5-Minute Read: BRR! Take on Cool-Weather Tuning!

At a recent caption-style marching band competition, I had the pleasure of judging the music performance caption.  Even though it was a Southern destination in very early October, temperatures were extra cool, especially as the sun went down.  This of course lead to the many intonation challenges with which we’re all familiar: rising pitch in the mallet instruments and plummeting pitch in the winds.  So, as we get deeper into the Fall contest season, and as temperatures continue to drop, keep in mind these strategies that can help fight cold weather intonation challenges!

Tune Against Temperature Pitch Tendencies

Instrument manufacturers, as a general rule of thumb, build their instruments to play in tune at around 72 to 76 degrees (climate-controlled room temperatures).  Anything below that and we’ve got problems. The contracting bars of the mallet instruments sky-rocket sharp, and the shrinking walls of the wind instruments open their bore, creating a flatter pitch.  So tune and plan to combat this trend!

First of all, make sure you tune your wind instruments to the highest pitch that they can all comfortably reach and maintain.  It’s no good if your entire band can be tuned to A=444 except the tubas.  Therefore, do a little research to find out the lowest common denominator instrument in your band for a higher pitched intonation calibration.  For example, if your trumpets can’t get higher than A=443, then tune your entire wind section to A=443. The entire wind section except for the mellophones and alto saxes that is!

Tune Mellophones and Alto Saxes Even Higher

The alto lines, your mellophones and alto saxes, spend a majority of their time in the marching activity playing upper fifths of chords.  And just intonation dictates that the fifths of triads be raised 2 cents.  In addition, marching alto sax parts often stray into the G at the top of the staff and higher, notes that tend flat in that register, especially at higher volumes; mellophones spend a lot of time in the upper register, which contains some flat partials, but also can grow flat as your performers tire in that tessitura.  Therefore, if at all possible, tune your alto saxes and mellophones to an even higher pitch than the rest of your wind section.  Anywhere from 5 to 10 cents higher, depending on your own taste and the limits of those instruments’ tuning capabilities.

Keep Those Instruments as Warm as Possible!

Everyone loves a sharp-looking, stock-still band at attention.  It really demonstrates discipline and focus.  However, in colder weather, having your band stay at a frozen attention simply allows their horns’ temperature to plummet after your pre-show warm-up.  So play it smart:

  1. As your band marches to the field, have your brass players cover mouthpieces with their hands at all times.
  2. Allow your players time to put hot air into their horns before the first note of the show, even on the field.
  3. If possible, keep your mallet instruments (especially bells and vibraphones) covered with thick blankets until the last possible moment.

Trust me: we judges will understand that your band needs to keep instruments warm for their performance and we won’t dock you points for “fidgeting.” We would much prefer to hear better intonation!

Pay Extra Attention to Soloists

The most perilous marching moments in cooler weather are for your wind soloists.  They are often accompanied only by the mallets, who are very sharp in cold weather, and they often approach their solo from a tacet moment, allowing their instruments to cool and flatten before they perform their feature.  Also, some solos are on doubled instruments that aren’t played anywhere else in the show (soprano saxes, flugelhorns, concert euphoniums), and therefore sit in cold, windy weather right until they are utilized. Therefore, consider the following strategies for your wind soloists:

  1. If the soloist has any such opportunity before their solo begins, have them push in slightly to raise pitch.  This is especially important if they are accompanied primarily by the mallets.
  2. If the instrument is a doubled instrument that is only used for this solo moment, consider some sort of protected warm enclosure in which to keep the instrument on the sidelines before it is used.  A small warm box with blankets inside can help immensely in keeping a flugelhorn warm before it is used.  Also, make sure this doubled solo instrument is pushed in further, as it won’t have the benefit of hot breath inside it before being used on the field.

Employing these techniques and strategies can greatly improve your band’s intonation and therefore its volume and sound.  As crisp Fall temperatures continue to encroach across the country at marching festivals and contests, consider employing these tips at your next halftime or adjudicated performance.  Good luck and stay warm!