Getting the piccolo in tune with itself is a huge accomplishment, but it’s only the first step to sounding great in the ensemble. Tuning in orchestra or band can be a labyrinth, so here are a few navigational tools to find your pitch.
TUNE DOWN OR ACCROSS?
You’ve likely heard a conductor say, “tune down” at some point in your life. This well-intentioned saying is technically right—the harmony originates in the bass, and we do need to tune in accordance with the harmony. But it can have negative implications when we assume the tuba is the be-all and end-all in establishing pitch, or when we rely exclusively on one group or player, especially one as far away (both physically and sonically) as the tuba or bass. For this reason, I prefer the expression “tune across.” In a strong ensemble, you should be able to ascertain a pretty good sense of the pitch by taking an “average” of the collective pitch center.
It sounds complicated, but we all do it automatically without realizing it, and so does the audience. Rather than zeroing in on one particular player and trying to adhere to his pitch, clinging to every inflection like a magnet, its easier—and surprisingly more effective—to listen for the overall pitch center of the group, and focus your attention on audiating, or hearing the perfect, ideal pitch in your head.
This doesn’t mean completely ignoring the player you need to match if you are playing in unison with someone; take it all in. Remember, you are both hearing the same chord structure and the same orchestral balance. Simply trust that you both calculated the same “average” pitch center as listeners, and you’ll naturally play together. Think of choir or singing duets: the more you try to focus on other singers, the harder it is to sing your own part. It works best when everyone trusts his own inner ear, assuming it’s well trained.
This method should be helpful for all musicians, but it is especially helpful for piccolo and flute players because it helps to counter our inadvertent tendency to lower our pitch when we tune to lower-ranged instruments. It sounds silly, but it’s easy to fall into that trap. We play with a low bassoon and we instinctively think we need to come down to him, when in all likelihood, he might be playing on the sharp side.
We know that flexibility and adaptability are important, but now comes the hard question: How do I “go with the flow” if the current is going in different directions? In other words, if the group is out of tune with itself, how do I, as a lone piccolo player decide which team to join?
The answer is always going to depend on the context, and will require a quick cost/benefit analysis and ultimately, a judgment call. While this may be hard for purists to hear, your decision must take diplomacy, orchestra politics, and the hierarchy into account. Even if you think you are right, the principal flute is your section leader, and you are obligated to follow him if you want to keep your seat.
However, if you are playing a passage in unison with another section or instrument (piccolo and principal oboe play together a lot), it goes without saying that you need to tune to them. If you are in a full tutti section, it’s usually best to go with the loudest unified instrument group, or the first violins, because they are who the audience will hear most prominently, and consequently, from whom they will derive their perception of pitch. The second clarinet might be perfectly “in tune” right behind you, but the audience isn’t hearing that—they’re hearing the trombones, trumpets, first violins, and you, so you’d do well to match them.
CONQUERING YOUR FEAR
Beside having great pitch, the best orchestral piccolo players all have something else in common: they are able to remain calm and collected under pressure. When they play a note that doesn’t quite match, they maintain the integrity of their tone, and refrain from rash, over-adjustments. Remember, everything is smaller on piccolo, so physical corrections aren’t as big as they are on flute. Plus, if we suddenly make a huge correction and (heaven forbid) it’s in the wrong direction, we are only going to bring more unwanted attention to ourselves. Instead, we should calmly test the pitch by moving gradually in the direction we think is right.
Fear also causes bodily tension and embouchure clenching, and unless we want to fall off a high note or blow a raspberry, piccolo players must avoid it at all costs. Maintaining a relaxed embouchure is also essential to producing a beautiful, controlled sound, which is supremely important at all times.
The old adage “you can’t tune a bad tone” is true. Even if our pitch is “perfect,” if our tone is questionable, it will sound like we’re wrong, and it will be difficult for anyone to match us if they can’t blend with us. On the bright side, this also means that if our tone is beautiful, confident, and compelling, our colleagues and audiences will be more likely to accept our pitch as the correct one if there is a discrepancy, and other players will also be more easily able to match and blend to us. Like the Bible says, “love” (or in this case, a lovely tone) “covers a multitude of sins.”
You’ve heard the perennial band joke, “How do you get two piccolos in tune?”
Well, the answer doesn’t necessarily have to be to “shoot one,” as the punchline morbidly suggests.
Admittedly, the piccolo is a humbling, vexatious little beast. We’ve all had our share of less-than-stellar piccolo moments, and unfortunately, those moments are rarely discreet. Not only that, any attempt to disappear into the texture usually results in compounding the original problem. Most likely, the issue was related to pitch and/or tonal control—neither of which get any better by depriving them of breath support, or squashing the sound into submission. We are then left with no choice but to maintain the best sound we can produce, and confront our tuning issues head on.
