Practicing Scales on Autopilot?

Are you practicing scales on autopilot? Perhaps you turn on the metronome and then tear through them as fast as you can to get them over with for the day. There’s nothing interesting about practicing scales after all, is there?

If this is what you think, you are short-changing yourself. Practicing scales or anything else on autopilot, without engaging your powers of observation and problem-solving, is only minimally productive. And it is boring!

Here are some things you could be improving in your scale practice, besides speed!

Fluent, relaxed finger technique, full, relaxed inhale, tone quality and consistency, articulation, rhythm, intonation, air management, dynamics, musicality, posture, alternative fingerings, beatboxing techniques. . . . . what am I forgetting? Probably at least a half dozen other things.

Here are some recommendations of what to listen for the next time you practice scales.

1. Tone first, always. Everything is a tone exercise! Each and every note must be as beautiful as the one before and after it. Any inconsistency in the sound is caused by an inconsistency in the air or the fingers. Listen for it, diagnose the cause and eliminate it. Keep the beautiful stuff going through every note!

2. Intonation, always. Good intonation and good tone go together, so improve the intonation and the tone will also be improved. Are you stretching your octaves by going sharp as you ascend the scale or flat as you descend? Set your tuner or other drone generator to the keynote of the scale to use as reference, then tune each note of the scale to that drone. Then play the scale at a medium tempo and work on landing the keynote (or tonic) perfectly in each octave. (Great for arpeggio practice, too!)

3. Articulation. Use your scales to practice as many different articulation patterns as possible. Staccato, legato, slur, air only attacks, double tonguing, triple tonguing and every variation you can think of. Do a different pattern on each scale, then tomorrow rotate the patterns so you practice different ones on each scale.

And as in the tone exercise, make each and every articulation at least as good as the one before it and the one following. If a note doesn’t ‘speak’, stop and figure out why. What is keeping the air from getting to the flute so that the note speaks clearly?

I’ll skip going into practicing with a metronome for evenness and speed because I assume you are probably already doing that. If not, then please do! What I’ve described will help you form a good foundation for productive scale practice. You can expand on them to include much more, but the most important thing is to always be engaged and actively listening and problem solving as you practice. This makes practice much more productive and hopefully endlessly interesting. So switch off the autopilot and put your scales to work!



Intonation Naivete; Be Kind to Your Listener’s Ears

Image result for ear hearing music


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!

Intonation in Action Exercise

In my mission to help people improve their intonation, I’ve had to come up with exercises that people can do in their own practice. Once I’ve convinced players that notes need to be adjusted according to their context in the music, regardless of what any tuner’s meter says, it helps to have exercises to back it up.

The attached handout is part of a set of exercises that you play against a drone, the tonic note of each exercise. In this case, all exercises are in C Major, so set your drone, tone generator, or helpful friend to play the middle C. As you play each exercise, you pause to listen to how your note compares against the drone; e.g. is it sharp, flat, or in tune with the drone? Don’t move on to the next note, until you get your note in tune!

introductory intonation exercises


The exercises start out by working on matching the unisons and octaves in the context of ascending and descending scales and arpeggios. Then they progress to tuning more of the notes in relation to the drone. The arrows indicate which direction the pitches need to be adjusted in relation to the drone pitch, assuming that you are playing them perfectly in equal temperament, i.e. in tune with a tuner meter. You may not need to make any adjustments, but let your ears be the judge.

So, give it a try! Then play it in all Major keys. Minor keys will require different adjustments, but after practicing the major keys for a few weeks, doing this in minor will be easy.

Reminder: we don’t hear in equal temperament. In order for our ears to register different harmonies as being “in tune”, we have to play the harmony note either higher or lower than a tuner would tell us to. (If this is new information to you and you need more proof than my say-so, there are many sources you can look up on the Web or in the library.)

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.

Introducing Difference Tones to the Flute Choir

I am always looking for more effective ways to enable the flute choir that I conduct to play in tune. In the past I had used warmup exercises that focus on ensemble intonation, but at the beginning of this year’s rehearsal season, I tried to use sections of pieces to do the same thing. This was not so successful, so I have gone back to using intonation-focused warmups that are targeted at situations in the pieces we are working on.

These mostly consist of having part of the group play scales and arpeggios against the rest of the group playing a drone, then switching the groups so all have a chance to practice. The newest twist is working on difference tones in order to ‘fine-tune’ the group’s sense of intonation even more. Please excuse the pun! I got the idea after reading about it on Flutelist, and decided I had to try it with my group!

