Ten Strategies to Improve Intonation in the Instrumental Ensemble
By David Pope | December 11, 2021
“Bad intonation is unforgiveable.”
This quote was shared with me by a mentor when I was an undergraduate student over 20 years ago, and it has remained an integral part of my teaching philosophy. In every situation, no matter if I was teaching a traditional school ensemble or an all-state orchestra, I have constantly worked to help the ensembles perform with good intonation. However, I admit my process for improving student intonation has developed throughout my career. As a young teacher, my daily rehearsals were filled with me telling my students what was out of tune and how to fix it. Most days felt like a game of Intonation Whack-a-Mole where I constantly hunted pitch errors across the ensemble. I quickly learned this was an inefficient strategy because my students became reliant on me to solve their intonation issues. I knew my pedagogy needed to change, and I had to put the responsibility of fixing intonation issues on my students. They needed to develop the skills to assess, listen to, and fix their individual, section, and ensemble performances without my constant guidance. To me, the consequential issue was not my students playing out of tune. It was my students not knowing they were playing out of tune, and I needed to solve that.
Below are some of the preemptive and rehearsal strategies I found effective when teaching students develop their listening, assessment, and correction skills regarding intonation. Some of these ideas may be new to you. Others may already occur in your classroom or have slipped your mind over the last few years due to teaching during a pandemic. It is also important to note that many of the strategies included below can be adapted for students at various performance levels. No matter where you are in your career, I am hopeful you will find these strategies useful on the never-ending pursuit to better intonation.
1. Tune the Ensemble
Intonation issues are often caused by out-of-tune open strings or inadequately warmed-up woodwind and brass instruments. To play with good and consistent intonation, it is vital to properly tune students’ instruments daily. As someone who frequently visits K-12 instrumental music programs, I find it odd when directors neglect to tune the ensemble at the beginning of rehearsal. In these situations, I tune the ensemble during my clinic and this solves many of the easier intonation issues. Teaching students to tune their own instruments also develops their listening skills in a controlled situation before they apply the same skills to their concert repertoire during the rehearsal process.
2. Re-Tune the Ensemble
As someone who taught in warm weather climates during the first half of my career, I did not truly understand how much temperature changes can affect an instrument’s natural pitch until I experienced teaching string and full orchestra in Ohio during the winter. Like most directors, I carefully tuned my ensemble at the start of class. However, I noticed the ensemble’s base pitches (e.g. open strings and fundamental notes) naturally evolved during the first half of class. This taught me the importance of retuning as needed throughout rehearsal. I found that taking 2-3 minutes a few times during rehearsal to retune decreased the amount of time I had to spend addressing intonation issues.
3. Teach Students to Identify Pitch Errors
Students must develop the ability to listen and understand what is in tune versus what is out of tune. As a result, teachers must consistently set aside time to develop their students’ listening skills. Teaching this skill can occur having students analyze live performances or by using pre-existing technology such as apps, SmartMusic, or other online music theory programs. Cultivating the ability to identify pitch errors is especially essential for younger students. If novice musicians do not develop this capability when initially learning an instrument, they will struggle to discern between good and poor intonation as they progress in their musical studies. A lack of pitch awareness will also cause students to rely on their teacher to fix intonation errors, and this produces inefficient rehearsals that are teacher led instead of student led.
4. Teach Students How to Adjust Pitch
Once students develop the ability to identify intonation errors, the next step is teaching them how to physically adjust their pitch to fix the issue. This is a fundamental step when teaching students how to play in tune. Students must know what physical changes (e.g. embouchure, posture, breath, finger placement, fingering) need to occur so they can make fine, medium, and large pitch adjustments on their instrument. Identifying a pitch error is vital, but it is useless information if musicians do not know how to fix the error on their instrument.