THE STRUGGLE IS REAL: HIGH NOTES ACTUALLY DO SOUND MORE OUT OF TUNE
I say this not to stroke our delicate egos or to make excuses for piccolo pitch problems, which can admittedly be egregious. It’s just physics, and it’s unforgiving to those of us at the top of the orchestra. The higher the frequency of a sound wave, the more rapid the vibrations—as well as the telltale “beats” of poor intonation. It’s unfair, but when our tuning is off by only a few cents, it can sound more out of tune than a bass or cello section playing 10 or 15 cents out of tune. (Think of it as a trade off; at least we don’t have to buy plane seats for our piccolos.) Practically speaking, this means that even when it sounds like we need to make a huge pitch adjustment, it might just need a slight, incremental change. So the only question is: which way to adjust?
The tuning mistake I hear most frequently with inexperienced piccolo players is their assumption that the high register is always sharp. It could be, but not necessarily. Even seasoned conductors aren’t immune to this common mistake. We hear a screaming high note, out of tune, and we automatically think that it sounds bad because it’s too high. The piccolo also has a bright, piercing tone color, which reinforces this perception of “sharpness.”
Then in the moment, our instincts as players kick in. And unless we play the piccolo a lot, our instincts are typically “flutistic" instincts. Remember, the piccolo is not a miniature flute; it’s an entirely different instrument. As such, we need to treat it with that respect, and establish an independent relationship with it. During this quality time, you’ll discover its pitch tendencies are not only different, but often opposite to those of your flute. (High E-flat, anyone? If it’s anything like mine, it’s sharp on my flute and flat on my piccolo). Every flute and every piccolo is different, each with it’s own strengths, weaknesses, and quirks. There’s no shortcut to simply getting acquainted with your instrument, and finding out exactly where each note sits. During this process, the tuner will be your best friend—but only up to a point.
“BUT THE TUNER SAYS I’M RIGHT!”
I know, it sounds shocking to suggest that hours with a tuner isn’t a panacea for intonation ills. But for great intonation, there’s no substitution for our own two ears (which we should be protecting with musicians’ earplugs every time we practice). While the tuner will definitely get us in the ballpark, the piccolo’s high range is so high that it can actually sound flat when we play it “perfectly” in tune. As listeners, we simply like high notes to be slightly on the upper edge of the pitch. You can test this theory yourself by recording yourself playing along with a a few drone pitches (long tones), and a tuner. Figure out the pitch range of what sounds “in tune.” You might be surprised!
This is not an open invitation to soar into the stratosphere. We are talking about a range of a few cents (or ticks on the tuner), max. We can’t be so high that they make other players sound flat or that we don’t fit into the chords below. It’s a bit like a drummer playing on the “front of the beat” or the “back of the beat.” Both are “in time” but one is slightly driving forward, and the other is slightly laid back. Now translate that to pitch. As a piccolo player, you want to be slightly on the upper edge, not the lower edge.
JUST TEMPERAMENT VS EQUAL TEMPERAMENT
Another tuning phenomenon to consider, which applies to all registers and instrumentalists, is the pitch placement within the context of the harmony. In a nutshell, the equal-temperament tuning system, which also dictates the “correct” pitch of electronic tuners, is imperfect. To facilitate passable tuning of keyboard instruments within all chords, intervals, and key centers, true or just intonation is compromised. In other words, rather than being perfect in only one key but unplayable in all others, equal temperament is kinda just OK in all of them.
Why does this matter? For orchestral or band players, it means that we don’t tune like a piano; we strive to tune each chord to a just temperament. Practically speaking, a fifth of the chord sounds correct (or just) when it is about 2 cents higher than the tuner indicates, and a third sounds correct (just) when it is about 13.7 cents lower than the tuner indicates! Compound that with the variability of collaborative performance, as well as the enigmatic “high notes should be high” phenomenon, and it’s clear that the tuner will not solve all of our problems—in fact, it can be part of the problem if we are following it blindly.
DONT BE THAT GUY
Unless you are principal oboe (which i’m assuming you aren’t if you’ve read this far), whatever you do, don’t be the legalistic, unyielding scold with a tuner strapped to your instrument in rehearsal. If you really must know where the collective pitch is, then fine. But you still have to go with the flow, within reason. One renegade piccolo player is not going to restore “correct” pitch and order to the entire ensemble. Lest you think I’m casting stones here, I’ll fully admit that I’ve absolutely been that guy, and I can tell you from experience, it doesn't fix anything, and nobody likes you.
