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.