Tuning from within and from without

First, only barely on topic, I have to say that I love using the term “without” as the opposite of “within”.  What I’m really writing about though is a difference in the perception of tuning from within the ensemble and from the conductor’s and audience’s points of view.  In an ensemble I’m in, I’m playing alongside a relatively beginner trombonist.  Musicians love to play in harmony.  Dissonance is best served as making consonance sound even better.  Grinding chords feel fantastic when they are followed by the sweetness of resolution.

When I play, I’m constantly adjusting – be it by the tuning slide of my first valve on the C tuba, or my embouchure.  I can hear and “feel” when a note is in tune.  There’s a resonance about the sound and it just rings.

So this trombonist’s ear isn’t quite as developed or experienced and he’s still learning some slide positions, so, in a recent performance, there were a number of times where we didn’t agree on unisons or octaves.  Between me and saxes, we weren’t quite “on” either.  It sounded rough for some chords here and there.  I assumed the audience would be hearing this too.

Well, I was wrong.  At least, this was my experience when I was conducting.  In the heat of the moment yesterday, I only recall one obvious wrong note in the four pieces I conducted (and I mean an outright wrong note).  A recording might be more reveal though.  But I wasn’t hearing the rough tuning from the outside that I was hearing on the inside.  My only conclusion is that the trombonist wasn’t playing loud enough to be heard outside his immediate neighbours on stage.

But overall tuning was really good.  Is that because the ensemble is good (which it is) or it also because the bad tunings are the minority and get covered by the consonance.  I’m talking physics here – do the harmonious frequencies dominate over the frequencies that don’t quite line up?  I think that could be true to a point:  consonant overtones act like a sound blanket that drown out some dissonance.  But a clarinet or trumpet playing loud enough and out of tune will cut through.

I think my personal lesson here is something like “I can’t see the forest for the trees”:  I can’t heard the chord for the notes.  Interesting re-wording.  It also makes me think though that this trombonist needs to play louder, and, of course, in tune.  A tubist’s best friend is the trombonist sitting right beside him.  I think I’ll see if he wants to work on some things together.

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