5-Minute Read: Improving Your Marching Band’s Intonation

As we pass the middle of August and our marching band shows are beginning to take form on practice fields across the country, we’re all looking for ways to improve our band’s sound.  After all, we want the best possible product for the ears of audiences and judges alike.  However, the challenge of developing a superior ensemble intonation, already a challenge in climate-controlled indoor settings, is a massive undertaking in the marching band arena.  Extremely loud dynamics, extreme temperatures, extreme physical demands on performers: everything is so extreme! To overcome these obstacles, here are several techniques, strategies, and routines that we can employ to improve the intonation of our marching bands.

Check the brass equipment

It can be difficult and downright annoying to find the time to monitor the workings of every instrument in the band.  But more often than not, the valve slides of your brass instruments have frozen in place, and without them, your students don’t have a prayer of playing in tune!  Take a moment in rehearsal to check the mobility of the brass valve slides, and make note of those that are stuck (this includes the F trigger slides on trombones!). Have your local instrument repair them at their earliest convenience.  Often, this repair is as simple as using a cloth or leather strap, looped through the valve slide, to pull it out.  The slide can then be cleaned and greased.  Once those slides are moving, your trumpets and mellophones will be free to use their thumb saddles and 3rd valve slides to adjust many notes that are typically out of tune.  As for the other brass instruments, use this handy tuning exercise to get their valve slides adjusted to the correct length.

Warm-up your winds in the shade

While we all like to develop a certain physical toughness in ourselves and in our students, sometimes doing some activities in a cooler environment can really pay off.  When you warm-up your winds, consider leaving them inside or in the shade to reduce the temperature of their instruments.  The increased heat in direct sunlight pushes all of the wind instruments much sharper as their bore shrinks, and not every instrument is equally affected.  Getting your ensemble to settle down closer to A440 will darken your ensemble’s sound and certainly won’t hurt your center of pitch on the field.

Consider your tuning note

While tuning to F-concert provides a note that’s comfortably in the range of every instrument on the field, it can present many issues.  F-concert is slightly sharp on every brass instrument on the field except for F-horns or F-mellophones.  In an ensemble already pushed sharp by extreme volume and high temperatures, this can confound your attempts to settle pitch in your ensemble.  Consider tuning your trumpets, trombones, baritones/euphoniums, and tubas to Bb-concert (middle register).  This note is a fundamental tone on those instruments, and therefore can more accurately calibrate instrument length.  F-mellophones and horns can tune to their middle C (F-concert), as that is a fundamental pitch on those instruments.  While you’re tuning your mellophones to F concert, feel free to have tenor saxes and clarinets play their G, as that provides a good tuning pitch on those horns. Piccolos, flutes, alto and bari saxes (and double reeds if you have them) can be well-served by tuning to A-concert.  This note puts the pitch a good distance from the mouthpiece and should be free of major tuning issues inherent on all instruments. Once you’ve presented these individual tuning notes, the entire band can tune to Bb-concert to make their final adjustments.

Focus your ears and energies on the 2nd and 3rd parts and on the larger instruments

It’s only natural that our ears are drawn to the stronger players and the leading voices in our ensemble.  They’re our most accomplished performers, and their higher pitched instruments and melodic lines are more prominent in the ensemble sonority.  Indeed, the higher-pitched sounds carry more energy and therefore are more intense to the audience’s ears.  But as a result, we often end up with very hollow-sounding bands, dominated by piccolo, flute, alto saxophone, and first trumpet parts.  The more you can encourage, isolate, and develop the lower voices in your ensemble, the richer and more in tune your band will become.  An excellent strategy in this effort is to reduce the volume of all first parts and first chair players while increasing the dynamics of the inner voices.  Second trombones, third trumpets, tenor saxes: you name a larger or lower-part voice in your band, and you can bet that focusing more energy and attention on those students will improve the sound and tuning of your band.  During music or drill rehearsals, try cutting out your best players, even cutting out all of the first part players, and listen to your ensemble perform.  You’ll hear where weakness in tone production and intonation are hurting your band’s center of pitch.

Don’t give up!

The long term, physically demanding nature of marching band means we all get fatigued, students and teachers alike.  But don’t ever stop warming up, tuning, and listening to your band with an ear towards improving their intonation.  An in-tune band will be a much louder band, as the overtones and sound waves align to reinforce and scale up before they reach your audience.  I hope that using these techniques will provide you the rewarding experience of just such an ensemble.  Good luck to everyone on the field this year!

Author: Dr. Ward Miller

Ward Miller hails from Loachapoka, a small farming community near the city of Auburn, Alabama. He earned his bachelors of music education from Auburn University in 2001, where he served as webmaster, arranger, and an undergraduate teaching assistant with the Auburn University Marching Band. He graduated from Arizona State University in 2003 with a masters in Trombone Performance. While in the Phoenix area, he served as a part time assistant and clinician with the Paradise Valley High School bands, the Mesa Community College Wind Ensemble, and the Phoenix Symphony Guild Youth Orchestra. He taught public school in Alabama for three years, serving as Director of Bands at Andalusia High School and at Pleasant Grove High School. In 2006 he accepted a graduate teaching assistantship at The University of Iowa, where he studied with Dr. Myron Welch in Band Conducting. While at Iowa, he also worked as a teaching assistant with the Hawkeye Marching Band, where he wrote, taught, and conducted multiple arrangements and halftime drills. He also conducted the Iowa University Concert Band, and earned the 2008 outstanding Graduate Teaching Assistant award for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Dr. Miller graduated in 2011 from the University of Iowa with his D.M.A. in Band Conducting. Since 2014, Dr. Miller has been the Brass Caption Head for the Blue Stars Drum and Bugle Corps of La Crosse, WI. He currently resides in Minneapolis, MN where he spends his time arranging and composing, and working as a music education consultant.

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