The Drone Center

The Problem

Intonation is one of the most neglected subjects in current wind music pedagogy. Middle school and high school wind players may be aware they play out of tune, but rarely can explain how or why they are out of tune. Poor intonation is also a universal problem among university-level wind players. While undergoing high-level private instruction, students often miss out on learning proper dedicated practice techniques required to play “in tune.” In the early stages of pitch development, instructors — ensemble directors, private teachers — often comment that a student plays with poor intonation, but the usual solution — the digital or analog tuner — can be detrimental if the student does not understand how to apply the principles of both equal and just intonation in their practice.

Although historical temperaments are vital to the maintenance of historical performance practice, they do not address a student’s basic knowledge concerning with whom or to what to compare, intonation recognition, and how to physically adjust with precision. Horns (and all wind and string instruments) can make these adjustments while also keeping the ability to modulate with no detrimental fixed intonation problems when a new key is explored. It is knowing how to physically move the pitch that makes the understanding of just temperament vital.

Getting Started

Playing against a drone can be a bit overwhelming. Keep it simple and start with droning with a unison — a.k.a. the same note you are playing.

In the exercise below, turn on the metronome first (you may need try a couple of times), then hit the play button.

Concert Pitch
Breath Tones w/Drone

The drone used in this exercise the native sound generated by the program. It is not a very good sound but it will help you on your first step towards droning.

Interval Training

I am convinced — by research and years of teaching — if a student were to enter a practice session with a focused goal concerning pitch, he or she would be better able to comprehend the principles of just intonation and apply those principles to their tasks promptly and significantly earlier in their developmental process. To be successful, daily intonation practice is imperative. It is the quality rather than quantity of practice that is the clearer predictor of performance success (Willamon, 2000, p. 355). Pitch irregularity still occurs consistently for students who play along with a drone because they often present no real attempt to adjust with the drone because they have never been made aware of the change required.

A predecessor to this project is an older method of daily horn fundamentals practice by Christopher Leuba, a former principal horn of the Chicago Symphony. While the “Leuba Routine” has fallen out of current pedagogical practice, my experience of practicing it daily (initially introduced to me by Jack Herrick) led me to build upon Leuba’s principle of teaching intonation through intervallic relationships and recognition. While the theory of the routine is not cognitively simple, they are not technically difficult.