Tuning woodwinds

Introduction

How is it that eight or more good woodwind players can sit down in an orchestral section and play out of tune? Sometimes it is because the players don't listen carefully enough. If the section is close to being in tune, then each player can listen and adjust. Other times it's because the section hasn't tuned up carefully enough. If the tuning is generally bad, then there is not much that you can do yourself by listening and adjusting, because you can't simultaneously lip up to match the bassoon and down to match the clarinet. Unless the tuning is reasonably close to start with, it will just be uncomfortable to play no matter what you do.

Some of the advice given here is common sense, some is orchestral tradition and a tiny part of it has the authority of my professional expertise in musical acoustics. I don't claim to have a great ear, nor to play always in tune, but I have thought about it and tried to improve the tuning of sections in which I've played. Suggestions appreciated.

Rehearsals

  • Arrive early so that you can warm up before you go on stage (particularly Oboe 1). Bring a pencil so that you can put up and down arrows above notes (along with other markings) on your part.
  • Double reed players can put some water in reeds as early as possible (for instance on the way to the gig) so that the reed is well soaked when you start to play.
  • Get some warm, wet air into the instrument early - as soon as you have it assembled.
  • Warm up with playing. Oboes obviously should not play sustained A's while warming up. (The tuner will work on any note if you want to check your own tuning. Eb major is a good key for oboes to warm up with!)
  • The leader will give a sign when it is time to tune. If Oboe 1 is confident of the tuning, s/he can play an A immediately. If not, s/he can play a short A, adjust the tuning and then try again. Once the oboe starts playing an A that lasts more than a few seconds, listen to it carefully for a few seconds, then play a note yourself. It is annoying and boring for an oboist to play A's for a long time while nobody does anything. So be ready and start tuning quickly. Nevertheless, take the time to tune very carefully. Even if it takes a few minutes, no-one will begrudge it if the result is a wind section that plays in tune!
  • First get one of your A's in tune, carefully. Then tune several notes, especially A, D and F. The D minor tuning is partly tradition, but it has some good features. It allows you to check your tuning and to make a compromise tuning using different lengths of pipe for all of the instruments. Dm is good because D-A gives a nice fifth to tune, and F-A a major third. At some stage in the tuning one of the bassoons can tune a low D carefully and then hold it so that the section can tune both to that and the oboe A. (Listen down when tuning chords.) 1st and 2nd of each instrument should check octaves because they often play in octaves.

How to tune

Listen carefully to the oboe note, play yours and see whether it's high or low. If you cannot tell, lip it up and down and note which way you had to lip it to get it in tune. Then adjust your slide and do it again. When you think it is correct, try the Dm chord notes as described above. You may have to compromise on the tuning.

Flutes: it is most important to get the top octave in tune. (The others are easier to lip up or down, and they are also easier to hide!) So tune your high and middle A's, F's and D's, rather than the low ones. In fact the only reason to play the second space A is to make a a mental note of how much you will be lipping it, along with the rest of your bottom octave notes.

Piccolo: what's the point in tuning the low A? Tune the high ones - they're the ones that will be heard. Better play a loud (but short) high D and A now and get them in tune. They'll be loud and people will hear you, but better than playing them in the concert out of tune.

Oboe: second oboe should not play very long low A's so that other players don't get confused over which A to tune to. Listen, play a short one, lip it up or down and adjust. Oboe 2 especially can make use of the other notes (the higher A, D's and F's). When the Dm chord is going and reasonably well in tune, Oboe 1 should check the middle A and the Ds and Fs as well, especially the high D and F - on my oboe the high F is sensitive to which reed I use.

Cor anglais: the tuning A (written E) is one of the worst notes on most cors. If I play this note and it sounds in tune, then my instrument is badly flat. Tune the low (written) E instead, and the A's and C's. In fact the only reason for playing the tuning note during tuning is to remind yourself how far you have to lip that note down.

Clarinet: getting the long B in tune doesn't give you an idea of whether your throat notes are in tune. So check the throat G, and also check the low B and G. Especially check the high notes in the Em chord.

