Tuning Recorder Consorts
Learning Good Intonation
Proper intonation is a problem that is very often ignored in the hope that "it will eventually get better". However, good intonation can be learned and I offer a few basic tips that have worked well with students.
Many recorder players unfamiliar with the use of the muscles involved in controlling the diaphragm play flat. Once the players attention is drawn to the problem it is an easy matter to firm up the muscles and before long he/she should be able to achieve good basic intonation. Intonation is always a function of good tone production. The primary focus of this article will be the elements of recorder tone; the embouchure, breath support, and physical support of the recorder. Of course, one cannot begin to attempt to teach a recorder player if he/she does not have a good instrument in good repair but it is assumed that some advice has been sought when chosing and purchasing instruments.
Embouchure is the greatest variable in recorder tone production. Of course, in many ways the recorder is easier than a clarinet with its mouthpiece and reed. For the recorder player the basic requirement is to supply a full stream of air, to initiate the note with an adequate but not too strong a tonguing stroke and to support the note through its duration without a loss of pitch or tone colour.
Looking into a mirror will help the player understand how the recorder should be held in the mouth. Say "oo" and hold the shape of the lips. This is the best position - the cheeks are relaxed, the lips are not drawn tightly over the teeth and the floor of the mouth should be relaxed too. The sound "oo" also places the oral cavity in a good position for proper air flow. "O" or "ah" opens the throat too much. For this reason I also teach the syllable "t-oo" for tonguing. Once the student can produce this shape without the recorder, try again with the recorder in the mouth. ALWAYS USE A MIRROR.
Proper breath support is fundamental to stabilising the vibrations that will produce good tone and pitch. This 'vibration' is not the resonance arising from the bore but the much high frequency vibration set up in the recorder's window, the opening between the exit of the air from the windway and the sharp edge or windcutter. The old saw, "support with the diaphragm!", confuses most recorder players because the diaphragm has nothing to do with support and everything to do with breathing in. The diaphragm is a dome shaped muscle below the pleural cavity that can only pull downwards and is not involved in pushing air out. Diaphragmatic breathing is what we all do naturally. What we want to teach is how to breathe in efficiently and how to blow out naturally but with a little added support from the stomach muscles.
A very relaxing way to teach breathing is to ask your students to yawn without raising their shoulders. Yawning is the bodys way of quickly sending oxygen to the blood supply. You will notice yourself in trying this how quickly and fully air moves into the lungs. The important lesson is to draw the breath in quickly and let the stomach expand out so that the lungs fill completely.
Inhaling through the nose is not as efficient as inhaling through the mouth. What is more, if you are suffering from the effects of hayfeaver or a head cold, breathing through the nose can be both uncomfortable and seriously inefficient. The only time you may wish to use nasal inhalation is when using a technique called 'circular breathing' which allows the player to produce very long notes by forcing air from the oral cavity while simultaneously inhaling through the nose. Circular breathing is commonly used by glass blowers.
Once the student learns proper breathing you can begin to instruct proper blowing. Eventually they begin to figure this all out intuitively, but I have a fun technique that starts them thinking about controlled breath support early. Light a candle and place it on a table about eighteen inches away. Ask them to blow it out. Thats easy! Now re-light it and ask them to just make the flame flicker without blowing it out. Thats a little harder. Now ask them to make it flicker steadily until they run out of breath. If you try this technique yourself you will find that in order to make the candle flicker and not go out the breath must be very controlled. You will quite naturally use your stomach muscles to accomplish this. After the demonstration ask them if they felt anything in their stomach area. They will probably tell you they noticed a tightening there. These are exactly the muscles they must focus on when blowing out for good breath support. A well centered sound has a balance of all partials (including the fundamental which is strong on the recorder) and enough presence of overtones to help project the sound as well as allowing a sensitive ear to hear the harmonics lining up in the ensemble.
Finally, an area that has been largely ignored is the manner in which students physically support the recorder with their bodies. It is extremely important that the mouthpiece lies lightly between the lips but that the lips seal around the recorder beak to prevent any air loss except through the windway. It does not have to be held firmly in place as with the clarinet.
If you find the instrument large or heavy consider using a neck strap or a thumbrest.
A neck strap will help in two very positive ways. First the weight is taken off the right hand so that there is no conflict between supporting the recorder and fingering. Second, the neck strap can be adjusted so that the mouthpiece is consistently positioned correctly in the mouth. This very simple and relatively inexpensive solution will make recorder playing less frustrating for the young student and encourage better tone production and intonation. A thumbrest is used not so much to support the weight as to set the right hand correctly on the instrument so that all the toneholes are within easy reach.
