Which is better, warming up with drone pitches from a pitch generator or watching a tuner? If you have the time and location to do so drone pitches are superior.
I have went though phases on this over years of playing. Right now my practice is centered around a trio recording project with my colleagues Douglas Yeo and Deanna Swoboda. In relation to that, I have been experimenting with horns and mouthpieces, with part of that forced on me by my body developing a sensitivity to metal mouthpiece rims (more here). All this change of equipment has left me feeling less secure than I would like about my pitch production.
Then last week John Cox, Principal Horn of the Oregon Symphony, came through Phoenix. We were able to have him in for a master class at ASU and I was able to chat with him as some length, a real treat. One memorable thing he shared was about his warm-up. He is very consistent with his warm-up (at home, prior to an orchestra service) and makes extensive use of drone pitches on a pitch generator, to make sure he is setting up pitch production correctly.
Thus inspired, I have gone back to a warm-up with much more use of drone pitches. The reasons why they are better for working on pitch production include:
- with no pitch reference things can feel right but be rather out of tune,
- with a tuner alone you can see what is right, but
- with a drone pitch you have to listen and can feel what is right on a deeper level,
- and you do need to train being right on pitch, especially so if you are a lead voice.
In some situations warming up with a drone pitch is not practical (such as right before an orchestra service on stage!), but for sure there is value in any other situation.
There are several exercises I like a lot of this general type in The Brass Gym, and many exercises can be adapted to use with drones. Give it a try, your pitch control will improve.
That all being said, a final tip would be some horns are just easier to play in tune than others. If you have done all the right things in terms of drones and training but pitch is still an issue it is time to think about changing your horn. Even among horns I own I can tell some are better than others for ease of playing in tune, and actually the two most expensive ones are the easiest to play in tune. Food for thought.