Playing in tune is one of the most important things for any musician to focus on while playing. A brass player who plays out of tune will inevitably sound bad, no matter how good their tone or sound is. Here are some tips to help you play in tune, beyond the main tuning slide of the instrument.
Every note you play begins with a buzz. Could you buzz a note in tune without a mouthpiece or instrument attached? Mouthpiece and open air buzzing are imperative to sound and tuning. This should be part of your daily practice routine. Play notes along with a piano, and check the tuning on each note. It also works great as a warm up, getting the blood flowing in your lips.
Playing on a steady embouchure is basic for proper tuning across the board. If you are not properly warmed up, your tuning may be thrown off as your lips find each note. As you warm up, your tuning will also change, so be sure to play through that point before a gig or rehearsal. An overtired embouchure will go flat, or start on point and tail off at the ends of notes. There is no quick cure for this, work on stamina during practice, and take breaks when you can.
Many brass players will use exercises that deliberately change embouchures, such as bending notes down and up again. These exercises train your lips to accurately play notes, finding the pitch first with your embouchure, rather than adjusting the instrument to find proper tuning.
Effective breathing can fix many playing problems before they start. Well supported notes are necessary before tuning your instrument can even begin. Notes without proper breath support will affect your embouchure, and will bring down the pitch of notes you play. Mouthpiece buzzing is a great assessment tool for breathing, because notes can change quickly with movement in your breathing or embouchure.
Most brass players tune at a dynamic level of mf (mezzo-forte). This is a good starting point, but obviously does not cover the whole dynamic range of the instrument. While tuning, try playing notes at all volumes, and take note of how the pitch is affected by the dynamic changes. These changes are tied closely with breath support. Players often confuse playing quietly with weak breath support (which is enough material for another blog post). This will lead to flat playing.
Please note that this section is deliberately last in this article. Problems in breathing, embouchure, etc. will surface while dealing with intonation, but they are problems in their own right, not just with intonation. These should be dealt with in their respective categories, not by tweaking the instrument. For example, players who play flat because of breath support should work on their breathing, not try to fix the problem by bringing their tuning slide in or changing slide positions. This will make your problems worse, and much harder to fix in the future.
As most brass players know, the trombone lends itself to tuning issues easily. Finding notes on a slide rather than valves is much more difficult and inaccurate, especially for beginners. Beyond that, there are minor differences between the positions on each partial.
A quick guide (low to high):
In the staff:
Low Bb – E normal tuning
F – B pitch tends to be sharp
Above the staff:
Bb – F# normal tuning
D – B pitch tends to be flat
F – Eb pitch tends to be very sharp
Instruments with valves have tuning slides for each valve. These must be tuned individually along with the main tuning slide, but in general will stay in place while playing. Trumpet players have an obvious exception in their third valve slide, which must be extended on the notes D, C#, and Ab.
Brass players who use valves also have the ability to change the tuning of a note by using an alternate fingering. Trumpet players, for example, will often find that the high A on their horn is out of tune. This can often be fixed by using just the third valve to play the note instead of first and second valves.
Use Your Ears
Last, and most importantly, any musician must learn to hear the notes they are playing to assess their tuning. Do not take a single word of advice on this page if you cannot hear that it actually makes a beneficial change in your sound. Every instrument and every player is different, the only thing that must be consistent is your hearing. Please comment below with your own tuning tips!