I have found over the years that I tune my band less and less. In the past, I would frequently ask a student to sound a pitch, perhaps on tuba or oboe, and have the rest of the ensemble play their own notes and compare. Today this happens far less often.
Skipping tuning wasn’t a conscious decision, I didn’t wake up one day and decide, “You know what? No more tuning. It’s over. Done.” It is just something that has happened over the course of time.
That isn’t to say my students do not focus on tuning. Instead, they always focus on tuning. We talk about it throughout rehearsal, it comes up with the first note of the day, and often times with the last note. There is a tuning awareness that is part of their subconscious when playing.
I believe that developing a subconscious sense of tuning (and other elements of musicianship) is the goal of our warm ups. We have students focus on the fundamentals of music to make their awareness and performance of ensemble skills automatic. I want to encourage students to play with excellent tone, in tune, with attention to articulation, dynamics, and phrasing while playing the right notes with the proper balance. And I want them to do this automatically, without thinking about it.
Reflections on Tuning During Class
When I realized that I turned away from “tuning” as part of the warm-up, I thought deeply about why this occurred. I mean, all the cool band directors tune. Right? The fact is, as I have developed the warm-up program with my ensembles, I have experienced fewer instances when I have found it necessary to stop the rehearsal momentum to tune.
I also realized that defining part of the rehearsal as “tuning” might suggest to students that tuning was a task we could complete during that time. As if we were saying; “This is it. This is when we tune. Ok, that’s done, let’s move on to something else.” Clearly the last thing I want is for students to think we no longer need to focus on tuning.
Here’s Where I Backpedal – a Little
I don’t mean to say that it is wrong to have a student sound a pitch, add in the ensemble to compare pitch, and get them relatively close. I still do that from time to time. It is good practice and sometimes the quickest way to get students focused. But it’s important that students learn that part of their job as an ensemble member is to always have an awareness of their relative pitch compared with those around them. It’s my goal that through our deliberate and consistent practice of fundamentals, their attention to tuning (and many other ensemble concepts) are becoming part of their musical fabric.
How to Make It Automatic
For an example of how you can help your students become more automatic with their tuning, take a peek at an exercise called Passing the Tonic. This is a technique used in all three levels of Sound Innovations Ensemble Development.
While this specific exercise is not duplicated in the books (every exercise is different), the concept remains the same. We simply pass the tonic pitch of the given key around the band. This could mean high voices to low voices, or first parts to second parts, or all through the families of instruments. It means listening to, and then comparing your pitch, as it occurs all around the ensemble.
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Students use a few different skills with this kind of exercise. First, they have to listen to the sound they are producing and ask themselves, “Is this a good sound?” Then they have to compare their pitch to what they just heard, decide if they are the same or different, adjust as needed by using their critical listening skills, and check again to see if their change is better.
Why It Works
The beauty of this is that this type of exercise is so simple but the goals are so complex. Students are responsible for s making the decisions and they get practice playing in tune. They are in charge, not me. I’m not yelling, “Flat, Sharp, Good, Flat, Sharp, SUPER Sharp…” from the podium. There is a great sense of accomplishment, for everyone, when students go from out-of-tune to in tune. You can see their faces light up when the pitch locks in. You can see they get it!
As a teacher it is gratifying to hear their progress, knowing that soon we are going to translate their new-found skill to their music, because that is truly our goal, right? Having our warm-up come to life through the music?
We work diligently through our warm-ups to prepare students so they play their fundamentals instinctively. Our warm-up goal is to help students practice musical intuition as much as it is to prepare their minds and bodies for performance. Ultimately, the warm-up is a training ground so we can get to the true goal of our ensemble which is to facilitate our students in making a personal connection with music as they perform as a group.