Skip to main content

Seeing Intonation

When you play notes that are close together, playing in tune is not that hard.  You don't have to change a lot - a finger or two, a minuscule difference in voicing with your air or embouchure.  You can pretty much do it mechanically, without thinking.  When the interval you're going for gets bigger, though, more is required.  On the oboe you really have to think about what your mouth and your air are doing.  If you jump up into the upper register everything needs to be more supported and you have to roll in on the reed- not too much, but just exactly enough - and blow more - not too much, but just exactly enough - and resonate a different part of your head to truly get the note you want.

In the Cimarosa Concerto, which two of my students were just working on for our year-end recital, there's a passage that repeatedly leaps the octave from middle C to high C.  The fingerings are easy but those two notes are both terrifying ones to try to play in tune.  Both have extremely short fingerings, vibrating only a few inches of the wood of the oboe.  Both are VERY flexible, such that a tiny amount of embouchure motion can easily make them very sharp or very flat.  Normally, my students slur to  the high note flat, then immediately correct to be in tune, because they have great ears.

That's not the way to really solve the problem, though, is it?  In the context of a long note, you can hit it too flat, correct it quickly, and spend lots of lovely time playing it in tune.  But if the note is short, as it is in the Cimarosa, and you try that, the correction time itself becomes a much higher percentage of the note and we as an audience become aware of the effort.  And unimpressed with the oboist.

The way to solve the problem in your practice room is to NOT adjust the bad intonation.  Make the leap, place the note where you think it goes, and just sit there.  Analyze whether you are too high or too low, and by how much.  Then go back and try again.  Predict where you want the note to land, go there, and sit on it so you can see if you are right or wrong.  Once you have the feel of the interval, start making the leap faster and faster, but unless you are actually in performance DON'T adjust a bad interval, redo it so it's right.  It's the interval you need to practice, not the correction.  No one wants to hear the correction.

I attended a group cello recital last weekend.  Full disclosure: my daughter PERFORMED in her FIRST EVER cello recital last weekend, and knocked it out of the park with Hot Cross Buns on her 16th size cello. Played the whole thing through without stopping.  Took a bow.  Was visibly proud, as was I.

In other words, I was 100% prepared to love everything about the hour and a half of student performances, and I did.  It's scary to perform in public, but no one cried or ran away and piece after piece went perfectly nicely and left everyone smiling.

It's interesting, though - when you watch student players you begin to realize what's hard about the instrument.  The difficulties that professional players don't let you see.  What I really noticed was shifting and intonation - because it's exactly the same thing I'd been working on with my own students.  It's just much more visible on the cello.

To make a big leap upward on the cello you need to move your entire hand and finger position to a different place on the fingerboard, without any frets or keys or buttons to guide you.  You just have to know, on this expanse of wood and string, precisely where to go, and, unsurprisingly, many of the students we heard did not.  It takes a ton of practice and experience to hit the notes accurately, especially in a performance situation when nerves come into play.

The students with the best ears corrected themselves right away.  They'd hit the note out of tune, and immediately wiggle their finger around until it sounded right, and then keep moving through their piece.  Exactly what they SHOULD do in performance.  Perfect manners.

But not the way, ultimately, to solve their intonation problem.

I pointed this out to one of my oboists, who was attending, and watched his eyes widen as the problem he'd invisibly been fighting in his mouth became visible, and apparent.  It's nice to be able to SEE your way through the problem you've been working on.


  1. I am always impressed by your posts Jennet. Every time you write about learning anything musical I feel very pleased that I am learning something new. You have an exceptional ability to state the problems that face your students with amazing clarity and explain them in a way that is easy to understand. Your suggestion of “not too much” is so universally valid, not only in music, but in other human activities as well. It reminded of some ancient graffiti on the walls of the temple of Apollo in Delphi.(Along with other admonitions).Delighted, really that Zoe has inherited your talents and stage presence. I hope I can hear her when she begins to attack more complicated scores.
    I suppose that both wind and string instruments face the same problem of achieving correct intonation in various degrees. I am curious, do any students attempt to find the right note, or try to camouflage it by way of glissando?
    Thanks for writing.

