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Teaching Intonation in Concert Band – Part 2

Teaching Intonation in Concert Band – Part 2

Ed Dumas

In Teaching Intonation in Concert Band – Part 1, I offered some suggestions on how to convince your band students that adjusting their intonation of pitches was important while they are playing their instrument. At the end of that article, I offered a free set of short recordings of Happy Birthday done in various tuning systems that will help you to convince your students that concern for intonation is important.

If you did not yet receive a copy of the Happy Birthday Tuning Systems from me, it is not too late to ask! Have a read here of the Part 1 article for a review of how to encourage students to value better intonation and how to ask for your copy of the Happy Birthday recordings.

In part 2, I would like to offer a few suggestions and exercises on how you can begin to teach your students better intonation. Once you begin this process, I am sure you will find or create plenty of other great strategies for your students, but some that I offer here might help you begin this process if you have not already done so.

Pitch Tendencies of Wind Instruments

All students should begin by becoming familiar with the pitch tendencies of their instrument, and how to compensate for these problems. In the article The Six Percent Rule, I explained how it is nearly impossible to build a wind instrument that stays in tune for all pitches in all registers due to problems of physics. Students, then, should know roughly which notes they will need to adjust for when playing their instrument to not “Leave it to chance.”

For example, most band teachers are quite familiar with the difficulties of trumpet on their low D and low C#. These two notes are so significantly incorrect that it is noticeable to anyone listening, even with minimal musical training. Standard practice is that trumpet players are repeatedly told to use their third slide trigger to compensate for these design problems. Some student trumpet players will choose to not use the trigger despite knowing about the problem, but few deny the existence of the problem. The solution for these trumpet players, then, is one of motivation. All other wind players should know that similar problems exist on their instruments as well.

An excellent source of information for pitch tendencies for all wind instruments is the concert band technique book Superior Bands in 16 Weeks by Quincy Hilliard and Deborah Sheldon, published by FJH Music. The section titled Pitch Tendencies of Wind Instruments goes into great detail about the many challenges faced by all wind players. This section includes detailed information for flutes, clarinets, oboe, bassoon, saxes, trumpet, horn, trombone, euphonium and tuba.

Each instrument section shows which pitches on that instrument tend to blow sharp and which tend to blow flat, as well as the possible solutions to correct that pitch placement while the student is playing. I have found this section to be useful to help reinforce to students the need to listen and adjust single pitches while playing, and that simply “tuning” once in a class is not sufficient. I would encourage band teachers to invest in a class set of Superior Bands in 16 Weeks as a good place to begin working on better pitch placement.

Foundations for Superior Performance – Chorales and Tuning Exercises

My second suggestion would be to investigate the series Foundations for Superior Performance by Richard Williams and Jeff King, published by Kjos. The third section titled Chorales and Tuning Exercises is simply brilliant for teaching students better pitching and is worth a close examination by all teachers interested in better intonation for their bands.

In this section, the tuning exercises and chorales are provided in various keys, much like the scale studies earlier in the book. Similar tuning exercises are provided for each key so that as teachers move between the various keys in scale studies, they can also work on the tuning exercises in that key as well. The only challenge here that I have found is that the tuning exercises and chorales are not provided in all the same keys as the scale studies, and this is especially so for the minor keys.

The first tuning exercise used in the Foundations for Superior Performance book is called Interval Tuning. In this exercise, the band is divided into two groups, with the first group holding a pitch on the tonic note of the scale being studied. While the first group holds the tonic pitch, the second group moves up to the third of the scale, holds it, and then moves back down to the tonic. In the next two measures, the upper group strikes the tonic again then moves up to the fourth and back down to the tonic while the lower group holds the tonic pitch of the scale. The last two measures complete this activity with the upper group moving up to the fifth and back down again with the lower group still holding the tonic pitch of the scale.

Asking the students to complete this activity helps them develop better placement for the intervals of a major third, a perfect fourth, and a perfect fifth. Switching parts in the group allows all students an equal chance to practice this skill of note placement.

The next two exercises help students further develop this pitch placement by changing the lower note from the tonic of the scale to the fourth and then the fifth. Each time the lower note is changed, the upper group practices first placing a major third above the new note, and then a perfect fifth above the new note. From there, students can move from the tonic pitch together to a full major chord, and then back to the tonic pitch. Again, asking students to switch parts will help them all develop interval placement equally.

Following the tuning exercises is typically a chorale or two where students can practice and demonstrate better pitch placement in action. These tuning exercises and chorales are offered in many keys, both major and minor. This section of Foundations for Superior Performance is worth the price of the book by itself. My only criticism of the book is that I wish that the chorales and tuning exercises were offered in all keys as some are missing, though once students and teachers have learned the patterns of tuning exercises, at least that much can be quickly created by students and teachers without the written page.

Frank Batista’s Key Circle Tuning Exercise

The next suggestion I have for you to help improve your band’s intonation placement is one that came from Frank Batista, a renowned conductor and educator of wind groups. I believe the article where I read this came from “Teaching Music Through Performance In Band” which is an extremely valuable resource for wind band teachers. There are numerous volumes of this series, and besides analysis of band compositions, each volume offers helpful articles from great educators.

In his article in Teaching Music Through Performance In Band, Frank Batista describes an exercise using the key circle that all bands can do to help develop better intonation across the band. Teachers who try this activity will likely need in the beginning to have a key circle copied and handed out to all students.

Start by asking the students to play one note at a time moving around the key circle. Don’t forget that your students will need to know their transposition so that when you suggest starting on say, concert Bb, they will know where to begin on the key circle for their instrument. Once they have all found their correct first placement, give them a downbeat for each position moved to the right. The students will then begin in concert pitch through:

Bb – F – C – G – D – A – E – B(Cb) – F#(Gb) – C#(Db) – Ab – Eb – Bb.

Go slow enough that students have enough time to find the correct pitch before moving on. Move them entirely around the key circle and end on the pitch you started on. Once students can do this exercise without getting lost, you can then begin to use the key circle for intonation.

Frank Batista’s intonation exercise would now have the band divided into two groups. One group will play the tonic of a chord, while the other will play the third. Assuming you start on Bb again, that would then be Bb and D. Don’t forget to adjust for transposition. Ask your students to be responsible for their transposition so that you speak in one common pitch to your entire class. It is much easier for them to translate this for themselves than it is for you to translate that concert pitch for every instrument, especially in the middle of an exercise!

Now with the two groups playing a major third from wherever they started on the key circle, they should be able to move one position to the right to travel around the key circle once again. This time, though, they will be producing major thirds all the way around. Just like in the Foundations for Superior Bands book, this exercise can be repeated for perfect fourths and perfect fifths. You can also switch parts so that all players can feel what playing the third above is like and has an opportunity to try placing it in tune. You can also move to the left around the circle for variety.

The next step will be to split the band into three groups and try moving around the circle in chords. Assuming you start on the Bb chord, the first three pitches would be Bb, D, and F. Assign one group to each pitch and remind students again to adjust for transposition as necessary. Try to have some bass instruments in each group to always provide the chord foundation.

After the students then find their pitch on the circle, you can test if everyone is in the correct place by having them play the first chord. If that is correct, each downbeat will move the three groups together one position to the right where the next major chord will be created. Now the challenge is to make each major chord as in tune as the last one, regardless of the tonic pitch of the chord.

The first time that I tried Frank Batista’s exercise as described here, I was utterly floored at how much it helped my students feel what it was like to play in tune! After running the key circle in major chords, we then blew through some slow chordal work that the students were already familiar with. It was immediately performed with such improvement in tuning that it just took my breath away and gave me shivers. I knew that I was on to something important, thanks to Frank Batista!

Now I must admit that getting even just this far did take some work. We needed to practice going around the circle in unison for a while first. If the students cannot play around the key circle in unison error-free they certainly will not be able to do it in chords! I even ended up assigning the “Once Around the Circle” as a little play test just to make sure that everyone was practicing this and had it figured out. Once they did, though, then working on the chord tuning was so much easier.

A last couple of thoughts on Frank Batista’s exercise using the key circle. Once the students have mastered the major chord, do not stop there! Give them the structure of a minor chord, and have them learn to travel around the circle playing all minor chords now in tune. You can also start doing larger chords as well, such as dominant seventh and diminished chords with 4 groups. You can even get into all sorts of jazz chords, depending on how much time you want to spend on this exercise. I found that doing a few minutes of this per day was sufficient to just get the students to start thinking about pitch placement more carefully.

The second thing that you should know about Batista’s exercise is that his students were asked to learn to do this exercise from memory. The idea of memorizing the key circle is that then the students will not focus on what their eyes see, but rather on what their ears hear. IF your students can memorize the key circle, they will surely be more focused on pitch placement. BUT, this might be a big ask for younger students. Maybe once they have worked at going around the circle for a bit, you can try incorporating some memorization work here. Remember, though, that doing it all in one day will not work. Rather this is something that you should spend just a couple of minutes on in each class and let it build up over time.

Just Intonation Chord Tuning Chart

Now, I have one more suggestion for you that you can combine with the first two suggestions. On the internet, you will find plenty of examples of a “Just Intonation Chord Tuning Chart.” This is a chart which outlines to musicians how the pitches of each chord should be adjusted to place that chord into “True Tuning.”

Referring back to Part 1 of Teaching Intonation in Concert Band, remember that pitches need to be adjusted either up or down depending on the key that you are playing in at that moment. For example, a Db played as the third in the key of Bb will sound a little bit different than a Db played as the tonic pitch in the key of Db. While students will see the pitch the same way in print, they need to learn to play them ever so slightly differently depending on the setting. In the beginning, we can show them on a page how to make some of these differences, while later they will begin to internalize these changes without constantly thinking about it. Instead, they will learn to listen and feel.

Here is an example of the changes that are required to a major chord to move it from Equal-Tempered Tuning to True Tuning. In a major chord, the third of the chord should be dropped 14 cents, which equates to 14 percent of a half step of a scale. This is a fairly substantial drop in pitch. The fifth of the chord would also be raised 2 cents, which is a very small change.

Before you begin Frank Batista’s key circle exercise, try asking your students to play for you the starting major chord with the group on the third pulling down a fair bit and the group on the fifth lifting ever so slightly. Listen closely to get everyone working at bringing this chord into true tuning. Change the players on the third so that each group can feel what it is like to pull the third down. You can even start with a small group of only a few players to eliminate as much “out-of-tune-ness” as possible in the beginning. Following that you can add students while striving to keep the chord tuning intact. Mention to students the idea of listening while playing to “make the beats go away.” That is a reference, of course, to the conflict waves of “out-of-tune-ness.”

Bringing It All Together

Now once the students can play and feel that first major chord in tune, you can begin moving around the key circle to get them all to play in tune. The group on the thirds will need to recognize for each chord how much they need to pull down to adjust for True Tuning.

In the same way, you can use the Just Intonation Chord Tuning Chart to help you and your students find better tuning in the Foundations for Superior Bands tuning exercises. Now in the Foundations exercises you can remind students that the third should be pulled down some and the fifth lifted very slightly for each key of those exercises.

Don’t forget that the Just Intonation Chord Tuning Chart does not begin and end on major chords. There are adjustments listed for major, minor, sixths, dominant sevenths, diminished and augmented chords. You can use all of these various Just Intonation Adjustments on the complex chords while your students travel around the key circle in Frank Batista’s exercise. Remember, though, that all of those adjustments are made in reference to Equal Tempered Tuning, and not necessarily in reference to the pitch tendencies of all band instruments.

When students begin examining the pitch tendencies of their instrument in conjunction with True Tuning on chords, now they will find that they are beginning to get somewhere with intonation. For example, if trumpet players are playing a Db on their instrument as the third of a chord, they will need to doubly drop that pitch – once for the trumpet’s problem with physics, and once again to find the correct placement of the third of the chord!

All of these challenges become somewhat of a large and complex listing of the thousands of combinations and permutations of adjustments that need to be made while in performance, and these can leave students quite bewildered about “getting it all covered.” Like any complex problem that students face, they soon want to simplify it so that it can become manageable with a minimum of effort. What is this solution that the students quickly adopt to lessen their workload with all of the tuning problems they need to overcome? THEY START TO LISTEN, and this is exactly what you wanted in the first place!

If you would like a PDF copy of the Just Intonation Chord Tuning Chart, please send me an email at [email protected], and I will be happy to send it along to you.



Ed Dumas is a retired band director who taught his entire career in the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows School District. Ed is now retired and living with his lifelong partner Laurie, and their little dog Sprocket in Parksville, BC. Ed & Laurie also work as Mid-Island reps for Tapestry Music while enjoying music in retirement.

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