Now comes the hard question: “but how do I go with the flow, if the current is going in all different directions?”
Find out in my next article, Pesky Piccolo Pitch Problems And How to Remedy Them Part II: Tuning in the Ensemble
TO BE CONTINUED . . .
For a music student, there are few instructions met with more anxiety and resistance than the dreaded, “you need to record yourself.” This attitude has even been echoed even by some Hollywood A-listers, with Adam Driver recently claiming he won’t watch his own performances or even listen to an audio clip of his voice. For most of us, the prospect of listening critically to the sound of our own instrument—a sound we likely have been meticulously and painstakingly crafting for years— is as appealing as staring at our naked bodies in the mirror after a long holiday break from the gym.
I regret to inform you that there’s not a quick fix to either situation. But, there are a few steps you can take to ease this process, and with practice, and a bit of courage, become a recorded practice pro.
1. GET REAL
“It doesn’t do to dwell on dreams, and forget to live” —Albus Dumbledore
It’s easy to indulge our delusions and convince ourselves that we sound like James Galway, or that “I wasn’t the one out of tune in rehearsal; it had to be the clarinet.” It’s much harder to look in the mirror and assess our flaws. But consider this; most of us would never dream of going to work without at least a glance in the mirror. Even more unthinkable would be walking on stage without assessing one’s appearance. Now ask yourself: If I wouldn’t even walk onstage without seeing what I look like, why would I ever play for an audience without hearing what I sound like? If you are anything like me, the answer is likely fear, not confidence. And fear makes us irrational and delusional. It makes us bury our heads in the sand, deny reality, procrastinate, and ultimately, self-sabotage.
Think of American Idol. We’ve all seen a cringe-inducing, overconfident delusional audition. While the exploitation of these unfortunates for entertainment value is another issue worthy of discussion, the responsibility of the quality of the performance ultimately falls on the performer alone.
The key takeaway from these cautionary tales is that in the vast number of cases, I would guess that their failure wasn’t for lack of trying, lack of practice time, or even a lack of “natural talent,” whatever that means. They simply didn’t know where they needed improvement, and because they refused to assess their performance objectively, their practice time was for naught.
While this may be an extreme example, you will still likely be shocked to hear the discrepancy between your perception of your playing while you play, and the actual recorded product! But don’t be afraid—it isn’t always a negative surprise. Sometimes we obsess over details that we think are distractingly audible, only to learn that we’ve entirely missed the forest by getting caught up on a single tree.
The first, and hardest step toward improvement is making the courageous decision to look soberly in the mirror, then objectively identify what needs to be done.
2. DETACH AND ASSESS
“Objectively” is the key word here. As musicians, we tend to wrap a lot of meaning, hopes, dreams, and unfortunately, self-worth into our playing. It’s time to leave that at the door. Once you’re on stage, have at it and pour your heart out, by all means. But in The Woodshed, you’ll need cold blood.
The method that has helps me the most is to literally pretend I’m listening to someone else. It’s easier to listen objectively when the emotional investment is removed. Before you get the wrong idea, this does NOT mean giving yourself permission to tear yourself down. On the contrary, when we assess another person, we tend to be quite a bit kinder. As a rule, if you wouldn’t say something to a student, don’t say it to yourself.
It takes practice making this mental “switch” from insecure struggling musician on one end of the recording to objective, clear-thinking, kind, constructive teacher on the other. At first, this might mean recording in the morning, going about your day, then listening later that day, or even the following day, after you’ve had time to distance yourself from it, and after you’ve forgotten the details of your own impressions of the recording you had while playing. As you get used to hearing yourself, you can save time and assess your playing immediately.
You’ve taken the first step and recorded an etude, an except, or even just a simple scale. (Your short term and long goals will likely determine exactly what type of recording regimen you will follow, but the principles will be the same.) You’ll need a notebook, a pencil, your score, a metronome, and a tuner.
While everyone has their own style, I think the absolute best approach is outlined in Detroit Symphony Orchestra flutist Sharon Sparrow’s book 6 Weeks to Finals. In short, the method involves listening not once to a recording, but at least 3 times: first only for rhythm, then for pitch, then for style and dynamics, taking meticulous notes each time, circling and marking anything that was inaccurate. Then, point by point, you work to correct every issue. This sterile, rational compartmentalization not only helps to methodically isolate the trouble spots; it also keeps you focused on solving one small problem at a time, preventing you from making a broad, sweeping value judgements about the overall performance. That isn’t your place. If you start doing that, you will make it personal, and hurt your own feelings. Notes, rhythm, pitch, articulation, dynamics, and even phrasing (to an extent) are quantifiable components that can be right or wrong, clear or unclear, audible or inaudible, smooth or awkward. Remember, no hard feelings, it’s only an assessment of your technical performance thus far, not an assessment of your intrinsic worth as an artist and certainly not as a human being.
