Harlequin Brass Ensemble
University of Huddersfield, Queensgate, University of Huddersfield, Huddersfield HD1 3DH.
Sunday 2nd June 2013
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The picture is of the movers and shakers in Scotland. Charlie Maynes is far right and Brian Duguid is 3rd from the right.
After a recent concert by the Phoenix Concert Band, a trusted listener commented on the massive improvement in the intonation from past performances. It was pleasing to hear and I had been aware of the improvement over a period of a couple of years. He asked me what I had done to improve the tuning and I told him, very simply, “Nothing!”
It was a bit of a flippant answer, perhaps not entirely truthful but I have been constantly haunted through the years as a conductor, adjudicator and composer by the issue of tuning. I have read about, experimented with, or seen demonstrations of, a huge variety of strategies to improve intonation. None of them actually work! (Aaaah a controversial, sweeping statement, typical of these ridiculous articles; or a generalisation based simply on my own experiences, or a statement designed to provoke further argument…. You decide!)
I was a great promoter of the Paynter tuning and warm-up method in the 80s. I worked with it for some time and it did promote an awareness of the issue within the bands. It did not really help the overall problems with tuning. In fact, it subliminally convinced the players that someone else, or something else was responsible for the intonation and it will magically improve when the band and conductor have kept up the programme.
Of course the players do need the best opportunity to get the instruments to a “ball-park” level of parity but we all know that without constant and habitual attention, the tuning will go awry.
The wind contingent in Scotland are always very up to speed with what is going on. Brian Duguid*, Charlie Maynes and the other motivators have always been in close contact with the likes of Frank Battisti and the American University Band Directors. When I first went up to take the National Youth Wind Ensemble in Scotland they were doing a 15 minute warm-up/tune-up session at the start of each full rehearsal. I even got the band singing and improvising to focus them on their aural skills. Did it help? Well, not really. The players had to learn a lot of difficult pieces and they did their best but the intonation was still somewhat of a hit and miss affair.
A few years later I made a decision with the course tutors; a very professional and committed team, to tune with an A from the oboe at the beginning of each session then leave the rest to the players. I stressed to the group that tuning was clearly in their control, not mine. The tutors of course gave good advice on tuning and technical matters during sectional rehearsals. The players were always aware that the intonation was a responsibility and a constant challenge. This resulted, not in perfect intonation, but in a better, more consistent level of tuning throughout the group.
With the Phoenix Band the tuning was quite awful when I took over and my predecessors had spent long periods of rehearsal tinkering with it, again giving the impression that along with all other aspects of the performance, it would be administrated by the conductor. It was clearly not working so am I going to try to claim that just leaving it alone will solve the problem? Not exactly! There are other factors to this ethos, which are extremely important.
Firstly, players do not want to be out of tune but they do have their limitations. In a true community group like Phoenix there will be a wide range of abilities and they must all have a chance of buying in to this philosophy. To give them this chance the music needs to be rehearsed to a point where they can achieve the space in the soundscape to be able to hear their own tuning and that of the other players. This brings in balance, finding the space in the score, articulation, phrasing and intelligent choices of dynamic levels by the sections. In order to achieve success in these areas the group needs to be rehearsed in a particular way. By enabling the players in this way, they end up having the time to think more about the subtle matters of tuning and it will improve.
I have raised the issue of creating space in the score and this is a huge one in wind music. It deserves a more detailed discussion than this, so there will be a separate article appearing here soon. For now, just to simplify it, it is about creating space through disciplined phrasing, articulation and note ending. It is about judging balance and carefully keeping the parts in their context. In other words, prioritising constantly what is the most vital element of the score and knowing when to allow other sections to dominate.
Long notes should be eased into the background, heavily doubled sections can be played without forcing, and the marking “f” should simply be considered as normal comfortable blowing; not forcing an unnecessary loudness.
It is also about group- articulation. This is vital and any good choral society will work constantly to articulate their vowels and consonants so well that the audience can discern the text through the web of orchestral and choral textures, not to mention the acoustics of the cathedrals and concert halls. Our lyrics are the articulation marked in the score. They dictate the story we tell. We need to make a policy of prioritising the sections desire to speak in one voice. It is made more difficult by the differing methods of note production on our instruments so it is firstly developed section by section. It can then be incorporated into the full orchestra to unify and galvanise the ensemble.
When this begins to work, and again the group must buy into it and take a pride in it, the space will begin to appear and the intonation WILL improve.
The careful rewarding of good practice in these areas is a reasonable ethos for a conductor to improve his/her group. Rewarding the good and not simply pointing out the matters, which are not correct, will engender a positive, enabling atmosphere which is good for music making.
The absence of wrong does not mean it’s right!
I will discuss that statement in an other article and there will be more to come on the subject of tuning.
* There are more references to Brian elsewhere on the site.
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