Using a Tuner

My tuner doesn’t come out of my flute bag very often, even though intonation is one aspect of flute playing that I have always struggled with. My pitch is not as bad now as it was my first few years of college, largely because I play on a better instrument now than I did then. But still, those constant little adjustments have never become entirely second nature to me.

For many years I didn’t own a tuner. I always told myself that one day I would get one and map the intonation tendencies of my flute and piccolo in the hopes that knowing where the problems were I could fix them before they happened. Well, I finally bought one about five years ago. The problem is, it just doesn’t make it out of my flute bag very often. I mostly use it to check my pitch before a performance. Not very helpful. So, if I’m to write about tuners I better practice what I preach. Here goes.

Mapping Intonation

The purpose of creating an intonation map is to get an accurate picture of the tendencies of you and your instrument. It’s not to see how adept we are at compensating. That comes later. In order to avoid the temptation to correct the pitch while going through this exercise, you’ll need a partner. Your partner’s job is to watch the tuner and record the results while you play the notes. No peeking.

Start the process by tuning to a’’ (the A above the staff). If the pitch is off, pull out or push in on the headjoint until the pitch is accurate without having to adjust your embouchure. This is your reference pitch to which you will compare the rest of your range. This entire process should be done using a straight tone with no vibrato.

From a’’, work your way down the chromatic scale one note at a time. Make sure that your air supply, support and dynamic are consistent from one note to the next. Spend several seconds on each note. Remember to resist the urge to lip the pitch up or down. You’re trying to identify pitch inconsistencies, not correct them.

While you’re playing, your partner is watching the needle or digital display on the tuner. Your pitch will naturally oscillate even though you’re playing with no vibrato. It’s your partner's job to identify the center of the pitch and record the variation. These variations are measured in cents. There are 100 cents between half steps. The tuner will show a range of 50 cents on the flat side and 50 cents on the sharp side. Any pitch that is more than 50 cents flat or sharp is considered to be the next note. Pitch variations should be recorded with a minus sign designating flat pitches and a plus sign designating sharp pitches.

Once you’ve worked your way from a’’ all the way down to low c or b, start over at a’’ and work your way up. When you’ve finished recording the entire range, your mapping is complete. Any surprises? Certainly this method isn’t absolutely accurate. If you were to do it all again tomorrow, you’d end up with different results, however the trends should be the same. And that’s your goal, to get to know your instrument’s pitch tendencies.

As you play over the next few weeks, keep your results in mind and try to anticipate and compensate for them. If you like, try this exercise again, only this time rather than playing the note as is, try to adjust so that you hit the note as accurately as possible. I’d love to hear about your results. E-mail me to let me know how your mapping went.



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