Using the “Magic Box”
When you hear a professional symphony orchestra perform, the sound they create is unified; an effort of a large group of musicians. In a tutti passage, not one instrument stands out from another. It takes a lot of patience, hard work and determination to play so cleanly and together, but a lot of the work has to do with tuning.
Most musicians have what is called a “tuner.” One of my former teachers used to call it “the little magic box” and I think that description suits it well! As a flute player, you should always set your tuner to A=440, even if your instrument is tuned to A=442. Why tune to A=440 then, you ask? Because most orchestras in the U.S. tune to A=440 and thus, A=440 has become the standard tuning in the U.S. Overseas, flutists tune differently, typically higher than A=440.
The routine I personally teach and go through myself is to tune before and after your scales and warmups. It is very important to check in with your magic box after playing for a while because as our flute becomes warmer, our intonation tends to change. It is beneficial to tune your low, middle and high A’s, and also some other notes such as your E’s and D’s. Why tune low, middle and high, you ask? Because low notes on the flute tend to be flat whereas high notes tend to be sharp. If you notice on your tuner that your high A is very sharp compared to your middle and low A, don’t adjust your head joint to fix the high A! Tuning heavily depends on your middle notes, not your extreme range of low and high. This is why when checking in on your intonation during your practice session, that you check in with your middle A only, though it is good to check your other notes as well if you feel the need.
Remember: push in if your middle A is flat. Pull out if your middle A is sharp. DO NOT push/pull in/out too much! Just adjust by small increments. You will be surprised how little you may need to adjust to get your pitch in line with your tuner!
Learning how to blend all depends on how you practice intonation. One thing I like to do is play my major scales (and/or minor scales) and then use my tuner and slowly play the arpeggio associated with each scale. For example:
Play full range C Major scale, slurred and tongued
Using tuner, play full range arpeggio. Start on low C, take big breath and hold out until you run completely out of air, then move onto low E, etc.
Believe me- it is a long and tiring process, but is extremely effective in the long run and you will know the tendency for each note you play and what ways you can adjust to fix those tendencies. To avoid exhaustion, I recommend to only play 1 or 2 scales with their arpeggios per day, and be sure when playing the arpeggio, that you TAKE YOUR TIME. Breath between each arpeggio note as deep as possible and after you deplete yourself of air, take a moment to relax before breathing deeply again.
Don’t get me wrong, there are many different ways to practice intonation! Marcel Moyse has many books geared toward technique, including intonation. Some of the faster exercises in Taffanel and Gaubert, Gilbert, Marcel Moyse’s and others method books can be transformed into slow intonation exercises. Be creative and come up with your own exercises to help you create balance and control over your flute’s natural pitch tendencies.
In closing, I will end with a list of other ways to improve your intonation:
Practicing duets with your teacher or your friends (this helps with cuing also!)
Put the drone setting on your tuner and adjust to your drone
Have a friend play a drone with their flute while you play along and adjust
Choose a simple melody to practice slowly with a tuner. There are two books from Marcel Moyse dedicated to this practice: Tone Development Through Interpretation and Petite Studies.
Happy practicing! :-)