Monday, October 08, 2007

Warning: Pitch Police Ahead!

"Intonation, trumpets!" That dreaded comment that we have become accustomed to shrugging off as irrelevant will no doubt come back to bite us sooner or later. But who wants to work on their intonation? There you sit paralyzed playing a dead tone trying to freeze the needle on the tuner. Try as you will, it still shakes and wobbles as if to laugh at the futility of pitch perfection. It says sharp or flat, but absolutely avoids hitting dead-on in tune. So why bother.

My pitch isn't that bad, we reason. Years of training our ears to allow for faulty tuning have come to blind us to recognizing that clashes are our fault. We stumble ignorantly through solos and excerpts, all the while setting off sensors and alarms that summon the pitch police with their sirens blazing.

Sensitive woodwind players are quickly shocked and deeply offended by our proud indiscretions. "The brass are out of tune, AGAIN!" Conductors wring their ears and wince at us, but to little avail. Finally the baton angrily taps the conductor's stand, and the one-by-one tuning game begins. Faces get red, tones gets tense. And since the ailment has been untreated for so long, fixing the problem is often beyond repair. Confidence is shaken. We forget about the fun of playing great music, and a serious case of musical goo quickly sets in.

Not fun. Well, intonation unfortunately and fortunately is vital to great music-making. Learning to stay attentive to intonation without obsessing on it is the key. We have to remain alert to it on a daily basis. Correcting tuning problems doesn't have to cripple the musician inside. The challenge is to improve our performance skills, and to produce flawless tuning, as much as is possible. And it is possible.

No magic piece of advice or expensive machinery will solve the problem. But there is good news! There is hope. Good intonation is an inward skill that can improve and be developed. Slow work, more listening, and singing will do wonders for the most hideous offender. This project can be a fun journey, but that depends upon you. Great pitch is one of those abilities that separates the pro from the student. It's O.K. to be a student, but we can't stay there. The pitch police are just ahead, and their fines are severe.

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