Tuners, Tuners, Everywhere!

It has been a long time since I bought my current tuner (a Seiko Chromatic Auto-Tuner) so I thought I would browse around and see what’s available now. I found lots of tuners and a large range of prices. Unfortunately, what I see most are tuners that only read pitches, without an internal tone generator or sound out port.

So what’s wrong with that? I did, after all write a practice book on how to use that kind of tuner to improve intonation. The problem is that this is only a beginning in the quest to perfect playing intonation. The feedback that a tuner’s readout gives you is only part of the picture, a narrow slice. It’s great for working on consistency, and learning the sizes of scales and intervals, but it can only help so much. In my opinion, what is needed is a tuner that can generate pitches as well as reading them.

By working with a tuner that plays the pitches, you can work on improving your ability to hear when you are in tune or out of tune, so you can function in the real playing world. Tuners are calibrated to an equally tempered scale in which all half steps are the exact same size. Unfortunately, when those half steps are combined into larger intervals, our ears don’t like that rigid equality. Different intervals need to either be expanded or compressed so our ear hears them as being in tune. Are our ears wrong? No, but it would take a long explanation to clarify this and others can do it much better than I can.

Besides the dissonances with equal temperament, the playing conditions, pitch tendencies of different instruments, and abilities of the players all play a part in the ever-moving target of good intonation. A little bouncing light or digital readout will not give you the information that you need to play in tune when you play with others. To learn this, you have to exercise your hearing and your ability to constantly adjust the pitch.

So, in my opinion, when you buy a tuner or download a tuner app, or whatever, get one that will read all the pitches your instrument can play, one that has a display that is easy to read, and one that will sound at least a full chromatic octave; two or three would be even better. It doesn’t have to be expensive, it just has to do everything you need it to do. And leave your tuner at home when you go to rehearsal or a performance. Your attention should be on the music and your interaction with the other players, not on a gadget! Music is for the ears, and is not made with the eyes.

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Intonation Practice Book Coming Soon!

I’ve noticed that many people come to this blog because of the intonation exercises that I have sporadically posted. Everyone wants to play with good intonation, but it can be a difficult skill to master. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about intonation and how to make learning it easier. So I’ve decided to create practice books that I think will help people improve their intonation skills.

The first one will be a kind of how-to manual for using a tuner to improve intonation skills. We’ve all been told to use a tuner to learn to play in tune better, but how many of us have been shown how? Electronic tuners are cool gadgets, and tuner apps are fun to play around with, but how can using them really improve how we play?
I’ve got some ideas and have designed exercises for this. The next book will be about how to improve your ear, intonation in real life. Can’t have one without the other! Then who knows where this lead!

The book will first be available as a downloadable ebook, then soon after that I’ll get it formatted for iPads, Kindles, or other electronic readers. This means I have to learn how to do some new things, such as formatting for different media, Sibelius software, making shopping carts, PayPal, etc., but this is all part of creating a microbusiness. Later maybe I’ll even get into YouTube video lessons or teaching via Skype. So much to learn!

I’m aiming for a Dec. 1 launch date. What do you think? Will people buy a book about how to use a tuner? Maybe the tuner companies should pay me to show people how to make use of their products! Unfortunately they don’t seem to have had any trouble selling their product, but it would be nice to know how to make use of them!

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Phoning it in: Practice apps for Smart Phones

It’s amazing what smart phones can do! They not only relay phone calls and email, text messages and Facebook updates, they can also make practicing better and easier. I’ve had a metronome app for awhile (an Android app, nothing against iPhone, just my carrier doesn’t support them) and have enjoyed it immensely. I had been lusting for a Dr. Beat with all its cool features, but the free app I downloaded from the Google Play store gives me all the functionality I want. I can change the tempo 1 beat at a time, and have a different sound for the first beat of the measure. It can’t make different sounds for each of the beats in the measure, but I would use that so rarely, I’m not missing it. I’m sure that will available soon, anyway!

I’m also trying out an app that will play back pieces at different tempos while keeping the pitch the same. This is really helping me with the current orchestra program, since I’m playing mostly piccolo and the pieces are requiring lots of practice at slow tempos and working them up. Too bad I can’t use both programs at the same time! (I think SmartMusic might have this capability, but it’s not available on phones, yet!) With rehearsals only once a week, it is hard for me to get a good sense of how my part fits in. My score study time has to be spent on the flute choir rep that I conduct, so being able to hear how my part fits in really helps.

I’ve even got an ear training app that tests my ability to hear and identify intervals and tonalities. I can’t imagine what life would have been like if I had had these tools when I was a student! As a musician with a day job, practice time has to be used as efficiently as possible, there is never enough time, but tools like these really help. Now if I only had an app that made my brain work faster I would be in really great shape!

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Flute Tip of the Week: Headjoint Upgrade

Next week is the National Flute Association’s yearly convention and many attendees will be spending time at the flute vendors’ booths, trying out all the newest and coolest the flute makers have to offer. For those of you thinking you might like to upgrade your flute, but don’t have the budget to buy a new flute, I want to suggest that a different head joint may get you the results you are looking for, at least in the short term, and won’t cost you quite so much.

There are so many options when it comes to head joints. You can try different metals, different cuts and sizes of the embouchure hole, different configurations of the lip plate, the list goes on and on. Most makers will have several different options for you to try, according to your preferences and goals. Looking for a more open sound? Maybe a more oval embouchure is what you want. Looking for more projection? Maybe you want some platinum in the alloy, or a sharper angle on the strike wall.

When you test different head joints on your flute, make sure to test them using the same criteria. Play the same things on each one, play in all the registers, check the response to different articulations and attacks, to differently sized slurred intervals, different dynamic levels. Many flutists choose an excerpt from a piece that will test for the qualities they are looking for. (That is why may you hear someone playing the same thing as they go from booth to booth. Either that or they only have one tune memorized!)

Feel weird about putting a head joint from a different maker on your flute? Don’t be! My flute is a hybrid, a Powell head joint on a Miyazawa body, that has served me well for many years. The mechanism of the body is wonderful and the head gives the sound extra weight and fullness than the original did. There are several craftsmen out there that only make head joints. Where would they be if no one was willing mix and match? And don’t forget, a fabulous, handmade head joint will probably only cost a tenth of what a good, handmade flute will cost. It might just be so affordable, you’ll want to spring for some fancy engraving!

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