Tips on Teaching Intonation (from 50+ Band Directors)

In our summer survey, we asked Band Directors Talk Shop readers “What is the best phrase, analogy or activity you’ve ever heard/used regarding the teaching of intonation?” With over 300 responses to the survey, we came up with these 50+ things to give you ideas about how to help your students play with better intonation.

Thanks so much to all of our readers who took time to fill out the survey. We’ll be posting more Readers’ Collaborative Articles in the future!

Philosophies
Consistency is key
In tone = in tune
Believe and live in “The Gospel According to Concert F.”
Tune with your ears, not your eyes! Listen for the waves and adjust often. You are ALWAYS tuning!
Use a tuner to “see” what in tune looks like then eventually move off the tuner to “hear” what in tune is. Refer back to the tuner periodically so students can see and hear if they are correct.

Phrases/Analogies
“Fit inside” the instruments bigger than you.
Tone-ing before tuning.
Intonation is like BO; everyone has issues, most people take care of it.
Listen, assume it’s you, adjust, listen more.
Being out of tune is exactly like playing a wrong note. It’s an error.
Being out of tune is like standing in the mud in your wedding dress.
Disappear into your neighbor’s sound.
Does it sound good? If not, then try something different.
Eliminate the waves.
In tone is in-tune.
Find the “sweet spot”.
Find the center, play to the center, match pitch, get rid of the waves.
Good balance hides intonation issues.
If you hear waves, you are out of tune.  Adjust. If the waves get worse, you went the wrong way.
Know what sound is coming next.
Layer how you think about intonation — first you, then you within the section, then your section within the band.
“Listen down” or “listen back” to the low brass/tubas.
Listen for someone three seats away from you and fit inside their sound.
Listen for the waves. Waves disappear, you’re in tune. Waves get faster, do the opposite.
This isn’t the ocean, there’s not supposed to be waves.
Play to hear others, do not play to hear yourself.
Tune it before you get to it.

Activities
Holding from the bottom up, section at a time, until it’s in tune.
Passing the note/chord around the room or section.
Hear discrepancies in tuning by hearing how the snares on a snare drum rattle when two or more players play out of tune. This is most effective in lesson groups.
Use an acoustic piano to hear overtones and sympathetic vibration of notes being played in tune.
Have a student play a note, and another student tune to the first student. Have band members answer if the 2nd student is sharp, in tune, or flat. Let them know they only have a 1 in 3 chance of being correct and it’s fine to be wrong in the guessing. We learn to tune through our answers to this question. Very useful in band warm-up time.
Droning. More drone lessons.
Having students work with a tuner to find their tuning tendencies.
I have my kids tune so it is “close” with tuners and then we do a few warm-ups.  Finally, we will play a concert Bb in unison, telling them to make the waves disappear, then I have them split into other notes (concert Bb, concert D, concert F) to tune those as well making the major chord pretty.
I have students play with professionally recorded accompaniments to hone listening skills.
I teach chords with a xylophone/piano and have them listen and match.
I usually have a student and myself play one note together with me way out of tune. The rest of the band closes their eyes and listens.
Listen to your tone and your stand partner but also strive to listen to your section and then from one side of the bandroom to the other. Then from the front of this room, all the way to the back!!
Listen to your trio (person to the left and to the right) and balance yourself within that group.  (Really has more to do with balance but affects intonation as well).
Pick your favorite note and when I point go to tuning note!
Singing first, and often, is so beneficial and effective.
Smooth out the road.
Sound as 1 person even if you play a different instrument.
Singing goes a long way toward teaching and cleaning up intonation.  We “sing” our lines as beginners to help learn pitch centers, etc.  We continue to sing as they get older as well.
We use a Harmony (keyboard) for developing intonation, tuning, and ear training daily in our rehearsals this year.
While tuning each section, I ask the other sections to help me decide if they are sharp or flat.
Work with both a tuner and fixed pitch.

Common Threads (4 most commonly mentioned things…)
Listen! (For the waves, to your neighbor, to the tubas, across the room etc.)
You need to be willing to try to fix it/be wrong in order to learn.
You can’t be in tune without good tone/ in-tone-in-tune.
Sing a lot!

Interestingly…
Of all the questions we asked for people to share ideas about in the survey, this one had the most people saying things like “trying to get better on this” or “need help on this.” So if teaching intonation is something you struggle with, you’re not alone. We hope these ideas help, but if you need more, please find a mentor! If there is no one locally, look for someone long distance who can at least listen to recordings of your band and offer suggestions and support. #neverstoplearning!

Band director Resources

Related Reading:
ONE Thing that Improved Student Performance in Your Band (well, really 64)
Keeping Ensemble Drills Interesting
Teaching Brass Players to Love The Process of Tuning

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