Not Just for Intonation Anymore….

By Mark Van Cleave
©2014 MVC

Quartz tuners are amazing little devises!  They bring intonation to the masses in a compact and affordable manner. Have they actually improved the intonation of musicians?  Well, that is for another time… :)

Not only do they show you your pitch, but they also can show you what your chops and airstream are doing while playing.  When I first got one of these (decades age), I used it to improve my intonation, or so I thought.  At first it was just a digital readout of what I was playing.  I had to develop a strategy for using the tuner to actually help my intonation and not just report back to me how badly out of tune I really was.

When playing, I would first set my tuning slide to the SWEET SPOT…where I KNEW it was in tune.  Funny how this was SWEET SPOT was only occasionally in tune.  After using the tuner for a while, I found that the best way for me to zero in on A440 was to NOT look at the tuner so much. 

Only looking at the tuner at the end of a phrase or after a few seconds of playing and after I thought/felt that I was in the center of the sound and the horn’s tuned pitch.  If I was not locking in with the tuner, I would only notice how OFF I was and in what direction (sharp or flat).  After two or three of these, I would be able to see a pattern developing… a little flat or sharp etc.  At that point I would make the decision to adjust my tuning slide.  Then I would start looking for a trend at the new tuning slide setting.  At some point, I would be satisfied that further adjustment would be futile and only rarely check back at the tuner (unless I heard something that was out of tune again).

After I was developing intonation improvements that I could actually USE, I noticed another thing that the tuner was showing me.  It was showing me that while holding a STEADY pitch, that it was in fact FAR from steady.  The needle would move around up and down in an almost uncontrolled manner… despite my attempt to LOCK the pitch and not move it.  There were trends here as well... when I played louder or softer the needle would move in consistent directions.

This unsteadiness was a byproduct of my airstream and my chops.  One of the two or both were not under control. So now, I started using the tuner to monitor the steadiness of my air and chops… trying to keep the needle as still as possible by keeping all of the trumpet playing machine steady and relaxed.

For me, it was more beneficial to maintain a steady needle than to worry about pitch so much.  Pitch is important and thus, I would still monitor pitch trends and adjust occasionally, but my MAIN focus was on the steadiness of the needle.  This little tuning devise was now being used as a air velocity meter.

The air velocity is what determines lip vibration speed or pitch.  Maintaining a steady velocity at all volume levels and in all registers is critical when developing an efficient and balanced trumpet playing machine.

Practicing long tones with the tuner while crescendoing and decrescendoing is a really great way to develop a balanced embouchure.  As you crescendo, the airstream increases (getting louder), the aperture must open to maintain the pitch (air velocity).  As you decrescendo, the airstream decreases (getting softer) the aperture must get smaller to maintain the pitch (air velocity). No matter where the tuner’s pitch is reading, your MAIN concern is with not moving the needle as you crescendo and decrescendo.  Learning to play at all volume levels in all registers without over-correcting the airstream (blowing too hard) or over-adjusting the chops is the key!

Practicing in this manner REALLY helped me develop a more balanced machine. The airstream and chops (aperture) started working together much better and my development became much more consistent.

Another important benefit that I realized when practicing with a tuner was the alignment of the embouchure with different registers. What I mean by this is that many players over tighten as they ascend.  They tighten the chops faster than they are ascending.  By the time they are playing the High C, their chops are in a High G position.  This makes it very difficult to get the High G as the chops end up having to adjust into the Double High C position etc.  This is VERY inefficient!

Imagine if you actually could play the High C in the High position! The High G would feel like your old High C etc.  The nice thing about this is that the largest amount of OVER adjustment for most players happens between low C and 2nd line G.  This makes it very easy to practice!

For most players, once the horn is properly tuned to A440, find the low C. Find the IN TUNE low C.  Now slur from that IN TUNE low C to the G in the staff. The sound and volume should not change. At this point, it is VERY common that the G in the staff will be sharp. You see, you are already WAY over-adjusting the embouchure.  Work at keeping the pitch on the G IN TUNE.  What you will find is that when you play in tune, it will actually SOUND flat. Practicing in this way will not only help you to properly align your chops, but it will also help train your ears to actually HEAR A440 pitches.

Once you start to get the G playing in pitch with the tuner, start slurring from low C to G and up to 3rd space C.  Slowly enough to monitor each note with the tuner.  Now you will concentrate on the new top note (C in the staff).  Working to NOT overshoot the pitch.  Practice this over and over again until your chops start to feel the correct setting and your ears start to hear in A440 pitches.

In commercial music and lead trumpet playing, many players TEMPER the scale (hearing/playing the pitch sharper and sharper as they ascend). This is a VERY COMMON habit and one that you need to get control of.  Practicing with a tuner in this manner will certainly help you improve both your chop setting as well as your ears for better more efficient playing as well as more in tune playing.

Keep in mind… these tuners are VERY accurate and thus show you things about your pitch that are sometimes so minor that you can’t really hear them. Pitch is relative and thus, tuners should only be used only as a guide for pitch.  If you are constantly adjusting to match that little devise and not really listening to the group’s intonation, you will probably lose your mind while at the same time driving the musicians around you crazy as well!




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