Intonation in Action Exercise

April 1, 2016 at 10:27 amCategory:Practicing the Flute

In my mission to help people improve their intonation, I’ve had to come up with exercises that people can do in their own practice. Once I’ve convinced players that notes need to be adjusted according to their context in the music, regardless of what any tuner’s meter says, it helps to have exercises to back it up.

The attached handout is part of a set of exercises that you play against a drone, the tonic note of each exercise. In this case, all exercises are in C Major, so set your drone, tone generator, or helpful friend to play the middle C. As you play each exercise, you pause to listen to how your note compares against the drone; e.g. is it sharp, flat, or in tune with the drone? Don’t move on to the next note, until you get your note in tune!

introductory intonation exercises

 

The exercises start out by working on matching the unisons and octaves in the context of ascending and descending scales and arpeggios. Then they progress to tuning more of the notes in relation to the drone. The arrows indicate which direction the pitches need to be adjusted in relation to the drone pitch, assuming that you are playing them perfectly in equal temperament, i.e. in tune with a tuner meter. You may not need to make any adjustments, but let your ears be the judge.

So, give it a try! Then play it in all Major keys. Minor keys will require different adjustments, but after practicing the major keys for a few weeks, doing this in minor will be easy.

Reminder: we don’t hear in equal temperament. In order for our ears to register different harmonies as being “in tune”, we have to play the harmony note either higher or lower than a tuner would tell us to. (If this is new information to you and you need more proof than my say-so, there are many sources you can look up on the Web or in the library.)

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The Intonation is Good, Except . . .

March 30, 2016 at 8:19 pmCategory:Uncategorized

It makes me crazy to listen to performing groups that don’t play with good intonation!  It’s not that I have perfect pitch, far from it, but I have developed the ability to tell when people are playing out of tune. I conduct an adult flute choir and from the beginning we’ve worked very hard at improving the group’s ability to play with good intonation and we’ve been pretty successful, even earning compliments on our ability to play in tune well.

As a result, we’ve spent less time in rehearsal on intonation exercises, which is great, more time for music! However, lately I’ve noticed an odd development. The group will be playing along and sounding great, performing beautifully resonant harmonies. Then we hit a key change and the intonation goes wonky for a few measures or until I stop the group. I’ve been pretty frustrated by this, wondering what the heck is happening!

Of course I know that when the key changes the relationships between the individual notes changes and the intervals have to be adjusted accordingly. A G played in a C Major chord will be played at a slightly different pitch than a G in an e minor chord. When the key changes, it takes the choir a little bit to sort this out, which has been frustrating to me, because all of a sudden they go from sounding really good to not sounding not so good, and the music suffers.

It occurred to me today that this wouldn’t stand out so much if they weren’t playing so well in tune before the key change, so it is actually a good thing, a sign that they are really locked into playing in tune with each other. Until the tonality changes and upsets the apple cart . . . so the next step on this journey will be putting a little time into practicing those modulations and emphasizing the need to individually prepare for the changes in order to minimize or (dare I hope for this!?) eliminate any disruption in the flow of the music.

So what I’ve been thinking of as a frustrating situation is actually a good thing, a sign of progress and accomplishment, and an opportunity for further development as a competent, sensitive, interactive music ensemble. My goal is always that the group works together to create magical musical moments for the audience and for each other. Each player  has to align the frequencies of the notes he or she plays with the frequencies being played by  others  in such a way that the ideal expression of the harmonies can be achieved without the interference of unintentional sonic clashes or conflicts . When such a confluence of  musical sound is achieved, especially on the resolution of harsh dissonance, at a climactic moment, or the last whisper of a solemn statement, it just feels good. Really good. That’s not so much to ask for, is it? Definitely something to strive for, with every note, regardless of what key you are in.

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Advantages and Disadvantages of Improving Your Sense of Intonation

March 29, 2016 at 10:11 amCategory:Uncategorized

The other day I was thinking about the advantages of improving your sense of intonation, the ability to hear and respond to pitch fluctuations, and it occurred to me that there were also some disadvantages (yes, I said disadvantages) that go along with it. Here is my list of 5 advantages followed by my list of 5 disadvantages. Ready?

5 Advantages to Having a Good Sense of Intonation
1. Because you play well in tune, you sound better and are perceived as a better player. Everyone wants to be thought well of.
2. Your tone is usually better and more consistent because you are managing your air better in order to play in tune better. Your technique has to improve in order to make the adjustments necessary to play in tune.
3.You are better able to convey musical ideas both because your intonation is good and because you can concentrate more on other aspects of playing when your intonation is well-managed.
4. Other musicians enjoy playing in ensembles with you because your intonation is good. Directors notice, too, and are favorably impressed.
5. You feel more confident and at ease when you know your intonation is good. Playing is more fun!

Now for the opposite side of the coin.

5 Disadvantages of Having a Good Sense of Intonation
1. Playing with musicians who don’t play in tune becomes increasingly frustrating. But now you know how others felt before you got better!
2. You may develop a bit of a superiority complex, and become less tolerant of other’s intonation flaws. Worse, you might start trying to tell them what to to, resulting in them thinking you are bossy or snobby.
3. You have fewer excuses for playing out of tune once others become used to you being able to play with good intonation.
4. Once you develop a good sense of intonation, you will never be able to listen to music in the same again. You will constantly be aware of inconsistencies and clashes in the intonation of everything you hear. And you will never be able to sit through a beginner band concert with a straight face again, no matter how much you love the sibling, niece, nephew, son, or daughter you are there to hear. My hat is off to all the directors of beginner bands. Every day your ears must take a terrible beating, but you keep at it anyway, and we all benefit from your sacrifice!
5. I couldn’t come up with another believable disadvantage. If you can, or there are advantages I have missed, please put them in the comments and share them.

