My teacher, K. David Van Hoesen, had a 12-window Stroboconn tuner placed prominently in his studio at the Eastman School of Music. The dreaded Stroboconn pointed out the slightest deviation from the pitch standard of A=440. It was not discreet like today's pocket-sized electronic tuners; its often embarrassing readings could be viewed from half a mile away.
Mr. Van Hoesen rarely played the bassoon with his students because, as he stated, they always played out of tune! I remember how true that was, even though Eastman attracted the best bassoon students in the U.S.
Intonation is a lifelong challenge for bassoonists. It is never "mastered." Intonation varies from reed to reed (therefore, from week to week) and according to the temperature of the room or hall in which the bassoon is played. Intonation accuracy also declines in direct correlation to the deterioration of the embouchure- in other words, if you're out of shape you can't play as well in tune.
Of course, intonation may be practiced and improved, especially with the use of electronic tuners. In my last post I mentioned my Boss tuner which I never leave home without. I use a pickup clipped onto the bocal and plugged into the tuner to enable my pitch to be determined even while the full orchestra is playing:
Because some readers of this blog have asked about the placement of the pickup clip on the bocal, here's a shot of that:
The Boss tuner is invaluable to the bassoonist. The bassoon has the ability to fool its player into thinking that a note belongs at a pitch which may actually be way off, since some notes resonate best at the wrong pitch. Furthermore, the tone quality of a note can deceive the player. For example, low A tends to have a harsh, growling quality on just about any bassoon. That particular note almost always sounds sharp, even when it actually isn't. We learn the tendencies of each note on the bassoon, and wanting desperately to do the right thing, we sometimes over-compensate. When I was at Eastman, like many young bassoonists I tended to play on the high side of the pitch. I was actually pleased when, from time to time, I over-compensated to the point of being flat! An electronic tuner can certainly help keep us on track so that we actually know when we're over-compensating. Being overly nervous about the intonation of an uncooperative or unstable note can seriously interfere with our ability to hear accurately.
But tuners are just a tool to be used in practicing. To prepare us for reliable intonation in a performance situation (when the tuner would be put away) Mr. Van Hoesen taught his students to imagine hearing the correct pitch in our heads before playing a note. (He wanted us to really listen to that imagined pitch.) This requires concentration and care, and to this day, when I play a note at a pitch which is less than desirable, it's because I didn't take the trouble to properly hear the note in my head before playing it. The tuner is a marvelous tool to make sure we're on course, but it is no substitute for the ear.
Using the Boss tuner to place each note at 440 can be helpful in preparing to perform with piano. The reason for that is that pianos are tuned according to equal temperament, in which an octave scale is divided into 12 equal intervals. Each note on a well-tuned piano would register at 440 on a tuner.
Although bassoonists test ourselves against a standard of A=440 in tempered scale (equal temperament), we realistically perform using some tempered tuning (especially when performing with keyboard instruments) and some pure or just tuning (generally used by orchestras and choruses). Just intonation is the development of the scale based on the organic generation of tones as they occur in the natural harmonic series. Only the tonic registers at 440, and the other notes of the scale slightly deviate from 440. Musicians tune this way by ear, but it can actually be mapped out as follows:
Since the meter of the Boss tuner measures in cents, it is quite possible to use the tuner to deviate according to the above adjustments. But it's a lot easier to do it by ear, because just intonation sounds "right." As an experiment, try playing the 1st 3 notes of a C major scale with your eyes closed. Be sure that the E is placed where you think it sounds best, and then open your eyes and look at the tuner. Chances are, the E will be lower than the standard of 440! The opposite would be true if you played the 1st 3 notes of a c minor scale; in that case, the E flat would be above 440 by 16 cents.
Pure or just intonation is based on the tonic, which acts as the anchor for the key. When tuning by ear, each pitch is judged to be in tune if there is an absence of "beats" between itself and the tonic when the two notes are played together. ("Beats" are the periodic swelling and then dying away of a sound caused by 2 frequencies going out of phase.) A sound-producing tuner works well for this test - simply set the tuner to produce a drone of the tonic and play a melody against it, striving to eliminate beats. The leading tone (7th note of a scale) is controversial because performers may perceive that it needs to be raised, but in fact it is best lowered, according to just tuning.
As Nike says, just do it.