The Intonation is Good, Except . . .

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.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Improving Your Sense of Intonation

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.