Difference tones, some people use the term resultant tones, are a phenomenon that occur within your ear as a result of hearing two tones of different frequencies. All pitches vibrate at a different frequency. When the difference between two frequencies equals the tone associated with a different frequency, that creates a difference tone in your ear. If you’ve ever noticed an annoying buzz in your ear when playing high harmonies with another player, you were are hearing difference tones. When the interval formed by the regular tones is perfectly in tune, the difference tone will sound like a real note that you can identify, because it will also be in tune. Very cool!!!

I first had two choir members sitting at opposite ends of the group play a short excerpt to introduce the concept of difference tones to the group and make them aware of what they should be listening for. Some people’s eyes got very big as the ‘buzz’ of the difference tones went through their heads. I then explained why we would be doing this as a group and why it was important to work on as a choir. Besides improving our ability to tune intervals, when the group is playing intervals of a minor third in high enough registers, the difference tone that is created is a major third below the lower note, filling out the harmony in the listener’s ear and creating that lovely, rich, ringing sound that makes a small group sound twice as large and much, much grander; always my goal for our group.

Half of the group played the A Major scale while the other half played the C Major scale. We tried it for two octaves, a good test of player’s abilities to play beautiful high notes and a great opportunity to create some ‘major buzz.’ It was a little painful, but the point came across wonderfully. Everybody’s ears and brains were a little jangly after that, but people were pretty excited to have learned something new. At the next rehearsal the things went a little more smoothly and the overall intonation is markedly improved. YAY!!

You can read more about playing difference tones on flutes and much more about characteristics of great flute playing as taught by the legendary William Kincaid in John Krell’s book, Kincaidiana. This is one of those books all people serious about playing flute should read, one of the Flute Bibles. Thank you Flutelisters for reminding me of this!

Perfect Pitch not so Perfect?

For most of the musical world, the concept of perfect pitch is an almost magical thing. It’s something that you are supposedly born with, and can be a sign of musical genius. Musicians with perfect pitch are often envied by those without it. “If only I had perfect pitch, I would always be in tune and I wouldn’t play as many wrong notes! I would ace every ear training class and drop the needle test! I would be able to improvise with perfect freedom and sit in with any jazz group. Life would be so much better!!!!”

For people who have perfect pitch, life in an imperfectly pitched world can be a bit trying especially when dealing with their more pitch-challenged colleagues. “Can’t you HEAR that’s supposed to be a G#?!!”

Traditionally it has been believed that perfect pitch is something that you are born with, like a special genetic mutation. I have read of studies lately that link the development of perfect pitch with children who were brought up in homes where someone regularly played piano, a very fixed pitch instrument. Like learning the pitch inflections of language and of individual family members, the placement of musical pitches is imprinted from the very beginning according to this theory.

My own pitch perception wasn’t very good until my mid-twenties, when I undertook a serious practice regimen with tuner and drone which changed my ears and brain forever (in a good way!) My perception of intonation and of harmonic relationships were greatly improved, and though I doubt I will ever have anything close to perfect pitch, or even really good relative pitch, I think I can get along OK. Maybe if I worked specifically on those skills . . . . .

Anyway, this discussion was sparked by the following article on a study that was done testing whether you could ‘reset’ or influence the pitch perception of people who have perfect pitch. The results were pretty surprising, so read and enjoy! And keep in mind that if you can influence people whose pitch perception seems to be hard-wired, yours can be, too, a very hopeful thing!

Practical Intonation Practice Manifesto

Practical Intonation Practice Manifesto

1. Everything is a tone exercise. Always use the best tone production possible! Good intonation and good tone go hand in hand.

2. Don’t rush. Give yourself plenty of time to hear the sounds you are producing so you can determine if any changes need to be made. Pay attention to how it feels to produce a good note that is ‘in tune’ and memorize that feeling so you can reproduce it.

3. Regular, small bits of careful practice will achieve more than long sessions of inattentive, mindless practice.

4. Your ears are your most important musical tools. Improving your intonation is as much about improving your ears as it is anything else.

5. Words are important. The words you use to describe your practicing (or others’) influence what you will be able to accomplish. Stay away from judgmental right/wrong statements, instead try works/ doesn’t work, better/best.