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Beginning Tuning Slide Positions

Beginning Tuning Slide Positions

Ed Dumas

The things that I have learned from the thousands of beginning band students I have taught have exceeded what I have taught them. Except the things that I have learned are not the same as the ones that I have taught. Usually, what I have learned from the students is more along the lines of figuring out what happens when unintended outcomes are not considered when presenting material to students.

An unintended outcome is something that the students learned that you did not actively teach and did not intend to have happen. Those unintended outcomes could be a positive thing if it is helpful, or a negative thing if harmful. Too often, though, not considering unintended outcomes results in a harmful change for student learning.

The beginning position for tuning slides is just one of those things that can easily end up in an unintended outcome for students and needs to be watched carefully. I know that is just another one of the far too many things that beginning band teachers have to deal with that can just lead to band teacher overload. Still, I think once you understand some of the initial problems of starting beginning band students, you will find a few minutes very early in their progress to instruct students where they should be placing their tuning slides. I know that later on, the students will learn how to adjust their tuning, but in the beginning, they should be shown where the normal placement is.

Let’s consider the flute players first since they are at the top of the band score. When beginning flute players are taught how to put the instrument together, quite often it is missed that the flute head should be pulled out from the end about 1 centimetre or so. There is not a marking on the flute head what the position is for “all the way in,” which means they may not know where 1 cm out is. This is in contrast to say the brass players where the metal parts are created in such a way that it is visible to the brass players what “all the way in” looks like.

Flute players do not have that visual cue, so must then have to feel it all the way in. Once pushed all the way in, you could add a pencil mark on the flute head to give the students a visual cue. From there, they need to back off the flute head about 1 cm. Failure to do this procedure means that the flute will always be playing very sharp, and this has the unintended outcome of teaching the flute players of learning to play flute with their ears “shut off.”

Few people would disagree that a flute played consistently very sharp is a very unpleasant sound, especially so if the section is not matching in their sharpness to the band. But even if the section is matching and they are together playing very sharp in comparison to the band, this can be a very subtle yet powerful force to teach the flute players to not listen while they play. “Since the sound hurts so much, just try to ignore it,” becomes the mantra.

Now no beginning flute player has ever told me that directly. But I have noticed that in the years where I failed to teach them about flute head placement early on, they just seemed to be less aware of sounds around them and therefore struggled with tuning later, even after I told them about flute head placement. They seemed to have become tuned out to the issue, and that was my fault.

So, I have learned from the students that very early I should teach the flute section to push the flute head all the way in, and then back it out approximately 1 cm. Then, I would have them take their trusty pencil that I know is on their stand, and use it to draw a line on the flute head where it should be placed from now on.

This line helped them start with a better position from then on, and therefore more attention to the sounds that were coming out. If we found later that we needed to adjust the flute head not just for this one day but for every day as a starting place, we could just wipe off the line and draw a fresh one to be used to start each new day. The line is not intended to be a permanent “for all time” kind of marking, but just a reminder that the flute head needs to be started from the pulled-out position before doing any other adjustments from there.

First-year clarinet players have a similar challenge of possibly learning to play with their ears shut off. This comes from starting on a reed that is too soft. Unlike flute players, clarinet players need to start with the barrel and mouthpiece pushed all the way together as much as possible, as clarinet players are often quite under pitch in the beginning.

Still, all the way together is often not enough to get the clarinet players up to pitch, so sometimes the result for them is that they have also learned to play without listening to the exact pitch. Since they have no control over the pitch yet, they then must choose to ignore the too-low sounds to keep learning the clarinet. There’s that unintended outcome again.

The solution for clarinet players is to not start on such a soft reed. In the article “What Reed Strength Should Beginners Start On,” I have gone into more detail about the pitfalls of starting on a soft reed. Another one is that some clarinet players tend to shut off their ears when they feel they cannot adjust their sound to get it more in tune. Again, the fault for that was mine.

Starting on a 1.5 student level reed, such as a Rico or Juno, is so soft that the pitch will be wildly flat. Starting on a 2 is better, but I have always found a 2.5 for beginners to be about right. Remember this is a student model reed, not something like a VanDoren which would be massively too hard for beginners. But starting on a 2 or 2.5 on a student level reed gives the students a chance to put the pitch in place and start to learn to play with one common sound, instead of shutting off their ears.

You would think that the problem of reed strength is similar for saxes, but there is another level of problem that messes it all up. That is, I have seen plenty of first-year saxes put the mouthpiece on the cork just enough to stop the mouthpiece from crashing to the floor. It is so close to the end of the neck and cork that it is massively flat, far more than the clarinets would do with a too-soft reed. Again, this was my fault because I did not give them enough instruction on how to apply cork grease so that the mouthpiece moves better on the cork.

