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What Are the Best Tips for Orchestra Tuning?

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  • Written By: Wanda Marie Thibodeaux
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To sound good during rehearsal or performance, orchestras must tune carefully before each performance. Orchestra tuning is a complex art, as two to three dozen musicians, all of whom play instruments with different qualities, must somehow try to get a note to sound the same through the entire group. The process might be easier if musicians are aware of the time needed for tuning, the instruments required by the piece, the sound of their instrument, important pitches and proper preparation prior to taking the stage.

Too often, orchestras feel pressured by the waiting audience to rush through the tuning process. The result is that members of the orchestra take the initial sound from the oboe more like a signal to play, not a signal to listen. This is a major problem for orchestra tuning, because even though oboes are capable of providing very consistent As, it can take a few seconds for the oboist, who himself is listening to the sound he is producing, to settle into the best, most solid, full tone he can make. A good oboist does not take long to produce a good sound, but members of an orchestra still need time to internalize the sound the oboist makes before they attempt to tune.

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Secondly, instrumentation sometimes dictates what orchestra tuning method actually is best. For instance, in a work that calls for only piano and strings, there is no oboist. In this instance, the concertmaster ideally should take his A from the piano, which cannot tune, and then give his A to the rest of the group. Another example is if the work contains a drone pitch, in which case the principal musician of the section playing the drone may want to sound the drone for tuning. Directors thus may want to be somewhat flexible in terms of which musician provides the tuning pitch, and all musicians should be comfortable sounding the tuning reference pitch for the other members of the group.

Connected to the concept of orchestration in orchestra tuning is the idea of timbre, or sound quality. The oboe, although a stable instrument from the pitch perspective, has a vastly different tone than any other instrument. Some musicians find it much easier to tune with instruments within their own family because of timbre differences. Under this principle, although the oboe's pitch may serve as a reference, the principals of each section would lead the tuning for their individual sections. This might be a good option if a piece truly highlights each section.

A fourth problem with orchestra tuning is the musician's state of mind. Even trained professional musicians still may get rushes of adrenaline and feel excited before playing on stage. It is common to play too loudly during tuning, if not because of nervousness or adrenaline, then because of the usually subconscious desire to say to the audience "I'm here and ready to play! Listen to how good I sound!" It is helpful to not let emotions drive what happens during the tuning process. Play only as loudly as is necessary to hear the tuning pitches clearly with good tone.

Additionally, different notes are more important to tune for certain instruments than others. For example, on a piccolo or flute, having the upper range of the instrument in tune usually is more important, while a clarinetist may want to check his throat tones. Go ahead and check those pitches during the free-play that occurs prior to the official concert A from the oboist, or as soon as other musicians have had the opportunity to tune their As. Although "listening down" to the lowest pitches of each instrument family is good advice, some lower instruments such as the bassoon are not as reliable for tuning purposes, so tune to whatever is consistent, not necessarily based on range.

The last tip for concert tuning, although it may seem obvious, is that it is imperative to get as close to "in tune" as possible before going out on stage. The purpose of doing this is so that the tuning on stage is only minimal and takes less time to complete. The conductor doesn't want instruments out of tune any more than the instrumentalists or audience does and will wait to go through the tuning process properly, but he still wants to be efficient and get to the music as soon as possible for the benefit of the audience.

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Rotergirl
Post 2

One thing the article didn't mention is the importance of the musicians arriving early enough for their instruments to come to about the same temperature as the performance hall. Wood and metal expand and contract, and this can cause pitch changes.

In secure locations, musicians may leave their instruments in the building overnight so they will be at the same temperature as the surrounding air, and will be more stable to start with.

Most musicians will play their instruments for several minutes before the performance begins, so they will warm up and will be more apt to tune properly when the concertmaster signals for the "A."

Pippinwhite
Post 1

I know it probably sounds weird, but to me, the tuning process is one of the most exciting parts of the performance! It means the concert is getting ready to start and the musicians are warming up.

I think there's a certain beauty even in all the dissonance that is inevitable when you start listening to an orchestra tune up. I love when the curtain is up and you can see all the musicians going through their routines of making sure they're ready to play. If I'm familiar with the piece, I can often hear the musicians rehearsing tidbits of it -- maybe parts that give them problems or something. It's such a fascinating process, and to me, gives you more insight into how the musicians play than the actual concert.

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