The “Right” Fingering (I)

1819
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The whole vs. the sum of its parts.

The French horn’s valve and tuning slides work together as a comprehensive system. Small tweaks and compensations are made here and there in this system in order to make it work as a whole.

Some manufacturers may claim “perfect” or “near-perfect” intonation or an “even scale.” While some horns are indeed better than others in this regard, the reality is that a perfect system is really not possible.

In some contexts, fingering charts might be better thought of as a good guideline rather than as a steadfast rule. I advise my advanced students to know three different fingerings for each note in the practical range – one that is relatively “on pitch,” one that is low, and one that is high. In ensemble playing this knowledge can come in handy.

Tuning is relative, not absolute

From “Physician Heal Thyself (II)“:

The meter on a tuner is based on a standard called cents. There are 100 cents between each chromatic pitch. When a specific pitch is in tune, the meter reads at zero cents. However, to tune an interval, a player needs to compensate for the difference between the tempered and pure version of the interval.

In order to do this, the player must first understand the key of the passage and which scale degree the pitch is that is being tuned.

Once this is determined, a player can compensate for the even temperament of the tuner by using the adjustments indicated in the chart below. “Degree” reflects the context of the pitch in relation to a scale’s tonic pitch. “Adjustment” indicates how far from zero the tuner’s meter should read to get in-tune relative to a rooted pitch.

Interval Temperance Chart

Degree

Adjustment

Major 2nd

4 cents higher

Minor 3rd

16 cents higher

Major 3rd

14 cents lower

Perfect 4th

2 cents lower

Augmented 4th

17 cents lower

Perfect 5th

2 cents higher

Minor 6th

14 cents higher

Major 6th

16 cents lower

Minor 7th

4 cents lower

Major 7th

12 cents lower

So for example, if the key is C Major and Player One is playing a “C” and Player Two is playing an “E,” Player Two will need to temper the “E” downwards by 14 cents in order for the chord to fully resonate.

Detailed knowledge of the temperance chart above is not necessary; a general knowledge of chord tendencies is all that you really need. Using instinct and intuition based on this general knowledge is good enough.

It’s all about context

A general rule-of-thumb for tuning individual pitches within a basic chord:

  • The tonic or root note should be relatively “on pitch.”
  • The third in a major chord should be fairly low, in a minor chord it should be fairly high.
  • The fifth should a little high.

Part II

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