Change your tuner, change your life — and warming up to improve intonation


There are a number of tuners out there that go beyond the old basic Korg tuner that has been so standard for years. Students of mine know I have been relying on a couple of Korgs that have been dropped a few too many times ….

TonalEnergyI recently saw several references to one specific tuner app for a phone, and it seems like a particularly good one, the TonalEnergy tuner. The happy face when you are in tune is a nice touch, and it also produces drones and has a built-in metronome.  [But NOTE: Be sure it is set for equal temperament! Using this on just intonation will be frustrating, it is better to achieve this with drones or in actual ensembles. Get equal temperament down and the small adjustments toward just intonation are easy.]

Even if you don’t get this app, in terms of practice especially at this point in the summer be very sure you are in tune! It is easy to drift off into a world that sounds good to you but is certainly not in tune.

As to how to use this tuner app, or any tuner actually, I do have some specific suggestions. A primary one is this:

  • Don’t use a tuner at all for the first several minutes of your playing day.

Why? Because before your face and instrument is warmed up a little bit tuning is pointless and possibly  detrimental even.

Back to the happy face on this app, you may feel a bit unhappy with your tuning when you actually get the tuner out. Working on tuning I have several suggestions.

After your initial warmup I would suggest some exercises early on in your playing day that involve pitch bends to check your centering. This article has a number of quotes and info on this topic. 

Notes may seem to center at different places and part of the issue will be your horn in general and also the slide positions being less than optimal. How do you adjust the valve slides? Some info is found in this article.

As to working on tuning further, speaking generally again, play slowish, tonal exercises and not exercises on the harmonic series. You want to use fingerings like you would normally use on every note. Repeating that:

  • Play slowish, tonal exercises and not exercises on the harmonic series and
  • Use fingerings like you would normally use on every note.

You may find it really hard to keep the face on the tuner happy in long tone exercises that involve a crescendo and diminuendo.  This is a really essential skill and one worth drilling every single day with a tuner.

Finally, there is an important side note. You may feel that your tuning is different when playing tonal exercises as compared to tonguing (for example tonguing repeated notes). This, like the crescendo/diminuendo issue, is something to work out and come to terms with as part of your daily quest for improved general intonation. Whatever form your adjustments take, they need to become automatic.

There are published warm-up routines that focus on tuning and you can mix and match elements of many to suit the goal of working on tuning (checking for example The Brass Gym for horn). Drones can also be real helpful for working on tuning, but I go back to the tuner app, it is like a new toy in a way and does open up your thinking and playing in a new way. Good luck!