The solution for saxes is two-fold. First, they need to start on a decent strength reed, such as a 2.5 like the clarinets, assuming of course that they are using a student-level brand such as Juno or Rico Royal. Then they need to be shown how to apply the cork grease to get the mouthpiece on much closer to the top end of the cork. Then, like the flute players, they need to be shown how to draw a line on the cork so they know where to put the mouthpiece next time as a place to start. Doing this helps them slowly learn to listen while playing, rather than intentionally not listening as an unintended outcome.

If you have been paying attention so far, the woodwinds alone have three separate problem tendencies. The flutes play massively sharp if not corrected, the clarinets play a fair bit flat, and the saxes can play massively flat. It is no wonder the students are learning to not listen while they play! Just wait till we get to the brass!

Now I have seen trumpet players play well into their development with the tuning slide pushed all the way in. I have seen second and even third-year players still playing with it pushed all the way in because they were not instructed where the normal starting place should be, which is again about 1 cm out. Don’t forget to use that pencil to make a mark on the slide to help!

What I have seen from trumpet players who do this, though, has helped me understand unintended outcomes. I have noticed that beginning trumpet students who have had trouble getting up to the second harmonic (G) on trumpet are also often the same ones that are playing with the slide pushed all the way in. As soon as I correct the position of the slide, they seem better able to get up to the open G correctly now.

Speculating on why that is, I would suggest that the students can hear that the pitch is very much too high when they are playing with the tuning slide pushed fully in. To correct that they try to push the note downwards using their air and embouchure, which often means they drop the harmonic down to a low C. If I try to get them to push back upwards to the G harmonic, it often does not seem successful until I pull that tuning slide out where it should be.

It is as if there is a fight going on inside their ears about where that note should be placed because the students have not been shown where to place the slide to fix the problem. The problem is not harmonics but rather a bad tuning slide placement. Not correcting it can be completely defeating for the trumpet player. As a result, I tell the students to never play trumpet with the slide pushed all the way in, as this can mess up their harmonics. This is true of all valved brass instruments.

If that was not bad enough for the valved brass, what happens to trombone players can be even worse. Trombone players who play with the tuning slide pushed fully in begin to affect where they place the main slide on the trombone. Since all the pitches are created too sharp, they will learn that each slide position should now be pushed out a little farther to compensate.

Once the slide is now returned to where it should be, the students have learned the unintended outcome of playing the positions all too low. This can take a great deal of time and effort to correct, and it just seems so much easier to fix that slide position correctly before that problem ever arises.

Now a warning about some trombones. Some manufacturers with very snug trombone cases have also added a feature of the case that forces the student to push the main tuning slide all the way in before it will fit into the case. They have done this as a way of quietly encouraging students to move their tuning slides to avoid them getting seized into place. Hopefully, then, the instrument goes into the repair shop less frequently due to a stuck tuning slide.

While it is true that tuning slides should be moved to avoid them becoming seized and then greased again when they do not move well. But the unintended outcome from the manufacturers is that they are encouraging trombone players to play with the slide pushed fully in, especially in the early formative months. This has the effect of messing up beginning players’ slide position placements. If you find a trombone case like this, make sure you remind your trombone players to pull that tuning slide back out and use a pencil mark for correct placement.

Now here is a topic that is not part of this article, but I feel is important to mention here. I have seen way too many beginning trombone players so frustrated that they are ready to quit forever after only a few months in. When I did some investigation to find out why it all boiled down to their slide was just a mess and impossible to move in time with the band. Under these circumstances, nothing but frustration is achieved, and I am not surprised that they want to quit. Take a moment to review how to lubricate a trombone slide well, and check regularly that your new players are doing this every day. You will find this discussion in the article Slide Lubrication.

Now if you are starting to think that I am nitpicking over little details and missing the big picture, I would somewhat agree. I think I am nitpicking over little details because that IS the big picture. All those little details when ignored, add up to a mess of troubles for students. When they are just starting on a wind instrument, it is much easier to cover all the bits than to have to correct all the troubles later on.

So, how to cover all the details in the beginning week or two and still keep your sanity is a big thing for teachers. I would suggest that the best place for help from a clinician is on the very first day of putting that instrument together. Making sure all the little details are done correctly on day one will give you a better payoff than getting clinicians to work with your students later to fix all the “bad habits” that are now part of their playing. Plus, clinicians on day one will give you the bonus of helping you keep your sanity!

I encourage you to find a way to use some local adult musicians in your area to help teach your beginning band students all the really important details of playing their wind instrument. Added together, all of these little details from many differing wind instruments can easily overwhelm even the most experienced band teachers. But using local adult help for a session or two can make your life so much better while also helping your students to steer clear of negative unintended learning outcomes. Please feel free to contact your Tapestry rep for help with this suggestion, as we want your students to succeed as much as you do.

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