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How to tune wind instruments

Who should you tune to?  The band director's annoying machine?  The oboe?  The piano?  The soloist? Your principal player?

My training is as a horn player.  I will write from that perspective. Well, here is a primer on tuning.  You'll learn tuning within a section, in an ensemble, and how to get initial tuning in wind chamber music.
The Initial Tuning

In a large ensemble:
The oboe gives the A because oboe overtones are the least confusing
If you are a French Horn player in an orchestra, you will be given an A.  If you play that on the open F horn, it will be 12 cents flat because it is the major third above C for that fingering.  Don't tune with that fingering, choose one that is more in tune.  Trigger-2 is much better because it is the fundamental of A horn.  You're being given an A, so tune to it.

If you are in a band and tune to a Bb, use and open trigger fingering.  That puts you in Bb horn.

Bb trumpets should tune to their C, likewise with Bb tubas. 

Woodwinds may have to tune the fifth as well to make sure the instrument, not just that fingering, is tuned properly.

If you don't play with a centered, full, complete sound, you are not properly representing where your instrument is pitched.  NEVER tune at a pianissimo dynamic.  Use a healthy mezzo forte.  Don't play where the oboe is, play where your instrument is and compare.  Make sure your instrument is warmed or cooled to the room temperature too.  As your instrument warms it will change pitch.  It makes no sense to tune an instrument that is in the process of changing pitch.

In a wind chamber ensemble
Weather it's duets, quintets, or The Grand Partita, this method works well.  
  1. Everyone in the ensemble agrees on a tuning note
  2. The entire ensemble plays the note simultaneously.  Make sure everyone is playing the same dynamic and with optimal support.
  3. After the cut-off, the ensemble imagines the average tuning note of the ensemble silently in their minds
  4. The ensemble sings the note to verify agreement
  5. The ensemble tunes again against the mean note they chose and adjusts their instruments accordingly.   
It makes no sense to tune to an arbitrary note.  Tune to a real core pitch of the ensemble.

While playing a piece
 When you are in the thoes of a piece, there are lots of timbres and possibly lots of different pitch centers to choose from.  Multiple pitch centers tend to indicate a more amateur ensemble, but not always.  Sometimes temperature, humidity, and lighting can reap havoc on tuning.  A well informed musician can help the ensemble settle on one pitch center.  There are rules for tuning, but you learn them over years.  As far as I know, they haven't been written down in one place, so here goes.  Oh, keep checking this page from time to time.  As I remember things, I'll add to this post. 

Lesson 1: Tune to your principal

If you are a section player, you need to tune to your principal.  PERIOD.  If your principal is out of tune, tough beans!  Challenge them for their seat at your earliest convenience but shut up and tune to them!  I don't care if their pitch is wavering, you waver right along with it.  There is a time and a place for reordering the section, the middle of a piece is not it.  I know that in tuning to an out-of-tune principal, you make them look good.  That doesn't matter.  You make yourself look good if your section rocks.  A good conductor will notice the out-of-tune principal and your uncanny ability to tune to them. 

If you are having trouble discerning weather you are sharp or flat the problem might be a lack of pitch center.  If the principal is not supporting their sound with adequate air they can be "flarp", both flat and sharp at the same time.  Here is where you need to use tact.  Keep in mind, you are not currently challenging this player, you are working WITH this player.  Usually some simple attention to the moment will clear up problems.  Your principal player is most likely not paying enough attention to their playing in that section.  Say, "could you listen to me when we play here and tell me if you'd like me to use a different fingering?"  Now, you really aren't interested in the fingering, but you do want your principal to pay attention to their playing.  By having them pay attention to your playing, they automatically pay attention to your playing!  You can ask about your dynamics, pitch, fingerings, phrasing, etc.  This tactic works 90% of the time.  When they pay more attention, they should have a centered pitch for you to tune to.

If this doesn't work, ask your principal if they can play the excerpt with you or as a section during the break.

Bad-mouthing your principal is very tempting when you believe they are not as accomplished as you.  It's a bad habit, DON'T DO IT.  Good playing speaks volumes.  Always let your playing speak for you.  Wait until you can actually do something about the seating.

 Hierarchy of tuning
If you are a principal player, you need to tune to someone, but who?  Here is a hierarchy that is pretty standard.  If everybody follows this, they will end up on the same pitch.
  1.  Listen low:  if you tune to the bass of a chord, you have something to hold on to.  Listen to tubas, bassoons, string basses, cellos, and timpani.  
  2. If you are about to play a solo, listen to the melody before you come in and tune to it.  If it is painful to play at that pitch, endure the pain and make it through.  Try to use eye contact with concertmaster or other principals to get pitch back to where it needs to be.  
  3. If there is a disagreement between the current solo and the underlying chords, play with the chords when you come in. 
  4. If there is a piano soloist, play in tune with the piano
  5. Ask for an A or Bb (depending on the ensemble) if the tuning gets really bad during rehearsal.  
Hope this helps you tune and teach others to tune more effectively.   


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