Classical Trumpet Performance, Teaching
Improving Intonation on Trumpet
Developing good intonation is paramount to being a successful musician. No one cares how beautiful your sound is if it is out of tune. It’s something people won’t notice if it’s perfect, but if it’s out, it’s the first thing they hear.
Having good intonation on a trumpet is especially difficult for a variety of reasons:
1 We play imperfect instruments
2 Minute changes in lip or air pressure will throw off stable intonation
3 Fatigue makes it harder to control
4 It’s mostly mental on trumpet (On a violin you can look and see exactly where your fingers are supposed to be on the fingerboard. With the trumpet, the valves are up or down, that’s all the guidance you get.
(You'll never get better intonation with this...)
Good intonation is not something you can really practice on the trumpet. You must in reality train your EAR and BRAIN to be able to hear and respond to subtle acoustic effects. The most important thing in developing good pitch is to be able to hear intervals correctly and to be able to hear when something is either slightly flat, slightly sharp, or “in tune”. The best way to learn this quickly is with a drone pitch. A drone is a sustained pitch, sometimes a root and fifth, sometimes a single note which we can play along with and compare our intonation. There are a multitude of pitch generators out there- I use either “Tonal Energy” (an iphone app) or “The Tuning CD” produced by Richard Schwartz:
If you’re serious about improving your sense of intonation,
get some sort of drone and use it everyday. Here’s how.
Start by playing a track and holding the same pitch on your trumpet. If you hear “beats” or distortion waves, then you are slightly out of tune. Move your pitch around slowly and find the point where the waves slow down and stop. That is the “in tune” spot. Then practice going from in tune to slightly sharp (up) and back. Then in tune to slightly flat (down) and back. Do this a couple hundred times. (not all in one day) Try to let your ear guide your sound. Think about fitting in to the drone sound and finding the sweet spot. If you’re confused, turn on the tuner to check your pitch.
A word of caution about Tuners:
Tuners are a necessary evil. They do us a huge disservice. The problem is, they GIVE you the answer, and you don’t have to hear it for yourself. That way, your sense of inner pitch never gets better. Even though I use it everyday, I try not to rely on it. It’s like trying to learn math by just looking at the problem, and then having someone immediately tell you the answer. You’ll never learn how to actually solve it yourself. Use it when practicing to see your tendencies, but never when playing in a group. I’m saddened when I see people with tuners clipped to their bells during rehearsals, and especially concerts. What that says to me is: “I’m not listening to the orchestra or even myself, I’m just going by what this little box says”. Most of the time, the orchestra is not playing at exactly 440, and if you stubbornly stay there, you’ll sound out of tune. Use your ears people.
Back to our exercise... Once your comfortable finding the sweet spot with a unison note, try playing a 4th or 5th higher. Listen for beats and practicing sliding up and down, and finding the perfectly in tune spot as fast as possible. Once you get better at that, practice Major and minor 3rds against the drone, and then playing whole scales slowly checking each pitch. Note that Major 3rds and 6ths need to be lowered, minor 3rd’s and 6th’s need to be raised. Fifths need to be a little wide while 4ths need to be a little narrow. Once you get really good, you’ll even be able to hear the sweet spot on 7ths, 2nds and even tritones. It just takes practice, and CAREFUL listening.
For advance practice, some things I do are:
Record yourself playing long tones (5-10 seconds) then copy and paste it together so it’s a 3 minute trumpet sound to practice with . Do this for every pitch.
Record yourself playing a scale in whole notes, and then play it back and play a 4th higher on top of it listening for each pitch to lock in.
Record yourself playing the top line of a Bach Choral, then play it back and practice playing the 2nd, 3rd and 4th harmony lines against it for pitch and blend. If you’re really looking for something fun- play the melody up or down a 4th against your recording.