Every musician will experience issues with pitch and intonation every time they play with other people. I have learned that a person can play all the right notes and rhythms, yet if the notes are clashing with others in the band, it will sound better if they don't play.
One guy in a section can make the whole section sound bad. When an instrument is out of tune, the beauty is gone. The impact is ruined. The music is rendered less enjoyable.
I have made pitch a huge issue in my musical training. I don't like being the person that stops playing to make the section sound better. No one wants to be the thing that makes everything sound worse. I want to be the thing that always improves the sound of a section or band.
So what do you do? How do you work on playing in tune? What are the steps and tools you can use to play in tune and stay in tune?
The first step is to be aware of the issue. No one can improve on any issue they don't see as there. You need to begin listening when you are playing in group settings. Do you ever stop playing and hear it sound better? Playing in tune is important. Many musicians have never made that decision.
The next step is to get a tuner and practice, trying to play in tune. The first place to start is at home when you are practicing your instrument. Any tuner will work great when you are alone practicing. I own many Korg tuners and actually have one in every instrument case I own along with a few around the house. I don't like the small expensive and hard to find batteries for small electronics, and these Korg tuners run on basic AA batteries. I love that.
I later bought the clip-on tuner mics like the Peterson TP-3 and found they will work pretty good in band situations and read the pitch better overall when using your tuner. Of course there are now wireless WiFi tuners and one-piece clip-on versions like the Korg AW-2 or Snark Chromatic clip-on tuner. Everyone who plays in a band should own and learn to use a tuner. Not sounding bad should be a goal for all of us.
How do you use a tuner to get in tune and learn how to hear when you are out of tune?
It is important to warm up first on your instrument. You need to start with a pitch center and start with getting warmed up and sounding good. The next step is to turn on your tuner, close your eyes, get a good sound and then open your eyes and check where the pitch is on the tuner. Then adjust your mouthpiece, barrel, headjoint, and repeat the same process.
Too often I see people use the tuner completely wrong. They stare at the tuner and make the tuner read IN TUNE by manipulating their mouth. Then they start playing music, and it's all out of tune again because they never moved a mouthpiece. Find your pitch center and adjust your instrument to get in tune. Check the pitch on a few notes and average between them if you need to. But, make sure you are adjusting the pitch and not just cheating the tuner to look good.
Never practice anything without getting warmed up and in tune. You need to practice getting on tune and staying in tune.
One last thought: It is impossible to be perfectly in tune all the time. Often a young student will obsess with intonation after buying a tuner for the first time. We all need to be listening and training our ears to hear when we are out of tune, but also need to give ourselves a break since perfection is impossible.
Keep the goal simple. Get a tuner and use it. Train your ears and your mind as you check your intonation. But, don't be too hard on yourself if it varies from note to note. That is normal.
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Los Angeles based freelance saxophonist Greg Vail is among the most versatile woodwind players on the west coast. His work in jazz, pop and contemporary gospel music spans over 30-years. Greg maintains an active digital presence at www.gregvail.com
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