Once you progress into a level of fluency on the recorder you should make sure to play to a good pitch reference. This can be playing duets with your teacher. As soon as possible play solos with a piano and this will prepare you for when you begin to play in ensembles with other players.
Tuning With Others
You should understand the difference between fixed pitch and variable pitch instruments. A piano, for example, is a fixed pitch instrument. Ignoring psychological effects for the present, you will notice that when you strike a key a particular note is sounded. Striking the same key again, whether harder or softer, will always produce the same note. This is why it is called a fixed pitch instrument. Wind instruments are very different. If you blow into a recorder the pitch varies with the breath pressure. So, to produce the same note again and again on a wind instrument one needs an external pitch reference or a very good sense of pitch. The former comes from working to a piano accompaniment or from playing duets with a very experienced professionally trained musician. The presence of an external pitch reference helps you develop your own sense of pitch and, in time, and with some training, you will find that you can become your own pitch standard. It should be stressed that this is something you CAN learn with application and practice.
Intonation is a vexing problem for all musicians. In fact it is so much so, that often one of the distinctions between the most sought-after performers and ensembles from their professional colleagues less in demand, is the quality and consistency of their intonation. The notion of 'in tune' as a goal, however laudable is simplistic. In order to achieve satisfying and consistent sounding intonation, it is critical to have a concept for tuning, based on certain acoustical realities, and based on the context in which you are working.
Any discussion of intonation in the modern era begins with an understanding of the system of equal temperament. With equal temperament, by adjusting every interval to the same degree in the scale, two problems of tuning chords are dealt with via compromise: octave displacement, and the effect of the qualities of different intervals of the triad in different keys. In the equal-tempered system, music sounds relatively in tune (or out of tune) to the same degree in every key. A keyboard tuned to equal temperament frees a composer to write pieces containing any and every possible modulation. Because of this advantage, equal temperament has become the most universally used tuning system for keyboard instruments. The great keyboard sonatas of the classical and romantic eras, and most of the repertoire written in the years since would have been impossible without the equal-tempered system. In the modern era, the equal tempered system also provides a convenient base line for tuning all non-keyboard instruments in a manner that requires no specific knowledge of the harmonic context of a situation. Modern orchestras typically conceive of tuning in equal temperament. Electronic tuning machines generally use equal temperament as their default setting partly for this reason.
However practical it may be as a compromise, for non fixed-pitch instruments equal temperament is not a means to the most beautiful or satisfying intonation in either harmonic or melodic contexts. There are situations where equal temperament makes sense for non fixed-pitch instruments. In the modern orchestra for instance, any large deviance from equal temperament can leave a player sounding less unified with the group. There are situations in chamber music settings as well, where equal temperament is the most exigent solution to a conflict of acoustical and technical realities.
In certain repertoire, even with fixed-pitch (keyboard and fretted)
instruments, there are tuning choices to consider besides equal temperament, depending on the degree to which a piece modulates, and depending on the actual keys to which the piece modulates. Early music practitioners, especially keyboard players, must incorporate an understanding of temperament as essential among the tools they bring to the problems of performance. There are thousands of possible temperaments for tuning, and at various points in history, prior to the widespread adoption of equal temperament as a universal tuning system, various temperaments have informed composers and vice-versa.
The best non fixed-pitch instrumental performers invariably employ intonation based on the harmonic, melodic, and instrumental contexts in which they are playing, even if they dont always know they are doing so. When playing with piano, recorder players are most often relegated to a modified version of equal temperament. In some instances we can cheat and deviate from the temperament of the piano, but many times such deviance will leave a recorder player sounding out of tune with the piano. Other than the instrumental context of playing with piano, there are two other common contexts that present tuning problems: octave displacement and harmonic-versus-melodic. Recorder players need to consider these problems, both intellectually and intuitively in order to develop satisfying and consistent style of intonation.
To understand octave displacement one need only experiment at the keyboard. In the upper-most octave of the piano, sound one single note. Then play the same pitch in the lowest octave. If the piano is well in tune, the notes will sound too close together when played separately, and too far apart when played together. In other words, when played separately the upper note sounds sharp and the lower note flat. When played together just the opposite is true. This is because of the inherent conflict between the overtone series that the true notes produce. In order to achieve consonance between the overtone series in the two notes, they must be pulled together. But the point at which the overtone series line up, leaves the notes sounding hopelessly out of tune in any melodic context. The farther apart the octaves are, the more acute the problem. This is the reason why chords built on a wide tessitura are particularly problematic to tune. Equal temperament is a compromise system that theoretically, leaves both pitches acceptably in (or out of) tune for either context.