5. Pass and Match the Tonic
One of the most difficult aspects of playing with good intonation in an ensemble is matching pitch and tone quality across the ensemble. To help with this and improve students’ concentration, pass an individual note (e.g. E-flat) around the ensemble while performing a simple four-beat rhythm. During this activity, require students (e.g. individuals, small groups, or sections) to adjust their intonation so their performance perfectly matches the prior group. This activity is difficult to achieve at a high level because it demands students listen and adjust their pitch quickly. An advanced version of this activity can include performing the pitch in various octaves or alternate positions as it is passed around the ensemble. Teachers can lead this activity through call-and-response exercises or use prewritten exercises from method books.
6. Practice Scales and Arpeggios with a Purpose
I am devout believer of including scales and arpeggios in warm-up routines. Consistently practicing scales and arpeggios reinforces common fingerings, pitch inclinations, and instrument tendencies in various keys. However, students and teachers frequently neglect to focus when performing scales and arpeggios. When I asked my undergraduate music education students about their scale routines in middle and high school, many described a process where they and their teachers mindlessly went through the motions without focus. To avoid monotonous repetition, students must practice scales and arpeggios with a defined purpose. For example, teachers should have students focus on individual tetrachords, specific octaves, ensemble balance, or matching pitch to a drone when performing scales and arpeggios. It is also essential for teachers to communicate the purpose to the students. As teachers, it is also crucial we fully engage in the scale process and provide our students with feedback. If students and teachers are both engaged in the scale process and use it as a teaching and learning opportunity, instead of something we must endure, students will develop skills that will help them perform with quality intonation.
7. Practice Common Scale Patterns
Once students demonstrate the ability to play scales and arpeggios in tune, the next step in developing quality intonation is practicing common scale patterns in the desired key. Typically in method books, these exercises are written with pitch patterns common to a specific key. Performing common pitch patterns in a specific key also allows students to develop an advanced dexterity and familiarity in each key that will cultivate performers’ confidence. I highly suggest seeking out these types of exercises or composing your own based on your students’ pedagogical needs.
8. Focus on the Inner Lines and Harmony
A solid harmonic foundation is necessary to perform with good intonation. The bass part (e.g. trombone, tuba, string bass) and inner lines (e.g. second parts, viola, cellos) of an ensemble must be performed in tune for a performance to sound correct. To achieve this goal, spend rehearsal time focusing on the bass and inner parts of the ensemble so those instrumentalists learn how their notes relate to and rely on each other to form a solid harmonic foundation. By focusing on the non-melodic parts, ensemble members will develop the ability to tune both vertically and horizontally while also learning the common cadences and harmonic progressions in the concert repertoire.
9. Perform Unison Themes
I found an effective technique for improving intonation was having the entire ensemble perform themes in unison. The themes were taught through call-and-response exercises or written notation. To perform a wide variety of music, directors should select themes from concert repertoire, folk songs, popular music, and from student recommendations. Performing themes in unison will allow students to clearly hear intervals and correct out of tune notes. Performing each theme in unison, but in various octaves, also provides the opportunity for students to focus on balance and work on extended ranges that involve instrument specific intonation issues. To increase this activity’s difficulty, select some themes that can be transposed from easier keys to more difficult keys. This expansion provides a safe place for students to practice difficult keys with repertoire they are familiar with.
10. Remember the Method Book
Many music teachers use method books when starting new students in elementary and middle school instrumental classes. However, most instrumental programs become repertoire focused as students progress. To me, methods books are like medicine for the ensemble. Students may not like how the medicine tastes, but we know it is good for them. Do not forget to use method book exercises to improve an ensemble’s intonation. Many method books are organized by key signature, and this organization offers opportunities for students to practice fingerings and common patterns in new exercises outside of their concert repertoire. This will reinforce their ability to play in specific keys while also improving their sight-reading abilities.
David Pope is an Associate Professor of Music Education and Chair of Professional Studies at Baldwin Wallace University’s Conservatory of Music. In addition, he serves as a senior conductor and co-director of Baldwin Wallace Conservatory’s String Orchestra Camp.View Author Page
Want More? Don't miss a beat!
We’re passionate about providing music educators with teaching solutions. Sign up to get inspiration delivered to your inbox!