On Being in Tune


Last night on YouTube, I interspersed viewings of hurricane Irma raging across the Caribbean with research into what other clarinettists consider to be playing in tune. My conclusions: This is a poor time to book a Caribbean holiday and, two, most people have not the slightest notion why they are proponents of long-tone exercises.

Playing long tones is like a religion that’s degenerated into empty gestures of devotion. Lacking any concept as to the intent of long tones, one tuning guru said, “The purpose of long tones is to, well, here’s how to do them…”, and he proceeded to play. Later, he added “Long tones are necessary so you can check your pitch”, but as he played, my tuner registered huge pitch swings (I don’t know what criteria he was using to check his pitch—he had no tuner in sight). For him, playing long tones is an act of faith.

Another proponent of long tones kicked off her presentation with the statement, “The reason for playing in tune is so you can play with a piano or other instruments.” While this isn’t entirely incorrect, it entirely misses the point of playing long tones. The primary purpose of playing long tones is to play in tune—with yourself. Each pitch is in tune relative to pitches around it, so once you’ve played a note, the note to follow must correspond in tuning with the first. Also, there are laws of overtones to consider, which is where Mr. Pythagoras enters with his observations about sound waves. A pitch an octave above its predecessor will vibrate at double the rate—if it vibrates at any other rate, you’re out of tune (or you’re not even playing an octave).

Out in the weird world of YouTube, there’s a tuning troll who wants to take issue about tuners and how people use them. He’s learned about Natural tuning and Tempered tuning and wants to use his knowledge to bludgeon the long-tone gurus for their well-intentioned but inaccurate videos. Tuning Troll has a good point, but I think it’s an erudite sideshow designed to distract from the simpler task of playing relative pitches in tune. And here’s why.

Tuning systems don’t even come into play when considering unisons and octaves, which is why they’re a good place to start. Parenthetically, they come in later when looking more deeply at relative pitches and harmonic structures. For example, the note B is tuned differently within a G major triad (it’s the third, which means in Natural tuning it needs to be lower than Tempered tuning would assign it) compared with an E major triad (it’s the fifth, which is relatively higher). For now, stick to unisons and octaves and the good old Pythagorian way.

I’ve left the identities of the above-misguided tuning gurus anonymous, but I’d like to call out this one excellent video on tuning. It’s by master clarinettist Jose Franch-Ballester. I’ve had the opportunity to sit down with him and learn first hand what his approach is, and in my sessions (and most importantly for you, in the following video), he explains the purpose of long tones. It’s almost all you need (well, that, and a couple of iPads) to get started playing in tune.