More on Improving Intonation With Drone Practice

November 30, 2016 at 9:00 amCategory:Intonation Practice | Practicing the Flute

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Believe it or not, I am not the only musician who believes that practicing with drone pitches is a great way to develop good intonation skills. Professional saxophonist and Alexander Technique teacher Bill Plake does, too.

If you’ve read more than a couple of posts on Practicing Flutist, my views on why you should practice intonation skills with a drone are pretty obvious. I love it when I find others doing the same things I am doing, but in a slightly different way or to develop different skills.

When I came across Bill Plake’s post about how he workes with a drone, I wanted to share them with you. He even uses drone practice as a way to encourage rhythmic variation in improvisation practice, more proof that the possibilities are endless! So check out this post from his blog on to get someone else’s viewpoint on drone practice.


Intonation Practice Exercise with a Drone 1

November 29, 2016 at 9:50 amCategory:Intonation Practice | Practicing the Flute

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If you’ve never done intonation exercises with a drone, here is a good way to get started.

First you need a drone generator. This is any device that will play and hold a steady pitch, the drone. Many tuners and tuner apps will sound pitches, electric pianos will sound a pitch as long as a key is depressed, or a cooperative musical friend can provide drone pitches (good practice for both of you!)

Now choose a scale that you are comfortable and confident playing. You want to be able to use your best sound throughout, so start with your best scale, if you have one.

Set the drone generator to the tonic or keynote of that scale, e.g. C for a C major scale, A for an a minor scale and start the drone playing.

Starting at the lowest tonic you can play for the scale, play it against the drone, listening to hear if you are playing above or below the drone pitch, with the aim of matching the pitch of the drone. When you can match the drone and hold that pitch, then play up the scale, slurring, to the next octave. When you arrive at the tonic pitch, check it against the drone as you did for the first note. Do this for all octaves you can play. When you get to the top, then work your way back down, checking and matching all the tonic pitches as you go.

Once you have completed working your way all the way up and all the way down, do it again and ask yourself these intonation questions as you go.

1. How much am I having to adjust as I arrive on each keynote? If I’m making big adjustments, how do I keep that from being necessary?

2. Are the adjustments different for ascending the scale and descending the scale? Why might this be the case? What can I do about this?

Try this for a week, on all the scales you regularly practice, and see what you notice about your intonation. Share your results in comments, Twitter @FlutistDeanna, Facebook etc. I’d love to hear how you do!




Intonation Naivete; Be Kind to Your Listener’s Ears

November 28, 2016 at 3:15 pmCategory:Uncategorized

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When I was young and naïve, I liked to program unaccompanied pieces, because I thought that I didn’t have to pay as much attention to intonation. If there was no other instrument to compare my pitch to, nobody would notice if I was a little (or a lot!!) flat on the low notes or just a tad (or a mile) sharp on the high notes? After all, only those extremely rare people with perfect pitch could tell the difference and even that was about the notes, not the intonation, right? HA! I was so wrong, and if you think this way, too, so are you!

Learning to play in tune isn’t just about learning to play in tune with others, it also about learning to play in tune with yourself. If you are playing without accompaniment, the pitch of the first note you play determines the placement and intonation of every note that comes after. EVERY NOTE.

In the listener’s ear, the intonation is always relative to some reference point. As a piece progresses, the reference might shift a little, but the listener’s brain is constantly measuring and comparing each new pitch to pitches that came before. The proportions of the intervals are dictated by mathematical proportions that occur naturally. Your brain recognizes them, even if you don’t know specifically what they are. Even if no one in your audience has perfect pitch, there is something in each of their brains that says “Hm, the notes seem like they fit, but something is a little off.” If the intervals between the reference pitch and succeeding pitches are too big or too small, you run the risk of sounding ‘off-key’ if it’s really bad, or just not quite right if it is only a little. So, yes, your intonation matters even when you are playing unaccompanied pieces.

To address this, practice your unaccompanied pieces against a drone pitch,  usually the tonic pitch of the piece or section you are working on. I advise you to practice this way for two reasons. First, so you can work on keeping a consistent pitch center, not letting your overall pitch wander around. Second, so you can work on learning the sizes of the intervals between the tonic and the other notes in the piece. It’s not enough to know the notes and which keys to press and how to make each note sound pretty, you have to learn the actual sizes of the intervals.

