Teaching students to tune is an area of concern for many music teachers. Students, particularly young ones, often need frequent attention to help them tune correctly. While there may be times that student difficulties tuning are physical, such as an inability to turn a tuning peg on a string instrument, many times the difficulty is that insufficient ear training has been provided, or ineffective methods are taught to students.
Although I played clarinet in elementary, middle, high school, college, and beyond to the present, my ability to not only tune my instrument accurately but also to play in tune and hear intonation continually as I and the ensemble I was in played a musical was not at a proficient level until I learned to use solfege and sing accurately. Learning not only melodic solfege not only improved the accuracy of my singing, but also of my clarinet playing and of my ability to hear chord functions and individual voices within a known chord function as I played. Until then, my conception of playing in tune was matching the pitch of the person next to me who was playing the same part. Using chord functions or ear training to anticipate and know what each note should sound like, whether or not the person next to me was playing it, was a new and revolutionary concept to me. Suddenly, and I mean suddenly, I was playing in tune and enjoying harmony like I never had before. It added a new excitement to my performing musical experience. With a trained ear, tuning became more a matter of anticipation than reaction. While it is true that there will always be reactionary adjustments to intonation, the need for reaction is greatly reduced when pitch can be anticipated. Another way of saying this is that it is unlikely one will hit a target without knowing what the target is. When a players or singers know what pitch they are aiming for, they have a much better chance of hitting it. Ear training is the first and I would argue most important step in teaching someone to play or sing in tune.
With that in mind, the problem with a common method that students are taught to use to tune should become quickly evident. A tuning note is played, and all instruments are tuned to the single pitch given. This is an exercise in matching pitch. Often, a statement to the effect of “continue to listen all the time so that you continue to play in tune” is all the information a student has to go on. In other words, keep matching pitch with someone, and you will be in tune. But with whom should a player match pitch? Should they match pitch with the person next to them, behind them, with the oboist, the bassist? Who is the standard bearer of A = 440 or whatever frequency has been chosen? Leaving the choice of who to match pitch with to each individual students leaves the tuning standard up for grabs, and almost guarantees different sections of the ensemble are tuning to different pitches. The other problem with this strategy is that pitch matching is less effective than tuning by chords and chord functions, but relating one’s pitch to a chord or chord function is completely absent from the pitch matching strategy.
The solution to many tuning problems is found in these two strategies: train all ensemble members in ear training by having them learn and sing exercises and short songs and chorales in solfege. Teach them chord functions, and the voice leading tendencies of each individual part as it goes from one chord to the next. Teach them to sing intervals and to sing transpositions of motifs in different keys. Using singing as part of the warm-up routine is of more value than spending the extra time matching pitch to an oboe or clarinet. The ear training gained by singing with solfege will go a long way in improving everyone’s playing intonation. Secondly, teach students to always tune to the instrument that is one octave lower than theirs. This means the bass voices (bass, tuba, baritone sax, bass clarinet, etc.) begin the tuning by matching pitch with the tuning note. When these players have tuned the unison, then the tenor voices are added (cellos, tenor sax, baritone horn, etc.). When the tenor and bass voices are playing a unison that is in tune, the alto voices are added, and then the soprano voices. The tuning for the ensemble always starts with the lowest instrument or voice, and the lowest instrument or voice remains the standard bearer. When this procedure is followed, the harmonics throughout the ensemble remain in tune, resulting in a rich full sound that is simply not possible with other methods of tuning, especially those that rely on unison pitch matching.
Students will still need to overcome physical difficulties to successfully play in tune. Embouchures must be set correctly, posture and breath management must be correct, and tuning pegs, slides, joints, an barrels will still need to be manipulated, sometimes by little hands that can barely grasp them. But students will be able to anticipate the right tuning, and their ear will lead them to it as they play when effective ear training and octave tuning methods are taught and employed.