Don’t get me wrong, I definitely believe that the advantages greatly outweigh the disadvantages, especially being able to fully convey the music while feeling good about it. For most of us, it takes a lot of work to develop a good sense of pitch, then it takes more work to develop the ability to adjust pitch on demand in order to play in tune. But it is well worth the work, and the personal enjoyment of playing well is the reward.

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Articulation Inspiration

February 4, 2015 at 9:28 pmCategory:Uncategorized

Every year at the Florida Flute Association Convention I see or hear something that inspires me, something that I try to integrate into my own playing or musical philosophy. This year I was so busy with presenting a teaching session, conducting a flute choir performance, and giving a performance presentation, that I feel like I didn’t see all that much. But, I still got my moment of inspiration!

This year’s featured performer was Aaron Goldman, principal flutist of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington DC. After reading about him and his experience auditioning for the NSO, I looked forward to hearing him perform and learning about him. My events were all finished by Saturday evening’s gala performance, so I was free to attend and listen without the distractions of having my own things to worry about.

 

I will admit that I was not captivated by his performance in the gala concert. Yes, his technique was flawless and fluid, almost effortless, and his fast articulations miraculously clean, consistent, and consisting of more tone than tongue. However in my state of fatigue I was not moved and did not stay through the whole performance. Isn’t it odd that when a performance seems too effortless, it also feels as if the performer is not really engaged? I like a little of the performer’s personality to come through, a sense that he or she is excited by the music, and that was not coming through for me.

I was sufficiently impressed, though, so that I attended the next morning’s warmup session led by Mr. Goldman where he introduced people to exercises he uses to improve and maintain his sound production. The exercises were not new to me, ala Moyse, but I was impressed that Goldman actually explained why he used certain exercises, and how he used them to continually challenge himself to make better sounds and increase his skills. Teachers and presenters often don’t give you the why of a thing, resulting in students blindly trying to  recreate something that was never defined for them in the first place.

My revelation came in the masterclass Goldman taught. With one of the performers, he was given the opportunity to address articulation and how he approaches it. This was of particular interest to me, because my own double and triple tonguing are not what I would like them to be, so I was anxious to hear what he might suggest. Simply, he put the emphasis on the tone of the notes, rather than the tonguing.

This makes so much sense! Listeners don’t care so much about the mechanics of your articulation, they are interested in hearing the notes so they have something to follow. Think of the articulation like this: each articulation has a little t or k (or whatever syllable you are using) and uppercase AH:  tAH, kAH, dAH, gAH. This fits right in with the idea that the articulation only begins the note, and that once the articulation has been made, you have to get out of the way of the note.

Personally, I have been starting out OK on lengthy articulated passages, but after a few measures I start to really bear down on the articulation and the tone disappears. This is exactly what I needed to hear about right now. It is a reminder of what I already know to be true and at the same time, a new insight. I have new goals to work on now and a method of achieving them.

Mission accomplished, my yearly inspiration has been provided!

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Developing effective dynamics in the flute choir

October 6, 2014 at 12:17 pmCategory:Flute Choir

This season the music my flute choir is working is filled with dynamic effects. Some are simple and straightforward, others include big, quick changes. All of them need to be done cleanly and provide big impact. Wishy washy dynamic changes will be worse than none at all.

I have made plans for developing these in every rehearsal. Here is my strategy so far:

1. Practice big effects in isolation. Practice the special effects first, then integrate them into the piece. This draws attention to them, reinforces their importance in the player’s minds, and helps the piece feel more exciting right from the beginning, leaving room to create even bigger effects as the piece comes together.

2. Encourage, nay, DEMAND that players make the biggest effects possible. I want them to really punch that sfz, turn the volume way down on the piano after a fp while keeping the intensity going, etc. It always amazes when I ask for MORE, BIGGER, and players draw back, and give less, play smaller. When I can get someone to really let loose, get into the characterization, it is such a thrill for me, and them. Really, the world will not end if you play something so big that the note cracks, or heaven forbid, you draw someone’s attention. That is what those effects are for, to get the listener’s attention!! Maybe I should get a mannekin to put in the back of the practice hall and encourage people to play to it, give them a target. Hmmmmmmm.

3. Dynamic levels are relative. The particular dynamic level of any one part at any one time, depends on the role that part has in the music. There are no concrete dynamic levels. Excellent ensemble playing requires sensitive, ACTIVE attention to individual dynamic levels every single second. If every part is marked at mezzo forte, and everyone dutifully plays their concept of mezzo forte, but the melody line is indistinguishable, that doesn’t work. It may be ‘proper’, but it is not good music. The melody line has to be louder than the supporting parts, so either that player has to play out or the others have to play quieter, or both. Then as soon as the melody line moves to another part, the players have to balance that out. This requires engagement on the part of every player and attention on the part of the ensemble conductor or coach if there is one. I feel an idea for an ensemble balancing exercise blossoming!

Really when you think about it, while dynamic levels can be quantified using a decibel meter, who does that? I have personally practiced an exercise that required the player to make distinctions between 8 dynamic levels, from ppp to fff. This is great for developing awareness and control, and is an area that I don’t pay enough attention to in my own practicing. However, the most musical concept of dynamics is not to try to play at numerically defined levels, but to make sure your dynamic levels are discernible to the listener, fit the context of the music, and have the desired impact.

That’s more than enough for now. Time to put this into practice!!

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