More on Improving Intonation With Drone Practice

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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 billplakemusic.org to get someone else’s viewpoint on drone practice.

http://billplakemusic.org/2015/08/30/a-highly-effective-and-really-fun-way-to-improve-your-ears/

Intonation Practice Exercise with a Drone 1

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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

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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!