Professor Corno on Tuning to the Tuba
Professor Corno loves to read blogs. One recent series of articles I found in TheTrumpetBlog was on the topic of tuning up and not down. The series starts here, with the main point being “why are we still tuning our bands to a tuba?” (Part II here, part III here).
To immediately digress, this reminds me of not one but two different professional trumpet players I have known who told me that they tune to the timpani. Which I guess makes sense to them, especially in classical literature, but it can easily leave them out in left field in relation to most of the orchestra.
On horn, we are in the middle of everything. Where do we need to point our ears?
The answer: in orchestra we need to primarily tune to the upper woodwinds.
The strings? Hope that they tune to the woodwinds and horns.
The brass?? Tune to the brass in orchestra with care and caution. Figure out where they are, of course, and for passages where you really need to match the brass tune to the trumpet. It has to do ultimately with score order as they are the top voice, have a leadership role, and are correct. They won’t necessarily change where they are even if they are not in tune with the woodwinds. Especially if they are in tune with the timpani.
Band may be a bit different, but to be very serious for a moment, practical reality is brass sections tune down from the top, just as horn sections tune down from the top as well. It may be a good exercise to listen and tune to the tuba, but that is not how it works in the real world.
Back to the article linked earlier, a major point made is that clarinet is easier to hear by most players in a band and is more consistent in pitch production. I would only amplify this to the extent that I would ask, have you ever played a tuba? Seriously, the pitch can be bent all over the place, especially down. If they are in tune at all it is actually more about their ear putting it the right place than the instrument naturally producing great pitch.
At a pro level, when you have a very fine tubist, tuning to the tuba is not a bad idea, as they can lay the pitch down correctly. Listening to the tuba is part of listening up and down the group, something you have to do. I love playing lines with the tuba.
But my gut feeling is at any level below the professional level it is potentially a risky proposal to focus on the tuba for pitch. Tuba is hard to hear clearly, and it could be a good bit flat or sharp easily, depending on the skill level of the player. For us in the horn world the upper woodwinds are the key place to focus for pitch.
In the end Professor Corno thinks tuning to the tuba is one of those things that sounds right on paper, but in reality only works when you have a very fine tubist to tune to.