Intonation Exercises for Brass Band?

Discussion in 'The Rehearsal Room' started by jobriant, Jun 13, 2017.

  1. jobriant

    jobriant Member

    I'm looking for suggestions for some intonation exercises for Brass Band, which we can use at each rehearsal to improve our players' ability to listen and to play in tune. What suggestions or recommendations do you have?

    Thanks in advance,

    Jim O'Briant, Music Director
    The Pacific Brass Band
    Salinas, California, USA
  2. Accidental

    Accidental Supporting Member

    Hymn tunes or similar

    (you could argue that everything is/should be an intonation exercise.... ;) )
    Tom-King likes this.
  3. jobriant

    jobriant Member

    Well, of course we should always try to play everything in tune. "Duh!")

    But If I'd wanted hymn tunes I'd have asked about hymn tunes. I'm looking for exercises that are designed and written SPECIFICALLY to help bands overcome intonation issues.

    Jim O'Briant, Music Director
    The Pacific Brass Band
    Salinas, California, USA
  4. Accidental

    Accidental Supporting Member

    ok then, as far as I'm aware there are none.
    All the bands I know with halfway decent intonation get there with focused playing of things like hymn tunes, and working on their intonation and tuning all the time, whereas the bands that aren't so good at it, don't do those things.
    Sorry I can't be more help.
  5. jobriant

    jobriant Member

    Thanks. It looks like we may have to use some of the American Wind Band publications that are designed for intonation work, and adapt those for Brass Band. But perhaps others will come up with some ideas....

    Jim O'Briant, Music Director
    The Pacific Brass Band
    Salinas, California, USA
  6. Tom-King

    Tom-King Well-Known Member

    To be honest, "hymn tunes" would've been my answer too.
    They're not a throw-away group warmup (though many bands use them that way, sadly) - they're something to focus on playing very tightly in time and in tune... very easy to play badly and in many cases not at all easy to play superbly.
  7. 4th Cornet

    4th Cornet Active Member

    Another vote for hymn tunes. I expect unison scales and arpeggios would be useful too to help understand the tuning nuances of individual instruments. I'm not sure how players would appreciate too much exercise drilling in the bandroom though.

    The most important thing is to encourage players to listen and help them identify and know how to correct when intonation is off.
    I personally wouldn't use specific intonation exercises as the result is likely to be that the band simply learns how to play these tunefully. You might as well apply the same discipline to concert pieces.

    Another consideration is the experience and ability of the players. Players that are still developing will find it more difficult to control their instrument to produce good intonation (even if they can recognise when out of tune). This creates an inherent constraint, and too much focus on one such element (where players don't yet have the ability to manage it) can choke their general development and enjoyment. (That's not to say one shouldn't gently encourage awareness of all the fundamental elements of playing).
    Chuk_rok, Jerry, Jack E and 2 others like this.
  8. Euphonium Lite

    Euphonium Lite Active Member

    I’ve worked under 2 very experienced MDs who have gone very big on the use of scales – major, minor, chromatic, and different note lengths from semiquavers to semibreve pauses. Whilst not the most exciting thing in the world, it does focus you on breath control, and also direct intonation without any harmonic overtone issues. Many players can start a note in tune, but intonation goes to pot when they have to tongue fast, or breath starts to run out. Ultimately whatever you do in a band situation, if a player isn’t totally in control of their instrument then intonation will suffer from time to time so practice – with a tuner – is vital as well

    If there are specific exercises done for wind band, I’d be interested in seeing them and looking at whether they could be adapted.
    Chuk_rok likes this.
  9. 2nd tenor

    2nd tenor Well-Known Member

    Some great points above, and made by really able people too.

    I'm not a great player but just work at improving both what I can do at home and what I can manage to repeat in the band room. At home I sometimes use a tuner whilst I'm practicing a slow tune and try to have each note 'go green', that practice helps to remind me what any particular pefectly pitched note should sound like which in turn helps my intonation in the band room.

