How Do You Tune Your Band?

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Tuning is the responsibility of each individual in the ensemble. Directors can’t really “tune” the band. The best results occur when the director guides the student’s skill development to match pitch with the players around them. Playing in tune, like any skill, and learning to match pitch has to be worked on a little bit every day. It’s not something you can do in the warm-up room right before an important concert or festival.

Tuning (matching pitch) is a process, not an event!

Electronic Tuners

These are great devices for helping students to understand the difference between what being sharp or flat sounds like. The purpose of the electronic tuner is to train the ears of the student NOT tune the instrument.

How many times have we heard a director “go down the line” with a tuner right before a performance only to hear the band play more out of tune than before? Using the tuner can help the student to understand whether or not they need to push in or pull out at first. However, the skill of being able to match pitch is the ultimate goal.

Matching Pitch

When we talk about playing “in-tune” what we really mean is being able to match any given pitch. Here are some ideas on how to incorporate that particular skill development during a rehearsal:

  •  Singing
    • After a brief warm-up period, which includes breathing exercises, long tones and scales, have the students sing an F concert.  Audiation  (singing) is a great way to get the music inside the student’s body. After singing the F concert, have the band play the F concert with the instruction to “match” what they just played. There has never been a time when the pitch and the tonal center of the band didn’t improve immediately.
  • Tune Around The Room
    • Another helpful exercise is to pass the F concert around the room. Have all students play the F concert for 4 counts, then each section in turn from the bottom of the band to the top. First full band then tubas, euphoniums, horns, trumpets, low reeds, tenor saxes, alto saxes, clarinets, flutes then full band again.
    • Encourage the students to listen and match the pitch from the previous section then “hand off” the pitch to the next section. Not only does this encourage and develop pitch-matching skills, but it also encourages students to listen with their “big ears” across the entire ensemble.
    • After this exercise ask the students which sections sounded the best.  Then repeat the exercise, you will be amazed at how much better it sounds. Not to mention you as the teacher virtually did nothing! The students did it all by paying closer attention and listening.
    • Sometimes we do the “Tuning Around The Room” exercise with a drone generated by our Harmony Director keyboard or some other electronic device and then repeat the exercise without the drone.
  • First Chair Match-Up
    • This exercise uses just the principal or first chair players sustaining the F concert. Again we like to use a drone until the F concert is nice and smooth. Then add on 1 or 2 players at a time, encouraging students to stay inside the ensemble sound.
  • Tuning Unison Passages
    • Sometimes during sectionals, I discover students struggling to match pitch in a unison passage. I take a minute or two and have each student play a few bars of the passage getting a read on an electric tuner to see if they are mostly sharp or mostly flat and then have them adjust accordingly. Again, this gets them to a place where they can hear what an in tune unison sounds like.

 

These are ideas you can rotate around daily or weekly to help your students develop the pitch matching skills needed to play in any ensemble.

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Jon Bubbett has spent the past 38 years as a high school band director in Georgia and Alabama. He has served as the director of bands for Thompson High School in Alabaster, AL for the past 25 years. During that time the Thompson High School Wind Ensemble has performed at The Music for All National Concert Band Festival twice, has performed for the Alabama Music Educators Association 4 times and has made numerous conference appearances in throughout the southeast. Mr. Bubbett has received the National Band Association’s Citation of Excellence Award 7 times. He has also presented at The Midwest Clinic, the Alabama Music Educators Association and has been guest clinician and adjudicator in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. He has been married to Jeannie Bubbett for 38 years and they have two incredible children, Miles and Mallory!