To understand harmonic and melodic context as it relates to tuning, one can experiment with any string instrument. The cello reveals the issues most acutely because the relationship of intervals in the lower range is broader and the pitch issues are more clearly audible. If you play an F natural on the D string of the cello against the open A string, your ear will naturally perceive the basis of an F major triad. This will cause you to place the F on the high side, in order to leave the third of the chord, in this case the open A string, sounding sweet and low, where the overtone series line up and 'ring' in a major chord. That same F rendered against the open G string and perceived as a seventh in a G7 chord will sound hopelessly sharp. A lower placement of the F will be necessary to arrive at a lined up set of overtones in this context, and achieve the ringing sound of the lowered seventh in the G7 chord. The same F, as the third degree in a melodic passage in D flat major, will once again sound sweeter on the high side, as long as it doesnt have to resonate against the D flat major triad in the same register. The reality that the third degree of the scale sounds more satisfying higher in a melodic context, and sweeter lower in a harmonic context is a problem with which all non fixed-pitch instrumentalists must contend.
You can carry out the same experiment with a group of recorder players. Have them play the different 'pairs' or 'triads' of notes and listen to the way the chords change their colour as the fifths or thirds are flattened or sharpened. The fifths can be set first from a fixed-pitch instrument like a piano or by using an electronic tuner.
Arguably, intonation in a recorder quartet raises some of the most problematic tuning issues in music. Modern instrumental training generally doesnt stress an understanding of temperament, octave displacement, and harmonic and melodic contexts for tuning. This deficiency in training leaves many recorder players ill equipped for sorting out the issues of tuning in a recorder quartet. The nature of the repertoire, and the possibility of a totally blended sonority, along with the high standards continually being set by active rehearsing groups, all conspire to highlight intonation deficiencies for groups that fail to meet the highest standards. The attainment of a high standard for intonation in any wind group is a labour intensive project. It requires that the members spend enough rehearsal time to become familiar with the harmonic role each line serves in a chord, and it demands that the members agree on a shared concept for intonation and pitch temperament in the group.
How to Tune Chords
All unisons and octaves to the fundamental or tonic of the chord should be tuned together. Each player should be added sequentially from the lowest to the highest. Because octaves are an easily heard ratio of 1:2 the sound of perfect octaves between two players is not as subjective as that of the major third or minor third.
Once the octaves and unisons are agreed, attention should be turned to adding the fifth or dominant of the chord. Using the lowest tonic as a reference, have the players playing the fifth, play sequentially against the sustained tonic, introduce unisons and then octaves to the dominant as the music requires.
Once the tonics and dominants have been set the thirds can be added. Again, do this one player at a time. In the overtones series the major third is the fifth partial and to sound "consonant" or without beats it must deviate 16 cents flat from the evenly tempered scale. Let them hear how with a major third the chords sounds sweeter harmonically if the third is played flatter, and if a minor third, how the chords sounds sweeter with the third played sharper. Remember that only the third should be tempered, that is sharpened or flattened; the tonic and dominant must not be narrowed or widened. Except in larger groups, where parts may be doubled, it is rare to find thirds in more than one part so one only sets the note in one part.
Once the tonics, dominants and thirds are set you can add other notes, sevenths, elevenths, etc.
As well as tuning individual chords you will need to learn how to tune sequences of chords. Remember that sequences sound more 'settled' if notes common to a pair of sequential chords, let us call them I and II, do not change their pitch. This requirement is vital. After working on the individual chords, also play the sequence repeatedly, i.e. I, II, I, II, I, II, I, II and so on ...
Try to get players to work efficiently. It is all too easy to run out of breath when sustaining long notes and with the fear of this comes a tendency to blow less hard to extend capacity. Of course, blowing softly leads to a flatness of pitch. Try to get each player to add their note to the chord at a rate of one note every few seconds, say at a signal from someone sitting outside the ensemble who is going to judge whether the intonation is adequate or not.
Good intonation involves 'hearing' the chord before playing it. The exercise we have described above is one way of learning how to hear chords. Knowing where one is in a chord comes from looking at the score, from playing all the parts (not just the one allocated by the group leader) and from listening with the brain and not just with the ears.
If you want to become proficient at good intonation, work in a dry acoustic, say a room with carpets and hanging drapes. You will be able to hear everything in such surroundings and the music will not have the obscuring gloss that 'live' acoustics tend to add.