  2. This is a very interesting and useful observation. When string players shift from position to position (successfully) they move the hand to the correct "floor" and drop down the necessary finger. It is kind of like the way a manual elevator measures its distance, and then opens the door. Through years of practicing the ear "hears" that distance. It is, ultimately, easier than playing in tune on a wind instrument. Violinists have ways of developing hand positions that can be almost foolproof (foolproof only if you listen intently and correct instantly, when necessary). A correction on a string instrument can be more easily masked than on a wind instrument in performance. Having the image of something absolute to begin with does put you ahead of the game.

  3. Thank you for sharing your ideas, they are always so useful. I'm filing this away to share with my young oboist when she gets to that step.

  4. Dimitri, you are absolutely right that glissando is the student's friend and the teacher's bane when it comes to intonation. That's really the effect I'm talking about when I mention the "correction"- the student will hit the note flat and then scoop until they get to the right place. On a short note this doesn't work at all, as I mentioned - but on long notes it can be pretty subtle and can become a bad habit unless we catch it and correct.

  5. Elaine, I would never have assumed that intonation was easier on a string instrument. I would have thought that having "buttons" to get you into the right neighborhood would be more helpful than that expanse of unmarked wood... Thanks as always for commenting!


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Discouraging Words

I can remember at least two old cranky violinists coming to talk to young me about NOT going into music.  There was a session, for example, during a Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra retreat in which a real RPO professional (who was probably 47 but whom I remember as ancient) told us that, statistically, no one who graduates from music school wins auditions for jobs because there are only like 4 jobs out there in the world and 7000 hotshots coming into the job market every week. 

Quit NOW. 

I may have misremembered the details of this speech, but I remember the emotional jolt.  It was designed to discourage.

Last weekend I was presenting at a Double Reed Festival, and heard some oboists grumbling about another presenter who had evidently given something of the same talk to a roomful of masterclass attendees and participants.  High school students and cheerful adult amateurs.

And look, there's an element of truth to this.  Classical music is not a growing field, and it is leg…

Shaq and the Oboe

Here’s my FAVORITE thing about that Shaquille O'Neal video everyone's sharing this week - it’s how HAPPY he is playing this silly game and how little he CARES what the oboe actually SOUNDS LIKE or how to play it. 
Almost as if the oboe is not a giant obstacle to overcome.

Instead of focusing on the CRAFT of the instrument, the precise fingerings, the quality of the sound, the finesse of the vibrato - his focus is on DELIVERING the SONG.   It’s on COMMUNICATION, not perfection.

What a LIBERATING concept!

When I am playing my best, I find that I can surpass the STRUGGLE and come to a place where my focus is on communication.   I can sing through the instrument, and I can use that voice to reach out and find someone else.  This is really what being In the Zone means for me - it's when I don’t have to engage with the OBOE and instead can be generous with my VOICE for the audience.

I seek and strive for this Zone all the time - it’s the whole point of practicing! I practice long…

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

We took a vacation this summer.This is not news to anyone in my life - anyone who knows me or especially Steve on Facebook followed along with all of our pictures.We took our travel trailer out to Arizona - via St Louis, Tulsa, Amarillo, Roswell, Santa Fe - and then stayed a week in Clarksdale and Flagstaff and visited some ancient pueblo ruins, Sedona, Jerome, the Lowell Observatory, the Grand Canyon.We swam in swimming pools, lakes, and icy mountain streams.We hiked.Eventually we came home again, via Albuquerque, Amarillo, Tulsa, and St Louis. (our inventiveness had somewhat worn out).After a week at home we took another trip, and drove to Vermont via western NY and the Adirondack Park (stayed an extra day to hike a mountain), lived four days in East Franklin VT, and came home via Catskill and eastern Ohio.
This vacation felt different from all of our previous ones.In the 21 years we’ve been married, I can name only one - maybe two trips we ever took that were not For Work or For …