Intonation is a never-ending project. It’s extremely simple, incredibly subtle, and (I anticipate) takes more than one career to really, truly master. I stumbled across a revelation of sorts rather later in my first season than I’d like to admit. To appreciate how radical it was at the time, and how obvious in retrospect, it’s important to first understand where I was coming from.
I learned the adjustment “rules” for just intonation (outlined below) pretty early on. These quickly came to completely define my approach to playing in tune with others. For example, here’s how I would conceptualize the opening of the second movement of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto (which we happen to be playing later this season):
Now, this is important information, and I certainly keep it in mind at all times, but when you add in the vagaries of the other people you’re playing with? A bad reed? A personal tendency on a given note? An instrumental tendency on a given note? It can very quickly turn into a big mess. So what’s the solution?
I have found that it’s absolutely necessary to keep the objective “rules” outlined above in mind, within the context of where you hear the note you’re about to play. In retrospect, this is self-evident—a necessity, even, particularly for brass players—but it was a novel concept to me.
When I finally figured it out, we were performing Un Ballo in Maschera, and my frustration with my own pitch was building and building, until I finally decided to listen to my own resonance. I stopped trying to figure out where my colleagues (who play remarkably in tune under circumstances that are often challenging) would play. In a profession where very little progress happens suddenly, it was shocking to me how instantaneous the transformation was. So many of my intonation problems just…vanished. Now, as I said, work on intonation never ends—I’m not trying to claim that I immediately developed faultless intonation. But by changing my mindset, I suddenly jumped that much closer.
Of course, this is a minefield of a topic. I don’t want to understate the importance of knowing how to adjust based on one’s harmonic function. Both aspects, the intellectual and the auditory, are essential. “But I sound good to myself!” is not a valid response when you need to adjust. My point is, playing in tune must be done in by understanding one’s harmonic role in conjunction with some commonsense listening, not just to others, but to oneself.