Friday, October 28, 2011

Horn Diary

I've had two very pleasant experiences with the horn within 24 hours of each other earlier this week.

The first was an evening practice session running through all the bits and pieces in my 2nd horn parts for community band. My tuner, which beeps when a correct pitch is played, had been left on and time after time it beeped right after the last note of a phrase was played. After nearly two dozen times I went and turned it off as a distraction, but the feeling of being so well into an intonation groove lasted the whole session.

Then the next afternoon we had a full rehearsal of the brass quintet we've been trying to pull together (two Eb tubas, trombone, horn, trumpet). I've put together an album of Mozart, Corelli, Facoli, Tomkins, Gibbons, Bach and Billings. Over and over again we hit the chords just right and that amazing sound of an in tune brass ensemble filled the room. In my fairly wide experience of music making on various instruments, there's simply nothing like it. The trio of flute, alto flute and cello can be just as good, but in an entirely different way.

The feeling I had was part of what I experienced as a "flow" discussed in this post. I hated it when the pieces came to an end, wanting that feeling and gorgeous sound to go on and on.

Also, I now know I can play the horn in tune with other brass and with voices, and my suspicion is that in band my difficulties are due in part to there not being a clear "slot" for me to fit into. My first band director five or six years ago one time said something like, "You have to be in good tone to be in good tune", and I think that's right. If the tone is not centered in all the instruments playing, the sound mix is contaminated with all sorts of out of tune harmonics. It's also my suspicion that trained educators can hear through that static and divine where the pitch should be, but I really have a difficult time doing so.


  1. If everybody else in the group is not taking the same degree of care over tuning then, there will be a variety of pitches, and it is impossible for you to be in tune with them all.

    One of the things I most like about playing at the highest level I can manage is that the tuning is so much better, and it is possible to "fit in" so much more easily.

    It's much easier with a chamber group, because there are fewer players, and everyone can hear themselves.The more players involved, the more chance there is that somebody isn't listening very hard and is out of tune.

    In an orchestra or band, if you are the principal of your section, you have a responsibility for the tuning of the section, to make sure as far as possible that your section players are in tune with you, and then you must aim to be in tune with the rest of the group.

    If the horns are all in tune with each other, they make a really sumptuous sound as a quartet. I'm having a great time at the moment with one or my orchestras, we're playing the Nutcracker suite, and the horn entries in the Waltz of the Flowers are tremendous fun. Now, if only we could get the flutes all in perfect tune as well for their big solo...

  2. Jonathan -

    Thanks so much for that comment.

    I'm not sure it's a simple question of some, "not taking the same degree of care over tuning". We're back to our viewpoint difference on the important of tone early in the game. I'm sticking with my notion that tone quality is central to learning music making from the get go. My bet is that if the band spent five minutes a rehearsal on tone/intonation studies, the benefit would make it worth our time. I think getting people to just be more consciously aware of their tone will improve intonation.

    Later on you say "the more chance there is that somebody isn't listening very hard and is out of tune." My idea is that if you work to make the point tone can be just as wrong as rhythm or pitch, then better listening is easier, rather than having to "listen hard".

    Take your point on a good horn section. Went to hear the C'ville Muni. Band last week and the horn section had locked in intonation - a joy to hear.

    In defense of the flutes - I find those above high C pitches astonishingly difficult to get in "perfect" tune. My general feeling is that the higher the pitch on any instrument, the less room for error. At those pitches on the flute, the aperture is tiny! People go on and on about how hard the horn is, and it is, but so are aspects of other instruments. (realize I'm not telling you anything you don't know, just wanted to type it out.)

    Your work over on your other blog is wonderful. More power to you. Would that more citizens got as positively involved in society's problem areas.

    Now I need to go deal with today's nature phenomenon - snow!

  3. A poor tone doesn't have out-of-tune harmonics - that is a contradiction in terms. A poor tone just has harmonics in combinations which our ears don't find pleasant.

    If you have acquired enough control over the instrument to produce a good tone, then you've also acquired enough control to play it in tune as well. So "you have to be in good tone to be in good tune" is only true to the extent that good tone and good tuning both have a common dependency in terms of good technique.

    In a large amateur orchestra or band, it is almost inevitable that some people's control over tuning is a bit less than optimal. That means that among the many players playing at any moment, there will be some spread of tuning in use. That does make it difficult for those of us who do have good tuning to fit in.

