concert band · info · jazz · teaching


I hate that word. It sounds mechanical. On the old “Drew Carey Show” Drew gets out of having his band play by telling someone they were out of tune and needed more “tuning grease.” That’s about right! The concept of playing “in tune” is a constantly-changing, organic process that can be extremely frustrating for directors and students alike. I just posted this on the “Tips” page on and I thought I would reproduce it here for you. It contains my thoughts on getting kids to play with better pitch.

This first one is pretty basic, but you’ll be surprised how many times I talk to kids who don’t know anything about it. It has to do with focusing the listening in an ensemble. It works in any instrumental ensemble, and the larger, the more important it is. It’s a simple rule:

Listen down; listen back.

Listen down to the lowest voices of the ensemble for pitch. They are more solid and closer to the fundamental, and the upper voices absolutely must listen to them to adjust pitch. In a concert band, that would usually be the tubas and (to a lesser degree) the low reeds. Stephen Melillo says that concert bands lack a fundamental because the tubas actually play an octave higher than orchestral string basses; that’s why he adds a PAD BASS to his scores. I’ve used it with my groups and he’s absolutely right – it does improve the pitch center of the band. (When you go to his site, go to “Tools,” then to “PAD BASS and STORMsystem.”

Listen back to the voices located furthest back in the ensemble. If you are a trumpet player in the back row of a big band, you can’t adjust pitch to the saxophone section – you can’t hear them well enough, if at all. The saxes have to listen back to you and adjust. Let’s say a trumpet player and an alto player have a unison solo line, and the trumpet player is a little flat…the alto CAN NOT FIX IT! The “fixing” has to be done before the performance, because the trumpet player won’t hear you trying to pull the two of you up to pitch. It can’t be done!

Oh, and while I’m on this topic of pitch correction (the term I use instead of “tuning”): electronic tuning devices are like GPS: they can get you to the ballpark but you have to find your seat on your own. Too many kids (and directors, unfortunately) think using a digital tuner to get ONE NOTE in tune means you’re OK…therefore causing the kid to NOT listen after that!

I recommend in concert band rehearsals that you DO NOT USE an electronic tuner at all. If you have a PAD BASS, adjust to that. If you don’t, use the electronic device to tune the tubas, then have the rest of the band adjust pitch to the tubas. Save the electronic tuner for the practice room and the private lesson, where it should be used A LOT.

In jazz rehearsals we adjust to a (digital) piano A in octaves and then a B flat (take the rhythm section out for this one), and really work on matching pitch within sections. Some days we get the bear, and some days the bear gets us. We only use electronic tuners when someone is way out and they need to see visually where the pitch is, or before a concert when we’re trying to get three bands ready to go in the same room.

Does this make everything always sound more in tune? Maybe, maybe not. At least you are training the kids to LISTEN, not to read a light. Is that not what we are to do as music teachers?


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