Intonation is the devil. Everybody from the freshest beginner to the most grizzled vet will struggle with tuning at some point in their musical careers. What are we doing early in the musical experience to give our students the audiation skills to perform with good intonation? How can our teaching help prevent intonation headaches later in life?
Great intonation has to start with a quality general music experience in elementary school. So many important musical skills are developed at a young age, and intonation is one of the big ones. Are we singing to our students? Are we not only singing, but singing in different tonalities? Are we having our students sing to us? There’s a reason that vocalists tend to have such great intonation—singing is one of the best things that you can do for your ears.
Post-general music is where a lot of intonation issues can develop. All too often when a student picks up an instrument, their teacher neglects singing. Why? Being in a band or an orchestra doesn’t mean that you suddenly lose the ability to sing. I’d argue that being in an instrumental ensemble demands a healthy amount of singing. If you can sing it, you can play it. It’s musical practice without having an instrument in your hands.
A few years ago at the Midwest Clinic in Chicago, I witnessed the most spectacular demonstration of singing and instrumental performance I’ve ever seen. The great jazz trombonist Wycliffe Gordon was doing a session on improvisation, and was singing every single note, with perfect intonation, before he played it on his trombone. He was so in touch with his ears that he wasn’t even being provided with a starting pitch before he sang.
That was a truly well-rounded musician demonstrating his craft. He didn’t need an instrument in his hands to be musical.
The best bands and orchestras that we hear are ones that practice singing frequently. These groups are led by teachers who recognize the importance of singing, and who have been able to communicate that need to their students. In the best ensembles, singing has become as much part of the routine as long tones or scales.
If we want our students to become the best musicians they can be, we need to be making a commitment to singing in our instrumental classrooms. Not once every couple of weeks, not once a month…every single day, even if it’s just for 30 seconds.