    Being able to match to an electronic tuner is no use at all if that isn't the pitch being used by everybody else. It will probably be pretty close, but it won't necessarily be quite the ideal for any circumstance.

    Your idea of spending a few minutes on tone/intonation studies is a good one, because playing a few slow chords gives people time to listen and to fit. The more they do of that, the more they get into the habit of doing it all the time.

    We're back in the realm of hidden agendas again, where what you're actually training it a bit different from what you're talking about. Tone/intonation exercises in a group are all about listening, because if you don't listen, you can't match the tone or pitch of those around you.

    Professionals and good amateurs have enough technique that they have mental effort available for this listening, and are so used to doing it that they adjust their tuning note by note as necessary, almost instantaneously and almost unconsciously.

  4. Jonathan - Thanks again. Want to think about what you've said and respond later - off to play in two churches for Reformation Sunday.

  5. I think your first paragraph points to more of a semantic issue than a disagreement. I'm pretty sure Kyle Gann would say his microtonal pieces are "in tune", just that the ratios are way more complex than the 1:2, 2:3, 3:4 and so forth at the beginning of the harmonic series. But until you listen to them a number of times, it just sounds like the keyboard is out of tune. Technically, you're right, but my feeling is that for students to get good tone, they have to have an awareness that within the tone itself there are elements which are more and less in tune with the fundamental.

    In the second paragraph you're seem to be defining tone and intonation as subsets of good technique. I'd go the other way and say good technique springs from an appreciation of tone and intonation. My guess is your approach is going to work better for people blessed by nature and/or nurture with a good built-in feel for musicality, whereas mine is more likely to work with people starting more from scratch.

    James Boldin recently did a post on burnout that I can't get out of my mind, because that's at the very other end of the spectrum of what I go through trying to engage people in music making. If I can't get them connected to the joy of music making they quit. For me, getting them aware of tone quality has to be in the mix. The sounds they make need to draw them into the process.

    Totally agree it's all about listening, but again, for people without musical nature/nurture behind them, they it helps to tell them exactly what they're listening for, and I'm very up front about that.

    I make a conscious effort to avoid hidden agendas for two reasons. My experience on psych wards tells me that a lot of people can suss it out when you've got one and it contaminates the relationship. Also, my aim is to help people understand how they can teach themselves. Part of music therapy is building self awareness in the client. I think in the long run we all need a bit of self direction to find our personal sweet spot in how we make music - it can't all be directions from others.

    That's all been clumsily said, and down the road would like to clean up the thoughts and language and do some posts to cover some of these points. Really appreciate your comments and the impetus they give to trying to figure out exactly what I want to say.

    Thanks again as well for the taking the "sculpting" idea further over on your blog. That's something else I want to get back to some time.

  6. I think our differences of view vis a vis technique and tone are a bit chicken and egg.

    As for harmonics, I think there may be some misunderstanding here. Broadly speaking, the sounds that make up a horn tone on any specific note are the fundamental frequency of the pitch, plus harmonics (integer multiples of the frequency) in varying combinations. You can't have anything else because anything else isn't going to resonate into the appropriate length of tubing. But You know the distortion you get if you drive an amplifier into overload? Sounds a bit unpleasant. That's because the clipping of the amplitude is broadly equivalent to introducing an awful lot of third (and 5th) harmonic. in this context harmonics has nothing at all to do with harmonies.

  7. Jonathan -

    My ideas on unpleasant harmonics stem from playing strings. When you strum a guitar or bow a cello very close to the bridge you get a much more shrill tone than when you strum or bow smack in the middle of the string. In the former case those way high harmonics that are dissonant are emphasized, and in the latter you're getting almost all the fundamental and octaves. Depending on the piece, the best tone is usually somewhere between the two extremes.

    It's my idea that, somehow or other, how you produce a pitch on a wind instrument can have the same effect.

    Yet another of those posts I keep meaning to do is how consonance and dissonance are not either/or, but a spectrum from pure octaves, then fifths, then fourths and progressing through to minor seconds and tritones and things not even in the scale as we think of it.

    Your info on overdriven amps is new to me, though, so need to experiment sometime and see if my ear is good enough to hear what you're talking about - but given your knowledge in the area, am certainly willing to take your word for it.