    Trombones are, perhaps, the only instrument that can readily play with perfect intonation, however the skill required to achieve that accuracy doesn't come easy or even at all to some of us. Valved instruments have physical limitations on their intonation accuracy and maybe that issue should be considered in the Band-room; Dave Taylor understands that topic well and I seem to recall him writing about it on my thread about non-compensating instruments. So perhaps, before doing special intonation exercises in the Band-room, it's worthwhile getting to grips with the difficulties facing players and being ready to suggest solutions too - for example I recall one Conductor telling a player to use the fourth valve for 'D' within the stave.
    Last edited: Jun 14, 2017
    Jack E and jobriant like this.
  10. BrianT

    BrianT Member

    The starting point, and this is what I do with my pupils and in my Trainer Band at Wantage, is demonstrate what in-tune sounds like. I ask a player to play a note, and then I play a unison with them, tracking their note so that the result is in tune. Then I ask them to do the tracking, adjusting their note so it's in-tune. These are skills that you won't get by playing hymn tunes. In private practice, if you have a keyboard instrument that can produce continuous notes (not a piano, because the notes decay), then practise playing unisons with that, because you're adjusting using your ears, not your eyes. For this reason I strongly suggest not using an electronic tuner - because it forces you to tune with your eyes not your ears. You end up practising a skill that you can't use in an ensemble situation.

    We can't expect musicians to deliver in-tuneness unless they know what it sounds like. Similarly, they need to know what they can do to compensate if their contribution is out-of-tune. I'll get pairs of players to play unisons or consonant intervals like thirds, fourths or fifths. It's much easier to hear when there are just two players. It gets progressively harder to tune as you add players.

    Also I've come across the 'set and forget' attitude to tuning slides. People will tune one note and then assume everything they play will be in tune. But on brass, tuning is a process, not a one-off action. There must be a constant mental feedback loop between what you hear and what you play. You don't just broadcast, you receive as well. Our responsibility is to listen intently as we play, to make sure our contribution meshes with what we hear. It only takes one person not to be listening to spoil the effect, even if all the other players are in tune.

    Once these skills have been practised, I'd suggest only then trying them out in a larger ensemble. It's completely pointless practising hymn tunes or anything else if none of the participants have a clue what they're aiming at, or how to achieve it.
    Chuk_rok, Jerry, jobriant and 3 others like this.
  11. 4th Cornet

    4th Cornet Active Member

    There have been a couple of posts suggesting intonation training using a tuner. I understood tuning and intonation to be different things.
    Whilst I agree that playing true to a tuner is useful in terms of understanding tuning nuances and adjustments needed, I wonder if it lacks the fundamental 'trick' of good intonation which is listening.

    One thing I've noticed is that the worst intonation comes with over-blowing. I believe this is not only due to the sharpening of pitch, but also that it becomes more difficult to hear the fundamental tones.
  12. Tom-King

    Tom-King Well-Known Member

    I completely agree - and I completely refuse to use a tuner if I'm able to see the screen... I know full well that I would "cheat" and lip it to light the green light up - and I'm good enough at that to learn next to nothing from the tuner.

    However... in defence of tuners (to some extent) - you'll find some that have a "drone" feature which gives you that continuous note, which can be useful for practicing long tones and learning where the pitch should be (exactly as you describe) and that feature can be quite useful.... I also like to use it for ear training by setting that note an octave below the note I'm playing (if I weren't playing sop, I might set that note the octave above me sometimes too...).
  13. 2nd tenor

    2nd tenor Well-Known Member

    It's interesting how the same word can mean different things to different people. My own understanding of 'intonation' evolved from the contexts that the term was used in and to me it meant playing each note to pitch and moving perfectly between pitch intervals; trying to blend with the player next door to you was something that you just did 'cause otherwise whatever you were doing sounded wrong.

    Wikipedia indicates to me that my understanding of 'intonation' is approaching correct (Intonation (music) - Wikipedia) but missing important refinement. I'd be interested to read what the term intonation means to others - a common definition - and an exploration of the tuning nuances and adjustments needed would be interesting too.

