Teaching the Basics of Good Intonation

Teaching the Basics of Good Intonation by Phyllis Louke

While flute makers alter the scale of their instruments attempting to improve intonation, flute players themselves continue to be the largest variable in whether an instrument plays in tune.  Flute players’ ears need to be finely developed in order to hear pitch irregularities and make minute adjustments from note to note so that each note conforms to the standard of what is considered “in tune”.  The standard pitch in most performing groups is A=440 [when an air stream vibrates at 440 cycles/second, it produces an A].  Some ensembles have a standard pitch of A=442 or sometimes higher, which supposedly adds brilliance to the sound.   Intonation is affected by many variables:  position of the head cork, position of the head joint, air speed, angle of air,  percentage of the embouchure hole covered, and the player’s posture.

Before tuning, check the position of the tuning cork in your head joint.  Remove the head joint from the flute case and insert the flat end of the tuning rod into the open end of your head joint as far as it will go.  The tuning/cleaning rod that came with the flute has a line inscribed approximately 17mm from the end opposite where the cloth is inserted.  This line is the measurement for the proper position of the tuning cork in your head joint.  If the cork position is not set correctly, it will affect the scale of your flute, i.e. it will be more difficult to play your flute in tune.  If the cork is in the correct position, the inscribed line will appear in the exact center of the embouchure hole.  If the line is higher than the center, the cork can be lowered by unscrewing the crown (the end cap) one or two turns and pushing down on the crown until the cork moves and crown snaps back into place.  Check the position of the line on the rod again, and repeat, if necessary.  If the line is lower than the center, insert the flat end of the tuning/cleaning rod into the open end of the head joint, pushing the cork to a slightly higher position.  Check the position of the line on the rod again and repeat, if necessary.  If the cork will not move at all, it may have been sealed in place with wax.  If this is the case, it will be necessary to have it adjusted and possibly replaced by a local flute repair technician.

Pull the head joint out to lower pitch and push the head joint in to raise pitch.  To adjust the pitch of a flute, adjust the position of the head joint.  Remember that larger instruments (like the tuba) are lower in pitch, so to lower the pitch on the flute, make it longer (larger) by pulling the head joint out.  Smaller instruments (like the piccolo) are higher in pitch, so to raise the pitch on the flute, make it shorter (smaller) by pushing in the head joint in.

Tune several different notes to improve intonation.  Most large ensembles tune to one note:  bands generally tune to Bb and orchestras tune to A.  Flutists should tune several notes in different octaves before considering that the instrument is in tune:  I usually tune D2 (2nd octave D) as well as low A and middle A.  Low notes tend to be flat and high notes sharp on many flutes.  Find a head joint position where the majority of notes are in tune, or close to being in tune, to reduce the degree of pitch adjustment required when changing from note to note.  For the best intonation, Patricia George, flute teacher at BYU-Idaho, recommends that the head joint be pulled out ¼ inch taking care to play with a strong air stream.  It is important to tune the flute and adjust the head joint even when practicing or playing by yourself.

Slower air speed lowers pitch, while faster air speed raises pitch.  Speed of the air stream is another variable that affects intonation; strong and consistent air speed will improve overall intonation.  Many students slow down their air when playing low notes for fear of over-blowing, making the low register flat and listless, and blow too hard on upper octave notes for fear that the note will not otherwise sound, making the upper register sharp and shrill.  Flutists can improve intonation by slightly slowing down air speed on a passage primarily in a normally sharp high register and increasing air speed on a passage written in the normally flat lower register.

Pitch is lower when the air stream angle is lower, and pitch is higher when the air stream angle is higher.  Just as the angle of the air stream affects the octave of the note played, air stream angle also has an effect on intonation.  Flutists can make fine tuning adjustments from note to note by slightly adjusting the angle of the air stream.  The angle of the air stream can be raised by pushing the lower lip forward (as you would say “poo”), while the air stream can be lowered by pulling the lower lip back.  For even quicker response on individual notes, the player can slightly lower the chin, which will lower the angle of the air stream and in turn lower the pitch, while for higher pitch, the chin can be raised slightly.  These movements should be very slight—use an electronic tuner to verify how much the pitch is changing.

Covering more of the tone hole will lower pitch, while covering less of the tone hole will raise pitch.  Most flute teachers advocate covering from 1/4 to 1/3 of the embouchure hole for good tone.  Students who have a flat muffled tone tend to cover too much of the tone hole, while students playing with sharp, bright, unfocused tone tend to cover too little of the tone hole.  Also, many students tend to roll the flute in and cover too much of the tone hole during technically challenging passages, getting progressively flatter in pitch and more muffled in tone.  The pitch of individual notes can be corrected by either covering a little more of the tone hole to flatten pitch, or covering a little less of the tone hole to sharpen pitch—usually the change required is very small.  Some teachers advocate rolling in the flute to lower pitch and rolling out the flute to raise pitch.  In my opinion, this procedure should be avoided or used with caution as it can negatively impact the consistency of tone quality.

Poor posture can lower pitch.  Good posture is essential to good intonation.  The flutist’s shoulders should be aligned with the hips without twisting or bending at the waist to avoid disruption of the air flow and stress to the back muscles.  Disruption of the air flow can lower pitch.  The flutist should also keep the chin level with eyes looking directly forward.  Adjust the music stand so that the music can be seen without dropping the chin, as this will also lower pitch.

Listen carefully when playing in ensembles to work on blending in.  When players seem to be sticking out and not blending with the rest of the ensemble, they are either playing too loud or are out of tune.  When a player is not in tune, “beats” might be heard; “beats” are caused by the difference in frequency between a player’s pitch and the “in tune” pitch.

Use an electronic tuner during practice to check accuracy of pitch and improve intonation.  When a note is in tune, the needle or lights on the tuner will be in the center.  When a note is sharp, the needle or the lights will be to the right of center; when flat, the needle or the lights will be to the left of center.  Check several different notes in different octaves with the tuner to find a head joint position where these notes are mostly in tune, i.e. when the variation in the needle tuner’s needle position is very small.  Then put a line on the head joint tenon with a thin permanent marker to indicate how far to pull out the head joint.  This mark will help in consistency of intonation and will not harm the flute; it will wear off in a few weeks and will need to be redrawn.

There are many techniques for improving intonation.  Some flutists use one or two of the techniques, while others use many.  Experiment to find out which techniques work the best for you.

© Copyright 2004 Phyllis Avidan Louke.  All Rights Reserved.