Dynamics and Intonation, part 2

In my most recent blog post I addressed Dynamics. Here’s the other half of the equation – Intonation, which is learning to play in tune. This is intended for the flute student that is new to learning about intonation.

Start by getting a tuner or tuner app. Turn it on and calibrate it to A=440. Tune your middle and lower register As and middle D. The goal is to have the needle vertical so the green light is on. Remember to play with a consistent air stream for each note. If your air is different, for example, playing soft for one tuning note and loud for another, you won’t match the intonation with the different octaves.

If you are sharp, meaning it is leaning towards the right, then pull your headjoint out a little. Here’s a way to remember. If you step on a tack – or a pin, it is sharp and you want to pull it out. (Do people even use thumb tacks anymore??) If you are flat, meaning it is leaning towards the left, then it’s the opposite, push your headjoint in slightly.

Next, practice harmonics. Finger a note in the low register, then overblow to get different pitches. You do this by changing the lip opening, air speed, and angle of the air.

Try this exercise. Play low G, middle G, then overblow to get the pitch high D. Then switch to the “true” high D fingering and try to keep the pitch the same. Play the

harmonic high D again and try to keep the pitch consistent. Do this harmonic exercise on different low register notes.

Side note regarding harmonics: If you haven’t played harmonics before, start by playing a low register note, then play the octave higher (keep the same low fingering, which happens to be the correct fingering for many of the middle register notes) then a 5th above then another octave higher, the 3rd, 5th, and 7th higher. Usually it is difficult to get all of those harmonics on one pitch unless you are on one of the lowest notes. The most productive harmonic exercise is to focus on only 3 or 4 pitches and don’t worry if you can’t get the second octave, 3rd, 5th or 7th!

Now play a one octave scale in whole notes while watching the tuner – the middle register C scale or an F scale is a good place to start. Make sure the needle stays green or vertical for each note. Then play another one octave scale slowly in whole notes, watching the tuner while striving to keep your airstream (and thus, pitch) consistent.

In general, the low register will be flat and the high register will be sharp unless you learn to adjust your lips and air, etc. Certain notes also have certain tendencies. For example, 2nd octave C# always has a tendency to be too sharp. Even certain flutes have certain tendencies. For example, high D might be flat on your flute, but not on another make and/or model.

But, we can’t blame our instrument. We have to learn to adjust. Sometimes students insist that there is something wrong with their flute because it is always sharp whenever they play in the high register or always flat if playing in the low register. Occasionally there might be something wrong with your flute, but chances are you are the one that needs to learn to adjust so the high register isn’t too sharp and the low register isn’t too flat.

Phrase endings are another place where the natural tendency is to be flat. Learn to get in the habit of tapering phrase endings by bringing the lips forward, pucker more, roll the flute out, or move the end of the flute forward while puckering your lips. This will help bring the pitch up as you are running out of breath. Soon you’ll be in the habit of always tapering a phrase ending.

Experiment with these exercises as they are a good place to start learning how to play the flute in tune. After you’ve played some of these, go back and try the dynamic exercise from last week with a tuner and use these new skills to keep your pitch in tune as you gradually play softer or louder.

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