How many of you have allergies? It seems, in today’s world, most of the population has some sort of allergy. Perhaps this is a strange way to start out a blog on intonation…or perhaps not. If you have several allergies or severe allergies, you have likely gone to an allergist and been poked in the back with different allergens to see if you react. This is necessary to see which allergies need to be treated. This is akin to testing our flutes to see which notes “react” poorly. It’s also important to note that our intonation is a result of our instrument’s natural tendencies and our natural tendencies. An instrument cannot be solely blamed for bad intonation, but an instrument with better intonation will make our jobs easier.
This exercise is the bonding process for a flutist and their instrument. In order to play with good intonation, you first need to know what you’re up against. I use an intonation chart in tandem with the app RTTA Tuner. If you’re unfamiliar with this, RTTA stands for “real time tuning analysis”. The upside to working with this app is that when you stop sounding a note, the app retains the pitch of the note as you left it. This allows you to accurately see what your intonation on that note was after you stop playing the note. It’s difficult to get an exact reading of your pitch on most other tuners.
To put this exercise to work:
You can do this exercise as often as you like, but I would recommend completing no less than one chart per week. Refer to the most recent chart when you are completing a new chart, so you can anticipate problems. This exercise will not only help you to predict possible intonation problems, but it will also help refine your hearing. You will eventually be able to distinguish changes in intonation more precisely. This is the progress one of my students made over the course of four weeks.
1st: Top Left
2nd: Bottom Left
3rd: Top Right
4th: Bottom Right
Sorry for the shadow....
So, for a while, I’ve been preaching to my students about how they need to work on their intonation if they want to lead happy and healthy lives as musicians…especially, if they want to play well with others. Most of them have a decent ear, but I want the best for them and the people listening to them! Thankfully, most of them are overachievers (to my delight), and they have jumped on board to be my guinea pigs. Over the past few years, I’ve been trialing ways to develop an ear for good pitch, and I really think this begins with having a good ear for tone.
One of the first things my students work on is developing a good, strong tone. First, it’s all about the right balance of air speed, quantity and direction. When these three aspects of a flutist’s playing are working together, paired with a well-formed, small aperture between the lips, most flutists can obtain a beautiful, rich sound. If, after this, the tone is still not what it should be, there are other things to consider: the tongue placement, vowel shape of the mouth, and tension (or lack thereof) in the embouchure all affect the sound. The most valuable tool a young flutist can have when working on tone is a concept of a good tone. Modeling good tone for your students or playing recordings of professional flutists with good, albeit different, tones are both great ways to introduce the possibilities to students.
After my students work to develop their concept of a good tone, they work on making that tone as homogenous as possible throughout the entire range of the flute. Moyse’s De la Sonorite is my go-to for this. The first series of exercises in the book lends itself to comparing tone from note to note. As the student descends from B above the staff to low C or B, I have them take notes about which notes they like really well versus which notes they like the least.
I then have them work from note to note, trying to match their best tone in an attempt to fix any notes that they don't like. The exercise becomes more interesting if you can get the student to assign different descriptors to the different kinds of tone. Some notes might be described as heroic, wispy, bright, sweet, etc. Other students could use colors to describe the tone quality of certain notes. The point of this extension of the exercise is open up young flutists’ minds to the possibility of intentionally playing with different kinds of tone.
This first step to developing a better sense of tone and intonation will take longer for some and shorter for others. Be patient, and take your time with this step. Move on when you can play with a reasonably consistent tone. Revisit this exercise from time to time. You will notice that with each revisitation, the exercise will become naturally easier, and the tone smoother.
To put this exercise to work: