while the woodwind players play something relatively simple. Examples of this can include chunks of their performance music, a call and response music exercise or even alternating melodic solos between players while always listening in order to match pitch.
  3. Over time add games that can incorporate buzzing exercises or even sight-reading in small chunks through programs such as SmartMusic, Sight-Reading Factory or Rhythm Randomizer

Buzzing exercises should always model good posture and appropriate breathing technique.

Invoking Parallelism to Improve Intonation

There are definite benefits to using parallelism to improve intonation in your band rehearsals. With these activities students will play two different scales simultaneously. The scales should be either a 4th or 5th apart from each other. For example Bb concert scale and Eb concert scale or Bb concert scale and F concert scale. Consider using a combination of scales that represent the key of one of your performance pieces.

scales

Start this exercise by sustaining the open 4th/5th with the ensemble split in half. Take the time to have each half of the band tune the unison given the starting pitch. Next, have both groups play together the initial open interval, in other words the first note of each scale. Before playing up and down the scale, make sure to eliminate the beats that may be heard. Next, have each group play their assigned scale separately from the other group. Finally, have both groups play their separate scales together ascending and descending. This will create a series of parallel 4th or 5th intervals. Have students focus on listening to this open sound and provide guidance for what to do if it sounds wrong.

From my experience students enjoy using parallelism. Consider using this exercises beyond the scale example provided. 

An other recommendation for using parallelism (especially with 5ths) would include teaching your students a simple melody by rote. Next, have the students learn to play this melody in two keys that creates a parallel 5th movement. Practice this and activate their critical listening skills.

Ideas about Tuning

Often your winds that are in orchestras tune using the oboe player as it’s point of reference. However in the band world it is wise not to tune to a specific instrument because he or she plays it. This can cause a variety of issues if the person requested to provide a pitch center is someone struggling with timbre or pitch stability in the first place. Often directors will have a favorite instrument to tune to but consider the following when making this your selection:
  • Is the selected musician an advanced player with a stable pitch?
  • Have you experimented with several tuning sources and compared the results of each?
Ultimately, a well-trained ear will produced the best results in your band ensemble.
Tuner

What Pitch Do I Tune To?

Over the years I have heard ensembles approach tuning in different ways. One question that might be asked is what note should I tune the band to? Some bands tune to notes such as Bb, A and/ or F. Rather than tuning just to one note, perhaps consider tuning to each one and understand the limitations each note has based on your band’s instrumentation.

Concert Bb is a great note to tune to for most brass instruments. With the exception of horn all brass instruments use an open fingering (or 1st position in the case of trombone) which serves to tune the full length of the instrument’s tuning slide. In addition, woodwind pitch centers are generally stable on this note. As a result, concert Bb tuning works well for the full band setting.

Using concert A for woodwinds instruments is a stable note and for anyone lucky enough to have a double-bass player in their band. Concert A is used in symphony orchestras and woodwind players in these groups will feel confident that they are centered on pitch. Brass instruments must finger something different than their open valves or 1st slide position, this is for the most part is 2nd valve or 2nd position. As a result, this leads to a slightly less stable pitch center.

Once again concert F is a favorite pitch for tuning brass instruments since it uses open fingerings for valve instruments, and is in 1st position for trombone and is a stable note for the F horn. In addition, many great warm-up exercises are written in concert F major.

The intonation challenges with woodwind instruments include:

  • For flutes, often play flat on low F, slightly flat on top-line F, and noticeably sharp on high F.
  • Oboe musicians have different pitch tendencies for each of F fingerings.
  • For Eb saxophones the intonation for fourth line D is noticeably sharp without adjustments.
  • Bassoons often experience factors of instability on concert F.
  • Finally, with exception of F horn most brass instruments, each concert F becomes more sharp starting from the 3rd partial up.

Based on these factors it is wise to consider your student musician’s abilities as they tune in your ensemble.

Recommended Tuning For Full Band

Consider using the following recommendations when tuning your full band.

  • Start with a slow, sustained process where you begin with concert Bb, then goes to concert A and then concert F. Use these successive steps:
    1. Tune Concert Bb together as a full band.
    2. Move to Concert A. In this step brass players check 2nd valve and 2nd position tuning.
    3. Move to Concert F. Clarinetists check 2nd line G, Eb saxes check for flatting 4th-line D and brass check for sharpness.
    4. Finally, repeat this process one more time.
  • The tuning requires to check open tuning of student musicians.  Start by having half the students hold concert Bb and others hold concert F. This serves as a group-drone process. Have each group play 4 ascending notes while sustaining a tetrachord.
  • This next recommendation is called “Tuning from Principals.” Start this tuning process by first tuning all first-chair musicians. These should be the advanced players within the ensemble. These players will then sound the appropriate tuning tone. In small increments the music educator will  add successive players into the group. As new players are guided into playing the tuning pitch it is their responsibility to eliminate the beats. The goal is to create a beatless unison from the entire group. 
  • The final tuning exercise is called the “Pass the Sound.” In this exercise students will play individually or in small groups. Starting with the lowest instrument in the ensemble students will pass a specified pitch throughout the band. While this is done student musicians will be working to match their tuning, tone and the intensity of the musician that plays before them. Variations include:
    1. One individual plays the pitch and then a second joins them. The second individual then tunes to a unison and works for a beatless sound. Then a third player starts to play. When this begins the first player stops playing and the objective is the same as before. Ultimately, there is always two musicians playing to create a beatless sound.
    2.  The next variation includes the band playing in unison and then each section plays by itself. This is done for 4 to 8 counts at a time. The band, once again, plays in unison and then the next section plays by itself. This will go back and forth between band and section until all groups have played.

Conclusion

In conclusion, there are many variations, techniques and strategies to improving a band’s intonation. The major component required in the development of young musician’s ability is to have them use their well-trained ear. As a music educator it would be wise to learn about and experiment with every intonation and tuning improvement strategy you can. With time you will you learn what works for you and your band. This will help your program develop a custom sound that audiences will look forward to hearing year-in and year-out.

Sources

BandDirector.com. (2019, April 4). The tuning process – the ensemble. Band Director Media Group. Retrieved May 7, 2022, from https://banddirector.com/concert-band/the-tuning-process-the-ensemble/

Intonation strategies: How can we teach kids to play in tune? Minnesota Music Educators Association iCal. (n.d.). Retrieved May 7, 2022, from https://mmea.org/interval/intonation-strategies/

Linaberry, R. (n.d.). Strategies, tips, and activities for the effective band director: Targeting student engagement and comprehension. Routledge.

Texas School Music Project: Band. (n.d.). Retrieved May 7, 2022, from https://tsmp.org/band/band/allen_tuning_intermediate_bands.html

Tips on teaching intonation (from 50+ band directors). Band Directors Talk Shop. (2019, November 15). Retrieved May 7, 2022, from https://banddirectorstalkshop.com/tips-on-teaching-intonation-from-50-band-directors/

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