How is it that eight or more good woodwind players can
sit down in an orchestral section and play out of tune?
Sometimes it is because the players don't listen carefully
enough. If the section is close to being in tune, then
each player can listen and adjust. Other times it's because
the section hasn't tuned up carefully enough.
If the tuning
is generally bad, then there is not much that you can
do yourself by listening and adjusting, because you can't
simultaneously lip up to match the bassoon and down to
match the clarinet. Unless the tuning is reasonably close
to start with, it will just be uncomfortable to play no
matter what you do.
Some of the advice given here is common sense, some
is orchestral tradition and a tiny part of it has the
authority of my professional expertise in musical acoustics.
I don't claim to have a great ear, nor to play always
in tune, but I have thought about it and tried to improve
the tuning of sections in which I've played. Suggestions
- Arrive early so that you can warm up before you
go on stage (particularly Oboe 1). Bring a pencil
so that you can put up and down arrows above notes
(along with other markings) on your part.
- Double reed players can put some water in reeds
as early as possible (for instance on the way to the
gig) so that the reed is well soaked when you start
- Get some warm, wet air into the instrument early
– as soon as you have it assembled.
- Warm up with playing. Oboes obviously should not
play sustained A's while warming up. (The tuner will
work on any note if you want to check your own tuning.
Eb major is a good key for oboes to warm up with!)
- The leader will give a sign when it is time to tune.
If Oboe 1 is confident of the tuning, s/he can play
an A immediately. If not, s/he can play a short A,
adjust the tuning and then try again. Once the oboe
starts playing an A that lasts more than a few seconds,
listen to it carefully for a few seconds, then play
a note yourself. It is annoying and boring for an
oboist to play A's for a long time while nobody does
anything. So be ready and start tuning quickly. Nevertheless,
take the time to tune very carefully. Even if it takes
a few minutes, no-one will begrudge it if the result
is a wind section that plays in tune! (See also Heisenberg's
uncertainty principle and the musician's uncertainty
principle, which has some demonstrations about
- First get one of your A's in tune, carefully. Then
tune several notes, especially A, D and F. The D minor
tuning is partly tradition, but it has some good features.
It allows you to check your tuning and to make a compromise
tuning using different lengths of pipe for all of
the instruments. Dm is good because D-A gives a nice
fifth to tune, and F-A a major third. At some stage
in the tuning one of the bassoons can tune a low D
carefully and then hold it so that the section can
tune both to that and the oboe A. (Listen down when
tuning chords.) 1st and 2nd of each instrument should
check octaves because they often play in octaves.
How to tune
Listen carefully to the oboe note, play yours, and listen
for interference beats (What
are interference beats?). If you're in tune, fine, but
if you're not, you have to see whether you're high or low.
If you cannot tell, lip it up and down and note which way
you had to lip it to get it in tune (ie to get the beats to
disappear). Then adjust your slide and do it again. When you
think it is correct, try the Dm chord notes as described above.
You may have to compromise on the tuning.
Flutes: it is most important to get the top octave
in tune. (The others are easier to lip up or down, and they
are also easier to hide!) So tune your high and middle A's,
F's and D's, rather than the low ones. In fact the only
reason to play the second space A is to make a a mental
note of how much you will be lipping it, along with the
rest of your bottom octave notes.
Piccolo: what's the point in tuning the low A? Tune
the high ones - they're the ones that will be heard. Better
play a loud (but short) high D and A now and get them in
tune. They'll be loud and people will hear you, but that's better
than playing them in the concert out of tune.
Oboe: second oboe should not play very long low
A's so that other players don't get confused over which
A to tune to. Listen, play a short one, lip it up or down
and adjust. Oboe 2 especially can make use of the other
notes (the higher A, D's and F's). When the Dm chord is
going and reasonably well in tune, Oboe 1 should check the
middle A and the Ds and Fs as well, especially the high
D and F - on my oboe the high F is sensitive to which reed
Cor anglais: the tuning A (written E) is one of
the worst notes on most cors. If I play this note with normal embouchure and it
sounds in tune, then my instrument is badly flat. Tune the
low (written) E instead, and the A's and C's. In fact the
only reason for playing the tuning note during tuning is
to remind yourself how far you have to lip that note down.
Clarinet: getting the long B in tune doesn't give
you an idea of whether your throat notes are in tune. So
check the throat G, and also check the low B and G. Especially
check the high notes in the Em chord.
Bassoon: the main thing is to have the right crook
in: moving the crook within the range of the whisper key
is for fine adjustment. You always end up doing most of
the tuning with the chops anyway. Some bassoonists say that
the only reason they play notes during tuning is because
conductors would get worried if they found out that the
bassoon can't adjust the tuning on the instrument. But there
is a reason: you need to remind yourself how much you have
to lip the different registers for the particular reed and
crook you're playing. Which note you "tune" depends
a lot on your bassoon. On mine, A4 and A3 are both flat.