Which brings us to the third rule:
3. RADICALLY ACCEPT
It sounds like a contradiction with rules 1 and 2, but it’s not. Radically accepting yourself and your playing exactly where you are on your musical journey is not only compatible with objective criticism and commitment to development; it is absolutely imperative. If you measure yourself against an imaginary ideal of perfection, you will never measure up, and that is OK. Give yourself that grace. The fact that you strived for at all is a tremendous accomplishment, and you are all the better because of it. But even more importantly, your self worth and identity are not determined by measures of musical skill, perceptions of success, or even artistic greatness. You have infinite inherent value as a person that cannot be increased or decreased by winning or losing an audition. While obviously those events do have consequences, they do not reflect upon your self worth— that is something that is never at stake.
I’ve found that Rule 3 is easier to adhere to with the help of Rule 4:
4. APPROACH EVERY PRACTICE SESSION WITH GRATITUDE
It takes courage and radical acceptance to see or hear ourselves as we truly are, pitch problems and all. But that also means seeing and appreciating our real growth, and appreciating the work, support, and encouragement that got us to that point. Rather than asking in frustration, “why can’t I play this yet?” Try this: “This piece is challenging me; what steps did I take to overcome my last challenge, and how did that make me even better?” Every challenge is an opportunity for growth. And every day with a flute in our hands is a day we are blessed with the opportunity to make music.
My review of Saturday's Philharmonic concert was published today in NewsOK. I'll admit, I wanted to be at a different concert this week (my husband's Rach 2 performance with the OCU Orchestra was the same night), so I wasn't ecstatic to be there. Was also the night of the MSU Final Four game, so I was checking the score between numbers. The programming didn't help either, as I explain in the column. But audience-fatigue aside, I was honestly very impressed with the Phil and with the pianist. Check out my thoughts about it at the link below!
Posting a bit late, (review was published 3/21), but here are my thoughts on the Phil's concert featuring Schubert "Great" Symphony, and Rach 2, for those interested (link below). Orchestra sounded great, and I loved the Schubert--more than I expected to, honestly. Didn't love the pianist, but I might be a bit biased. ;)
Sergio and I are so excited to perform our lecture recital, "Weber in the Flutist's Imagination," at the Oklahoma Flute Society "Flute Fair" this weekend! We will be playing Kuhlau's "Euryanthe" Variations and Taffanel's Fantasy on "Der Freischutz" bright and early Saturday morning at 9:30AM in Room 109 in Catlett at the University of Oklahoma. The lecture portion will discuss each composers' take on Weber and Music Drama. Hope you can make it! (500 W Boyd St. Norman, OK, Saturday 3/9/19 @ 9:30AM)
NewsOK has whittled down our max length. I've always been a wordy writer, so economy is a much-needed exercise for me. However, this one was particularly challenging, given my mixed feelings and my desire to be completely honest. Keep in mind that I love this orchestra, so any criticism is in good faith and intended to be constructive. I want to see the leadership make choices that serve the orchestra and its patrons well, and since I'm in a position to offer suggestions, I will.
And if you think I'm too harsh, I'm a marshmallow compared with my late, great predecessor, Rick Rogers. :)
Review: OKC Phil show featured string of hits, misses
Published: Thu, January 31, 2019 5:00 AM
Led by Alexander Mickelthwate, Saturday's Oklahoma City Philharmonic program “Independent Creativity” was an inconsistent hodgepodge, albeit an enjoyable and intriguing one.
"Narrative and Allusion in Friedrich Kuhlau's Introduction and Variations on Euryanthe for Flute and Piano, Op. 63."
My dissertation examines the popular showpiece in relationship to the Music Drama that inspired it, uncovering a wealth of allusions and tonal symbolism. In my own performance, I've found that exploring Kuhlau's model (Weber's Euryanthe) has profoundly influenced the way I approach the piece. My research unearths the referential web of character-based motives woven throughout Kuhlau's work, without dictating any particular artistic interpretation to the performer. I leave the decision-making to the artist, because that's the fun part! Enjoy!
As part of the Noontime Concert series at the Fred Jones Art Museum on the Norman campus of the University of Oklahoma, I will be performing alongside Dr. Paula Conlon, and Dr. Christina Giacona, featuring traditional and original compositions on the Native American Plains flute. This concert is free of charge, and will take place at 12:00 Noon on Tuesday November 15th!