Junior High Band
Teaching Tips

Address Intonation Challenges

Of all the basic musicianship skills, intonation seems to be the hardest for young musicians to master. This is probably because there are so many things that affect the pitch of each instrument, such as temperature, volume, embouchure, instrument length, fingerings, and so forth. Here are some tips to teaching intonation.

Temperature -- Remember that pitch follows mercury. If it's cold, the mercury is low in the thermometer and the instruments will be flat. If it's hot, the mercury is high in the thermometer and the instruments will be sharp. The larger the instrument the more it is affected by the temperature. This is one reason why warming up is so important.

I remember times when the band sounded great in the warm-up before a concert but the auditorium was so hot it completely destroyed our intonation. A similar thing happened at a district solo and small ensembles festival. One of the best flute trios I ever had couldn't find a place to warm up, so they warmed up outside. It was snowing. Although they had played the piece perfectly many times, the performance at the festival was so out of tune it was hard to listen to.

Volume -- There is a tendency for reed instruments to go sharp when they are played softly. They also tend to go flat when played loudly. Unfortunately, the opposite is true of the brass and flutes. They tend to go flat when played softly and sharp when played loudly. A band that sounds good playing mezzo forte will be very out of tune playing fortissimo or pianissimo if they don't make the proper tuning adjustments.

Embouchure -- Slight changes in embouchure tension can make significant changes in pitch. Generally, the brass and reed instruments tighten to raise the pitch and loosen to lower it. The double reed instruments can also pull the reed out of the mouth slightly to lower the pitch and push the reed in the mouth to raise it. The horns can also adjust the pitch with the right hand. Pushing it farther in the horn lowers the pitch and pulling it out raises it. The flutes blow more across the blowhole to raise the pitch and more into the flute to lower it. Although this can be done by rolling the flute in or out, that also affects hand position. I prefer to keep my hand position the same and change the pitch by raising or lowering my head. Look up to raise the pitch. Look down to lower it.

Instrument Length -- The length of most band instruments can be adjusted. The shorter the instrument, the higher it will play. The musician sets the tuning device (clarinet barrel, flute head joint, saxophone mouthpiece, brass tuning slides, etc.) in a position where the majority of the notes are as close to being in tune as possible. He then humors with his embouchure or uses alternate fingerings for fine tuning.

Alternate Fingerings -- It's impossible to build an instrument that is perfectly in tune. Manufacturers do the best they can and leave the rest to the musician. To help the musician, additional tuning slides and alternate fingerings are provided.

Woodwinds -- Any key or tone hole that is below the note being played can be used as a help key. Closing a hole lowers the pitch. Opening a hole raises the pitch. The closer you get to the note being played the more the help key will affect the pitch.

Brass -- Many brass instruments come with fourth valves and additional tuning slide mechanisms. Some even have compensating valves (additional valves that function as tuning slides.) The fourth valve is an in-tune version of the 1-and-3 fingering. Instead of fingering the note 1-and-3, use only the fourth valve. Instead of using 1-2-and-3, use 2-and-4. All trumpets have third-valve tuning slides. Some also have first-valve tuning slides. C# and D just above middle-C are both very sharp. The third-valve tuning slide needs to be out about an inch on most trumpets for C# to be in tune. It needs to be out about 3/4 inch for D to be in tune. Or, use both the third-valve and first-valve tuning slides and move them both half that far. This problem is so universal that I marvel that fingering charts still say the fingering for D is 1-and-3 and the fingering for C# is 1-2-and-3. D is fingered 1-3-and-third-valve tuning slide. Likewise C# is fingered 1-2-3-and-third-valve tuning slide. When I pointed that out to my beginning trumpets the first week of summer band, three things happened: (1) Our initial sounds were closer to being in tune, (2) The students didn't have to re-learn the fingering later, and (3) They had fun using a different part of the trumpet.

Tuning Chords - - Even if a band could play every individual note in tune, further adjustments would be needed to play chords in tune. I remember an invitational band festival where only the best bands in the state were invited. The band that was touted as the best in the state tuned up by having a concert Bb constantly sounding as it was passed from section to section. After more than ten minutes, the Bb was pretty close to being perfectly in tune. When they started to perform, however, they were no more in tune than any of the other bands.

To tune a major chord, make the following adjustments:

  • Root - No change (do what you would do to stop a strobe on that note)
  • 3rd - Lower it some
  • 5th - Raise it a little

The 7th of a dominant 7th chord needs to be lowered a lot.

The 3rd of a minor chord needs to be raised a little.

To find out how much "a little," "some," and "a lot," are, practice with a strobe. Set the strobe on the root of the chord then play the other chord tones but don't change the strobe. With the strobe set on C and while playing an E you will see light marks moving to the right. Adjust the pitch down enough to stop the light marks - that's "some." When you play a G against a C the light marks will be moving to the left slower. Raise the pitch slightly - that's "a little." Do the same with the lowered 7th and minor 3rd.

Unless you have perfect pitch you probably won't know which chord tone you are playing when performing in a band. Since major chords and dominant 7th chords usually occur more often than minor and diminished chords, the chances are greater that your note will need to be lowered. I usually adjust the pitch down a little and listen to the effect. If it gets better, I guessed right. If it gets worse, I guessed wrong and raise the note instead.

For more information, see the Intonation* slide show from the Slide Shows section.

*Microsoft PowerPoint required.
To download, right click on the link and select "Save target as" (Internet Explorer) or "Save link as" (Firefox / Chrome).

Video Disclaimer

The attached videos are not perfect examples of how each tune should be played. They are recordings of junior high students, some of whom have had their instruments for only a few months. Also, they are not professional recordings. They were taken by band parents using home equipment and naturally focusing on their own children.

I include them for two reasons: (1) To give you an idea of what the arrangements are like, and (2) To illustrate the kind of performance you can expect from your junior high students.