Sunday, November 28, 2010

Playing in Tune

AutoTune (Kanye west fans? haha!), A great Tuning fork Picture :)

Blog #63: Playing in Tune

I think that playing in tune is strangely the last thing many musicians learn. Many jazz musicians spend so much time working on quick phrases, articulation, range etc we overlook pitch accuracy perfection. Its pretty easy to neglect it when so many jazz musicians play so many notes, and its usually only noticeable when a musician holds just one note for a longer duration. I actually believe a lot of horn players 'hide' in all those notes. Recently I was listening to some early recordings of John Coltrane was he playing pretty sharp. Kenny Dorham and Jackie McLean are two other examples of guys who regularly play sharp.(and I say this without disputing their greatness).

Whether you're aware or not, most instruments are inherently out of tune. I could get all scientific and talk about the pythagorean comma, and the creation of the equal tempered scale, but I'll keep it simple. I'll speak about horns, because that's where my knowledge is, if you're familiar with the harmonic series(the ascending notes on a give fingering) the notes become increasingly flat as you ascend. To give you an example: C# and D below the staff are sharp, D 2nd from the top line is slightly flat, E and Eb are pretty flat...etc. Really every note on the trumpet has a particular tendency whether that be slightly sharp, very sharp, slightly flat, very flat and as a horn player you have to adjust using your lips and your slides. This means playing in tune is a lot harder than just adjusting the tuning slide and blowing away. If you're a horn player you really have to listen to the rhythm section(piano, bass, guitar) and use that to guide your ears into playing in tune. The slower you play, the more obvious it will be as to if you're in/out of tune.

Besides just 'playing in tune' with the rhythm section, there is also playing in tune with the other horn players in the band. Saxophone seems just as naturally out of tune as trumpet(especially alto, though soprano can be downright painful in untrained hands). I remember when I was in school and did an ensemble with John Scofield. He told us that there is an art in doubling melodies and the key is to put one ear on yourself and one on the other horn. I know this is really simple advice, but you'd be surprised how many people just put themselves into the music stand and don't listen to the other horns. The key to playing well with the other horn is to try to make yourselves into one thing. You try to make the two horns sound like one peson and you try to make your phrasing identical. Besides articulation and breathing, a big part of that is Tuning.

One thing I've been checking out recently is using alternate fingers to play certain notes in tune better. One of my songs "Progress" is in Concert C#(my Key of B). The melody I wrote(on piano) is super hard to play in tune and I've realized in the past few days if I play D# top line with 2-3 fingerings, instead of 2, its easier to play in tune. I'm going to experiment with this sort of stuff more.

Lastly, one of my big pet peeves is vibrato. I've never liked it, and that's one reason I never got into early jazz and swing. The vibrato is just too much for me. I prefer horn players with straight tone, and I try to keep mine very straight and clear. I've always been partial to players like Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Woody Shaw etc. I think certain players use vibrato as a way to hide their pitch accuracy. The straighter the tone, the more obvious it will be if you're playing in tune. Certain bass players like to put the vibrato one when they get in the upper register: gag me. That shit sounds terrible. I'm not even going to try to sugar coat it or be polite on that one.

Playing in Tune on naturally out of tune instruments is hard, but I think its a very important thing to be aware of.

1 comment:

  1. Jon,

    Totally agree on the tuning-so important, yet overlooked by many jazz musicians.

    To add to John Scofield's advice: one of my former teachers used to say that you should hear the other person's sound as if it is coming out of your horn. This never fails as it makes your ears lock onto the other person's pitch and sound.