So much of intonation is dependent upon your ability to hear discrete differences in your sound as you play. Recording yourself is an invaluable tool for improving intonation and I recommend a high quality digital recording device – here’s one that won’t break the bank but provides nice digital sound quality: Tascam digital recorder. Be brutally honest when you listen back to recordings of yourself – is it really in tune or just in the ball park?
You must own a tuner to improve intonation. If you don’t own one, stop reading now and go buy one. Don’t worry – we’ll still be here when you get back! You can get a tuner as an app for your iPhone or you can buy a hand-held tuner for very little money, considering its importance to your improvement.
Here is a video tutorial on how to use a tuner to improve your trombone intonation:
Tiny deviations in where you place your slide matter to your intonation. I call your ability to discern these tiny deviations your “Slide Sensitivity” and those with excellent slide sensitivity have a better chance of having exquisite intonation than those who don’t. You can cultivate slide sensitivity by following these suggestions:
1. Lube up your slide so it’s always super smooth. I recommend Slide-O-Mix.
2. Record yourself every day using a high quality digital recording device (see above for a recommendation).
3. When you listen back to yourself, be brutally honest. Intonation is not a matter of opinion; it’s either IN TUNE or it’s not!
4. To a trombonist, how a note is approached matters. If you are playing in the key of C major, for example, are you always flat when coming in to second position to play an E-natural? This is just one of literally hundreds of possible habitual movement patterns that define your intonation. You may have bad habits you don’t even know about and to improve intonation, you must uncover them and fix them.
Here’s a great way to do this: Consider the following phrase:
Try playing this phrase at about quarter = 92. Once you learn the notes, put a tuner on your music stand and turn it on. Now play the phrase again, adding a fermata as indicated. When you reach the fermata, hold the note and look at the tuner:
This will tell you if you have a habit of being sharp or flat in this particular context. It doesn’t mean, however, that all of your A-naturals are out of tune; in a different key they might be perfectly fine.
The point is to acknowledge the idea that we have certain intonation tendencies which are key-related. Figure out what your tendencies are and you are on your way to improving intonation.
5. It’s harder to play fast notes in tune than slow ones. If you are really struggling with intonation, start by tuning slow notes and progress to tuning faster ones. Don’t let yourself off the hook – don’t speed up until you are genuinely in tune.
6. Play duets with someone who plays better in tune than you do. Your teacher or someone with more experience than you are good candidates. This person does not have to be a trombone player.
Here’s an example of this point. This sounds file features me playing a Long Tone Duet with one of my students:
7. It’s easier to play in tune with another trombonist than with a piano. Again, if you are struggling with intonation, start by tuning with another trombone player and progress to playing with piano. By the way, many students only play with piano once or twice a year; not nearly enough to be good at it, but this is the arrangement you are graded on for your jury in college (!) Practice with your accompanist regularly if you want to play in tune with piano.
8. Pianos are tuned using equal temperament and trombonists are accustomed to playing in just intonation. Equal temperament means all the pitches are tuned to be 100 cents apart. (A cent is 1/100 of a half step.) So pianos play every key equally tempered – no adjustments are possible because it is a fixed pitch instrument.
Trombones and other wind and string instruments can adjust the pitch according to the context and in ensembles we do this (or SHOULD do it) all the time. In just intonation, we bring the major thirds down by 14 cents in order to sound in tune; fifths get raised 2 cents and minor thirds get raised 16 cents.
Here are some sounds files of trombone drones (tromdrones?!) on particular notes. Each sound file is about 2 minutes long. You can use them in a lot of different ways:
1. Play the scale with the drone, tuning each note
2. Play intervals with the drone to learn how to tune them
3. Play phrases which include the drone note, stopping when you reach the drone note. This will help you understand your intonation tendency in context.
4. Play with these exercises – Drone Drills. Download the PDF:
The drone drills are divided into keys. Print out the PDF and play each key with the following drones. Consider routing your computer sound through big speakers so you can easily hear the drone. Alternatively, play the drone through headphones or ear buds. In any event, play the drills softly so you can really hear how you are tuning with the drones.
The passage above comes from Flow Studies; a book originally designed to help you with phrasing. It turns out to be quite useful in working on intonation as well…
Flow Studies is a companion book to The Breathing Book. In Flow Studies, players are encouraged to improve their phrasing by playing each phrase in one breath, reflecting the crescendo and diminuendo markings. Flow Studies is divided into Slow, Medium and Fast phrasing studies; for maximum benefit, play a few chapters from The Breathing Book followed by Slow, Medium and Fast Flow Studies.
The other important tool I recommend for improving intonation is Long Tone Duets:
Long Tone Duets contains a duet in every major key with additional duets on various topics interspersed throughout the book. It provides the perfect venue for teachers to discuss details of intonation, tone quality, blend and balance with their students, or for students to warm up and play long tones together. Players who use Long Tone Duets will improve their tone, intonation and listening skills.