Bassoon: the main thing is to have the right crook in: moving the crook within the range of the whisper key is for fine adjustment. You always end up doing most of the tuning with the chops anyway. Some bassoonists say that the only reason they play notes during tuning is because conductors would get worried if they found out that the bassoon can't adjust the tuning on the instrument. But there is a reason: you need to remind yourself how much you have to lip the different registers for the particular reed and crook you're playing. Which note you "tune" depends a lot on your bassoon. On mine, A4 and A3 are both flat. So I mainly tune the low A and the Ds and Fs.

If one bassoon plays a low or middle D and can get it nicely in tune with the oboe, then the rest of the section can tune Dm chords, as discussed above.

Doubling: if you don't get a chance to tune your doubling instrument during the wind tuning, tune it during the brass tuning. Remember to breathe into it whenever you get a chance in the several minutes before you use it.

Playing in tune

Nothing beats listening! Conductors often say "listen down" so winds should listen especially to the bassoons. Bassoons are not always the most reliable of references, so this advice should be taken cum grano salis. But listen to your chords and, when in doubt, move about. If the chord doesn't sound right, lip up or down until it does. A chord whose mistuning varies with time is more interesting than one that remains permanently discordant. Once you have worked out which way you needed to lip a note in a particular chord, put an arrow (up or down) in pencil on your part, to remind you which way you had to lip to get that note in tune. Due to different combinations of instruments playing, and different contexts and keys, it could be that sometimes you have to lip a particular note up, and then elsewhere lip it down.

Remember that you are in a team and, if the chord sounds wrong, the whole section sounds lousy. The moral satisfaction that you were "right" doesn't count.

You should learn a bit about the other members of your section and look out for problems. Can two bassoons play octave F#s in tune? (It's not easy.) And flutes and oboists will notice that flute E5s go flat when p, while oboe E5s are often sharp. To play well together requires teamwork and compromises.

Concerts

Everything from rehearsal tuning applies. It shouldn't have to be a longer or more careful tuning than rehearsal, if anything it can be shorter if you have rehearsed well how to tune quickly and efficiently. But if it takes a while, this is better than playing out of tune. Flutes and piccolo should not be afraid to tune up their high notes: these are much more important than the low ones.

In concerts, warm up backstage, but continue to warm up on stage. Not only does it keep the instrument warm and wet, but it's better than sitting quietly, getting nervous and wondering whether your reed is still working. It's also a good ambiance for the audience: that busy broadband sound of lots of instruments playing in different keys. It's part of the anticipatory excitement of a concert. When warming up, however, don't play your big solo that the audience will hear later - or at least don't play it so that it can be heard.

Oboes should not play A's while warming up, no matter how many enquiring A's and looks they get from strings and brass. There will be only one official tuning, just before the conductor comes on. Ideally, the leader will allow warming up till then so that the orchestra can tune and then have the minimum time of sitting quietly.

Homework

You probably know the answers to these questions. You certainly need to know them, so it is worthwhile just checking again to see if the answers have changed since last time you thought about them.

  • what notes on your instruments are most out of tune, and which way? Make a list of the worst half dozen or more.
  • what alternative fingerings can you use on the bad ones? Remember that some fingerings are better at pp and others better at ff.
  • are your octaves narrow or wide? How is it affected by the reed? Do they get narrower with a soft reed, or as the reed gets wetter?

You can find out the answers by playing octaves and scales slowly and listening. You can also check with a tuning meter, or by comparing with a (well tuned) keyboard. Playing octaves with your section partner(s) is a good exercise. Tune together on one note, then one player goes up the octave, or what should be an octave.

Work out with your session partner(s) what his/her problematic notes are. (Often they will be the same as yours.) When you have an interval to play together, you can compromise. If you know s/he has trouble getting a particular note low enough, you can lower yours a little.

Flutes: check your cork. You probably have a centre marker on your cleaning rod, but you can experiment with this position. Pushing the cork in raises the pitch of all notes, but it raises the pitch of high notes more than that of low notes. Pulling it out (just screw the crown clockwise) lowers the the high notes more than the low. So if your octaves are wide, you can pull the cork out. If narrow, push it in. If you move the cork to get your octaves sounding like octaves, you then have to change your normal tuning slide position.

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