When wind ensemble directors discuss difficulties with their clarinet sections, they invariably bring up intonation. They want to know what causes poor intonation, and what they can do to improve it.
After articulation, intonation is probably the next most prevalent issue that clarinetists face. However, unlike articulation, there is very little information or systematic instruction available on how to go about correcting intonation problems. It's a subject that many private teachers are disinclined to address during a lesson. When it is mentioned, it's usually in the context of picking out a particularly offensive pitch. Thus intonation gets picked at rather than approached with a method.
Which factors figure most significantly into playing in tune? First and foremost it's your ears, or more accurately, training yourself to interpret what you hear correctly. Other major factors include embouchure, tongue position, fingering, mouthpiece, reed, breath, and instrument. Embouchure, tongue position, fingering, and breath are skills which most teachers address and to which all students should devote a good deal of time.
Reeds, mouthpiece and clarinet are equipment issues that we all do our best with. Do the perfect reed, the perfect mouthpiece, and the perfect clarinet exist? I think so, and they are being played at this very moment by a herd of wild unicorns. In other words, despite the fact that you may have heard a player perform with a beautiful tone and flawless intonation, that player was probably just as frustrated with the reed, mouthpiece, and instrument as you are with yours. Do the best you can with equipment. But, good intonation begins and ends between the ears.
What is a Tuner?
Tuners have two basic functions. The first is 'hearing' a pitch and indicating how close that pitch is to the tempered ideal. The second is sounding (playing) a tone that is at the tempered ideal. Both functions are vital for practicing, and most contemporary tuners do both. Most tuners also have a calibration setting that allows you to use A440 as your tuning standard, or a range of several hertz either higher or lower.
Beyond that, tuners come in many shapes, sizes, and prices. I use one made by Korg called the AT-1. It can sound a four octave chromatic scale, and measures seven octaves. It uses LEDs to indicate the concert pitch, and a large analog (mechanical) meter to show exactly how close the pitch is to ideal. Some tuners use a second set of LEDs to show the tuning. In my opinion, this is not as accurate nor as helpful as the analog type (also called sweep or VU meter).
While not tiny, the AT-1 is portable enough to carry inside a music bag or case cover. Tuners are delicate--you don't want to drop it or bang it around. I keep mine inside a small camera bag to help protect it.
Some Required Theory
When you practice with a tuner you are actually working on two separate skills. First, the tuner can help you hone your ability to identify when a pitch is in or out of tune. Second, you can use a tuner to refine physical control over pitch. As mentioned earlier, breath, tongue position, fingering, and embouchure all factor into the precise pitch being played. A tuner provides feedback that helps you learn how to subtly raise and lower pitch by manipulating those factors.
Unfortunately, clarinets do not play perfectly in tune without help. However, even if an instrument were made which naturally played every note exactly in tune with its ideal, there would still be a need to manipulate the pitch. This has to do with the concept of the tempered scale.
A complete explanation of tempered scale is quite mathematical, complex, and well beyond the scope of this article. The short version goes something like this: When a piano is perfectly in tune, it is actually quite out of tune. In fact, the intervals of major third, minor third, major sixth, and minor sixth are severely out of tune. If you play one of these intervals on a freshly tuned piano, you should be able to hear "beats" that result when two notes are not in tune with each other. [For more information on temperament and tuning standards, see (1), (2), (3), or do a search.]
Tuners use the same tempered tuning standard as pianos. In general clarinetists do strive to play an even-tempered scale, like pianos do. However, in passages with sustained notes, we manipulate the pitch to achieve pure intervals (pure can be thought of as the opposite of tempered).
Using the Tuner
The meter on a tuner uses a measuring standard called cents. There are 100 cents between each chromatic pitch (using a tempered scale). When a pitch is perfectly in tune, the meter indicates 0 cents. To tune a pure interval with a tuner, you should compensate for the difference between the tempered and pure version of the interval. In order to do this you must first understand the context of the pitch you are trying to tune. What key is the passage in and which step of the scale does the pitch fall on?
Once you determine the context, you can compensate for the even temperament of the tuner by adhering to the following chart. The Scale Degree reflects the context of the pitch. The Pure Interval indicates how far from 0 the tuner's meter should read to get perfectly in tune.
||4 cents higher
||16 cents higher
||14 cents lower
||2 cents lower
||17 cents lower
||2 cents higher
||14 cents higher
||16 cents lower
||4 cents lower
||12 cents lower
But Wait, That's Not All
So far this discussion has been about using the meter portion of the tuner. A tuner's other important feature is sounding a pitch. Considering that the pitch sounded is always tempered, it doesn't make sense to try to match pitches with the tuner. Rather, set the tuner to play the tonic (first scale degree of the current key). Then play the pitch in question and listen for beats.
Beats occur whenever an interval is not in tune. They sound almost like vibrato. Many students become so accustomed to poor intonation that they have trouble at first hearing beats. Experimenting is the best way to train yourself to rediscover them. With the tuner sounding a concert D-flat (C-sharp) below the staff, play open G. Open G is a particularly easy note to manipulate.
If you are like most clarinetists, there will likely be fast beats sounding. Listen carefully as you slowly lower the G by altering breath, tongue position, embouchure, and/or adding fingers of the right hand. When the G gets low enough, the beats will slow down and stop all together. With enough patience and experimentation (and perhaps help from your private teacher), you'll eventually get the hang of hearing beats.
Beats get faster the further out of tune an interval is and slower as the interval gets closer to pure. When two pitches are perfectly in tune, there are no beats. These simple facts mean that you only need to listen for beats when trying to tune to an interval with the tuner or another instrument--and get proficient at subtly altering your pitch to eliminate beats.
Memorize the pure interval chart above, and keep it in mind when you are playing in an ensemble. The chart implies, for example, that if you have the third of a chord and hear beats, lowering the pitch has a good chance of improving the situation.
A lot goes into playing in tune and getting the most from working with a tuner. This article has only touched upon some of the highlights. Time spent with a tuner can be well-spent indeed. However it can also be entirely wasted if you forget the basic premise: you are training your ears to hear intonation and your body to respond to it. There's some pretty heady theory involved, not to mention intermediate to advanced playing skills required.
At the same time, it is not unreasonable to expect even young players to play fairly well in tune. The techniques are much less conscious with younger students. Nevertheless, they are quite capable of hearing and distinguishing pitch [in fact, young people have considerably more sensitive hearing than older people]. As you begin to incorporate a tuner into your practice, be sure to discuss its use with your private teacher to make certain you are using it productively.