    The use of ears instead of sight in relation to tuners is interesting. I suppose to an extent the appropriateness of different methods varies upon physical condition (how well can you hear now), pitch varience recognition skills
    and the level at which you play. My ears aren't as good as they once were; I watch the tuner fluctuate between 20 cents sharp or flat for any given note and very slight changes in lip movement but it's hard to get things spot on; and at the lower levels of banding I'm glad if my fellow players can remember the key signature, play something that could be the correct note and keep time with the conductor - sorry, maybe that's a bit harsh. The importance of intonation surely varies and likewise the ability to recognise issues?
    Last edited: Jun 14, 2017
    mikelyons likes this.
  14. Tom-King

    Tom-King Well-Known Member

    I guess how important intonation is and how high up the priorities list it is are different things, 2T?
    I know what you mean though, at the "lower" levels of banding, there can be things that distract from the performance more than poor intonation (wrong notes, looseness in ensemble, etc) but that doesn't necessarily mean that poor intonation is tolerable, just that fixing it is down the list of priorities?

    Sometimes when multiple players are out of tune by different amounts (or sharp vs flat), "using your ears" can be worthless - because who do you get in tune with when either way you'll be out of tune with someone else?
    In that sense, you're absolutely right that playing with better bands is easier, because more players listen (and know what they're listening for) - locking in tune with a band that's well in tune is much easier than with one that has all kinds of tuning issues.

    Knowing you're bang in tune is one thing, but you can never stop listening because what if the band you're playing with tunes consistently flat (or sharp) from where you do - you have to adapt to that.
  15. mikelyons

    mikelyons Supporting Member

    One of the big problems for me with my bands is consistency - playing the exact same pitch every time. You can get people in tune for one rehearsal, but then they come back and you have to start again. Another issue can be the quality of the sound. Young players seem to have more difficulty with both of these aspects of note production which affect the tuning and intonation. I reccommend using a tuner to check the accuracy of pitch production, but to avoid using it once the basic pitching is secure. Your ears are a better tuner than your eyes!
    4th Cornet likes this.
  16. Jack E

    Jack E Well-Known Member

    Brian - many thanks for making this point. It had never occurred to me before, but I can see exactly where you're coming from. After all, when playing with a band, the feedback loop that you depend on to stay in tune is not from eye to embouchure, but from ear to embouchure - so that is clearly the one you need to work on.

    With best regards,

  17. slider

    slider Member

    Question for adjudicators, if a band is in tune with itself but not playing at 440mhz is everything out of tune or is there some leeway?
  18. mikelyons

    mikelyons Supporting Member

    IMHO, if they are playing in tune with each other and in time with each other and under the control of their conductor, there shouldn't be a problem. At the end of the day, A440 is an arbitrary number to tune to and I know of a few bands who tune differently. Some of us even remember 'high pitch' instruments and having to have the slides lengthened on all our instruments. I was at school at the time and remember all the fuss because the school had to pay to have the instruments 'upgraded'. I don't think even someone afflicted with perfect pitch would find it too terrible if a band waas playing at A442 or A437 as long as they were in tune with each other.
  19. GJG

    GJG Well-Known Member

    I was once told by a professional percussionist colleague that many high-end manufacturers of fixed-pitch percussion instruments (Glocks, Xylos, etc.) supply them tuned to A442 in any case ...
    Don't know how true that is, but sometimes I think "perception" of tuning/intonation is different to "absolute" accuracy. I've known of several very experienced Principal cornets who would tune slightly sharp to play a solo within a band piece, then retune to "band pitch" to rejoin a section unison. Don't understand why that would work, but it apparently does ... In the case of the percussion instruments I don't think the intention is that the band should tune to A442, but that if the band tunes to A440 the A442 percussion will "sound right", in some way.
    mikelyons likes this.
  20. pbirch

    pbirch Active Member

    the merits of hymn tunes for developing ensemble playing, including intonation, are quite often underestimated. A hymn tune is 8 bars of simple ( though not easy) music with predictable and repeated intervals and logical chord progressions that if you work on them will give your band every opportunity to think about and sort out all manner of issues without having to worry about complex music. It will also give you as the conductor the ability to hear your band in clear 4 part harmony to identify where the intonation issues are. I would say that there is no area of banding technique that these simple, small scale (and often miniature masterpieces) pieces cannot be used to specifically address issues. In hymn tunes there is a wheel that does not need to be reinvented.
    monody, mikelyons, Tom-King and 4 others like this.

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