So I mainly tune the low A and the Ds and Fs.
If one bassoon plays a low or middle D and can get it nicely
in tune with the oboe, then the rest of the section can
tune Dm chords, as discussed above.
Doubling: if you don't get a chance to tune your
doubling instrument during the wind tuning, tune it during
the brass tuning. Remember to breathe into it whenever you
get a chance in the several minutes before you use it.
Playing in tune
Nothing beats listening! Conductors often say "listen
down" so winds should listen especially to the bassoons.
Bassoons are not always the most reliable of references, so
this advice should be taken cum grano salis. But listen
to your chords and, when in doubt, move about. If the chord
doesn't sound right, lip up or down until it does. A chord
whose mistuning varies with time is more interesting than
one that remains permanently discordant. Once you have worked
out which way you needed to lip a note in a particular chord,
put an arrow (up or down) in pencil on your part, to
remind you which way you had to lip to get that note in tune.
Due to different combinations of instruments playing, and
different contexts and keys, it could be that sometimes you
have to lip a particular note up, and then elsewhere lip it
Remember that you are in a team and, if the chord sounds
wrong, the whole section sounds lousy. The moral satisfaction
that you were "right" doesn't count.
You should learn a bit about the other members of your
section and look out for problems. Can two bassoons play
octave F#s in tune? (It's not easy.) And flutes and oboists
will notice that flute E5s go flat when p, while oboe E5s
are often sharp. To play well together requires teamwork
Chords and temperament
Not everyone agrees about temperament: there's a bit of taste and fashion involved. Even in a sustained simple chord, some wind players say that they prefer equal temperament (ET) to just. If you are one of these, it's worth listening to a just chord before commiting yourself to ET.
(Why the difference? In ET, all major thirds are equal and there are three of them to the octave, so they have a frequency ratio of 21/3, which is 1.26. Just major thirds are the ones that don't produce beats, and they have a ratio of 5/4 or 1.25. This is significant difference: a sixth of a semitone.)
Fifths are not very different in different temperaments, but thirds are. In a major triad, the just third is flatter than in ET, in a minor triad it is sharper. So, if you've never done so before, try this experiment. Two instruments play a fifth and eliminate beats. Then a third joins them, and tunes the third to eliminate beats. (Usually, this will require flattening the third in the major triad and sharpening the minor.)
Further explanation and some sound file examples are given in Tartini tones, consonance and temperament.
Everything from rehearsal tuning applies. It shouldn't have
to be a longer or more careful tuning than rehearsal, if anything
it can be shorter if you have rehearsed well how to tune quickly
and efficiently. But if it takes a while, this is better than
playing out of tune. Flutes and piccolo should not be afraid
to tune up their high notes: these are much more important
than the low ones.
In concerts, warm up backstage, but continue to warm up
on stage. Not only does it keep the instrument warm and
wet, but it's better than sitting quietly, getting nervous
and wondering whether your reed is still working. It's also
a good ambiance for the audience: that busy broadband sound
of lots of instruments playing in different keys. It's part
of the anticipatory excitement of a concert. When warming
up, however, don't play your big solo that the audience
will hear later – or at least don't play it so that it
can be heard.
Oboes should not play A's while warming up, no matter how
many enquiring A's and looks they get from strings and brass.
There will be only one official tuning, just before the
conductor comes on. Ideally, the leader will allow warming
up till then so that the orchestra can tune and then have
the minimum time of sitting quietly.
You probably know the answers to these questions. You certainly
need to know them, so it is worthwhile just checking again
to see if the answers have changed since last time you thought
- what notes on your instruments are most out of tune, and
which way? Make a list of the worst half dozen or more.
- what alternative fingerings can you use on the bad ones?
Remember that some fingerings are better at pp and others
better at ff.
- are your octaves narrow or wide? How is it affected by
the reed? Do they get narrower with a soft reed, or as the
reed gets wetter? (See other
effects of the reed.)
You can find out the answers by playing octaves and scales
slowly and listening. You can also check with a tuning
meter, or by comparing with a (well tuned) keyboard. Playing
octaves with your section partner(s) is a good exercise.
Tune together on one note, then one player goes up the
octave, or what should be an octave.
Work out with your session partner(s) what his/her problematic
notes are. (Often they will be the same as yours.) When
you have an interval to play together, you can compromise.
If you know s/he has trouble getting a particular note
low enough, you can raise yours a little.
Flutes: check your cork. You probably have a centre
marker on your cleaning rod, but there is nothing sacred about
this position: you can experiment with it. Pushing the cork in raises the pitch of
all notes, but it raises the pitch of high notes more
than that of low notes. Pulling it out (just screw the
crown clockwise) lowers the the high notes more than the
low. So if your high octaves are wide, you can pull the cork
out. If narrow, push it in. If you move the cork to get
your octaves sounding like octaves, you then have to change
your normal tuning slide position.
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