I know that we’ve heard this so many times: “You should tune or play with a tuner, because it will make you a better player/musician.” Yes, this statement is true, but it’s such a bland blanket statement that most students will probably just “tune” it out and continue to do what they do, which may not be the most effective or efficient process. Students seem to respond better when you can either give them tangible evidence, or list specific benefits that will entice the student to at least give it a try. Sometimes, you have to force the student to tune or perform a certain exercise at every lesson, so that they can feel the difference over a period of time. I have all of my private students do a specific tuning sequence every time that I see them, and this process has not only improved the overall pitch quality of my students, but it has given them tangible evidence to show that tuning does make a difference, especially when you do a lot of ensemble playing.
The controversial question: How should I tune? You’ll receive many different answers if you ask this question, because most teachers and musicians have strong feelings about the proper way to tune. When I was in-between my undergraduate and masters degrees, I studied with Bob Pruzin for a year, who was the horn professor at the University of South Carolina. He told me a story about how he was going to be in a wind quintet as part of his graduate school assistantship, and that he spent the summer practicing really hard to prepare for this opportunity. Despite all of his practicing, when he showed up for the first rehearsal, his tuning was so bad, or just so off from the other players that everything sounded awful. From that point on, he decided that he would always practice with a tuner on his stand, (turned on of course).
Now, this is the advice that I’m assuming the majority of people would give, and it’s great advice. I do this a lot, but you also have to realize that tuning can’t just be solved by playing every note in the green all the time. You also can’t rely on a tuner when playing in groups, so I always try to teach my students how to train their ears and adjust without having to look at a tuner all of the time.
For the longest time, I just practiced with a tuner on my stand. I had some friends that talked about using drones to tune, but I never really experimented with it until my DMA. Dr. Virginia Thompson, late horn great and former professor at West Virginia University, discovered The Tuning CD, which she required all of her students to purchase and use on a regular basis. It’s different from most drones, because the tones contain all possible harmonics, high and low, which makes it very easy to tune intervals throughout all octaves. Dr. T would always have us play through the Farkas Pre-Warm-Up Routine on p. 32 of The Art of Horn Playing. This way, we would have to learn how to adjust the different notes within a chord, which is essential to ensemble playing. We’d start on track one, which was the concert C pitch, and play through the Farkas exercise utilizing the first twelve tracks of the CD. You’d have to repeat the first two tracks for the last two lines of the routine, but it all worked out.
At first, I was a little perturbed and felt that this was a waste of my time. I knew how to play in tune, and I didn’t feel like this would be helpful; however, after a month of doing the tuning routine, I noticed that it was easier for me to adjust in ensembles, and my tuning became more consistent in general. Keep in mind that I did this routine on a daily basis, but I even noticed a difference in those horn students that only did the tuning routine once or twice a week. As a section in ensembles, the horns were by far the most in-tune. I would often use The Tuning CD at the beginning of horn choir rehearsals, and I always felt that this process helped us to play better as a unit. We were able to sound loud without having to push ourselves, because we knew how to play in-tune.
Over the years, I have continued the tuning tradition and all of my private students do Dr. T’s tuning exercise at the start of each lesson. I continue to us The Tuning CD, which is now available through Amazon Prime, but I have recently branched out and found a couple of other apps that have been very useful. I know a bunch of people, especially band directors that love the Tonal Energy app, but I’m not as big of a fan of it. My favorite new tuning app that I’ve been using for the past few months is the Drone Tuner. Unfortunately, it’s not a cheap app with it being priced at $9.99, but I still feel that it’s a steal considering the cool functions. I know that most apps only cost a couple of dollars, but you have to keep in mind that it still costs $20 or more in most cases to buy a nice tuner. The only downside is that the Drone Tuner is only available on IOS. I think that it will eventually be released on android, but it hasn’t yet.
Anyway, the Drone Tuner is cool, because it combines the aural aspect of a drone with the visual aspect of a strobe tuner. The drone isn’t nearly as good as The Tuning CD, but it works well. I do like the fact that you can adjust the sound of the drone to fit your instrument. It’s a lot easier to match a pitch when it sounds more like your instrument instead of some electronic sounding tone, so I definitely like this feature. I also think that it has helped some of my students, because they can hear and associate with the sound a little better. Once they figured out what was going on, my students also have enjoyed the strobe aspect of the tuner and how each interval tuned depicts a different image or figure. It’s also nice that I can just pull out my iphone or ipad and use the app whenever I need it, so I would definitely recommend checking out the Drone Tuner app if you haven’t already.
So, back to the question at hand: Is it important to tune? The answer should be resounding, “Yes!” I think the better question to ask is this, “How often should I tune?” Of course, you should probably already know that answer to this one, which is EVERY DAY. I can’t stress enough the importance of playing in-tune, especially if you plan on doing a lot of gigging at some point in your life. They will always bring back the people that are easy to play with and can fit in with the sound of the section.