Just like when you sing and you don’t have keys or finger positions to help you find the pitches, you have to learn the size of each interval from one note to the next and from the tonic to each note. (Knowing the pitch tendencies of your instrument and how you play it is very helpful in this endeavor, hint, hint) This is what ear training courses are supposed to teach you, though most forget to teach you why you might want to know how to do this.

I’m starting to ramble now, and maybe rant a little, so I’ll summarize by saying this. Yes, your intonation does matter when you play unaccompanied pieces, so you have to subject them to the same careful intonation practice that you would anything else. Your audiences will thank you for it!


How You Should Use an Electronic Tuner or Tuner App

October 25, 2016 at 9:56 amCategory:Uncategorized

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Electronic tuners or tuner apps have become required tools for musicians who are serious about playing well in tune. But how do they work and how do you use them effectively?

First thing you need to know in order to use a tuner effectively is that it will not actually tell you whether you are in tune. All a tuner does is measure the pitch frequency of whatever sound you play into it and indicate how your pitch frequency compares to the pitches programmed into the tuner. If your pitch is higher than the programmed pitch, the tuner indicates that you are playing sharp, lower than the programmed pitch is flat. When your pitch frequency matches the programmed pitch, then, hooray, you will be tempted to say that you are ‘in tune,’ which is what you want, right?

But how often have you heard or even said yourself “But I must be in tune, I checked my pitch with a tuner?” Remember when I said that the tuner will not tell you when you are ‘in tune?’ Intonation is affected by many, many factors.  In addition to whether your instrument is warm or cold, whether you are playing loudly or softly, high or low, etc., playing in tune with others and even just yourself involves constant attention and adjustment to what is going on around you. Your tuner will not tell you whether you are in tune with the trombones in your band or orchestra, or even the flutist down the row from you. Only your ears can do that! Check out the post on Intonation in Action to find out more about this:

So what is a tuner good for? Instead of thinking of the tuner’s meter as telling you whether you are in tune, instead think of it as a diagnostic tool, indicating when you hit a target. As you work to hit that target, you will have to master the ability to manipulate the pitch, pushing it higher or lower, to play the pitch frequency that matches the tuner’s programming. Practice with a tuner can help you develop flexibility and control, both necessary to sounding good.

You can also use a tuner to chart your pitch tendencies. Checking every note on your instrument and learning which notes you tend to play sharper or flatter on in comparison to the others is crucial to beginning to gain conscious control of your intonation. Check all your notes, make a chart of your tendencies, then check them periodically. (This is especially valuable for players who play many instruments. The pitch tendencies of every instrument are different, so make sure you have all the intonation information you need to play them all well!)

Practicing with an electronic tuner can be especially effective for working on tone production and control. You’ve probably noticed how sensitive the meter or display can be. Try playing a long sustained note and notice how much the display changes. Does it seem to jump for no reason? Does it show that your pitch rises or falls? What happens when you start to run out of air? What does it show when you crescendo or decrescendo? Maintaining a steady tone that doesn’t change pitch is another necessary skill to sounding good.

Use your electronic tuner or a tuner app as a diagnostic tool to identify pitch and tone inconsistencies, and then use it to develop better pitch flexibility and control. You will get much more out of it than if you try using it to tell you whether you are ‘in tune.’


Practicing Flutist’s Quick Fix for Sharp C#’s

September 28, 2016 at 9:12 pmCategory:Uncategorized

For most flutists, the C#/Db in the staff is the bane of their musical existence. The timbre is often rough and airy in addition to being so extremely sharp that conventional means of adjusting the pitch have little or no effect. The prospect of having to manage this unruly note in performance of Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun” or Griffes’s “Poem” can cause so much stress that the overall performance suffers.

Of course you want to learn to manage this situation and make your C#’s as sublimely beautiful as any other note, but sometimes you could use with a little extra help. Here is a quick fix that will bring the pitch down without compromising tone quality.

Simply add some fingers! The fingering for C# in the staff is all open, all fingers up except for the right hand pinky on the D#/Eb key. To bring the pitch of this note down a smidge or more, add 1,2, or even 3 of the other right hand fingers. I was taught to use the middle and ring fingers (RH 2 and 3) together. Through experimentation I have learned that sometimes the best sound comes from using only one (usually the RH 3 for me.) Using RH1 affects my tone quality too much, but you should try it to see how it works for you.

Give it a try in your next practice session! Experiment to finding the solutions that will work best for you and finally be able to approach playing those C#’s and Db’s with confidence. That will make them sound even better!