Efficiency Through Resonant Intonation

by Mark Van Cleave

The Idea of playing efficiently is one of the most sought after skills that seems to elude brass players. The whole idea of not having to work hard to produce the results you want is pervasive in every part of our society. How can I get what I want without working for it! …..or at least working as little as possible. When it comes to playing a brass instrument, the idea of how to get the best sound per grunt ratio is very important, being able to play well without paying a high price physically.

So, back to the title: Efficiency through Resonant Intonation. What is Resonant Intonation? Intonation is the player’s ability to match the pitch of his/her instrument to the pitch of the instruments around them. Resonance refers to the acoustical phenomenon that occurs when the resonant frequency of an object or space (in this case: the volume of air inside the instrument) is stimulated. Resonant Intonation refers to the act of playing in tune with your instruments resonant frequency. Matching the pitch you produce with the pitch that the instrument wants to produce (because of where you have it tuned.) I like to call this the Shower Effect.

The Shower Effect is what happens when you are singing in a shower stall. You happen to find one note that really jumps out at you. When this happens you have just matched your intonation (or pitch) to the resonant frequency of the shower stall (the resonant space.) The efficiency that I am talking about is the result of being in tune with the shower stall’s resonant frequency or tuning. At this point, you are not only producing a sound as a result of singing, but you are also deriving benefits from the shower stall’s enhancement or resonance. The sound per grunt ratio has just improved!

Now that you have an Idea about what I’m talking about …..what does this have to do with brass playing? When a player tunes his/her instrument, that’s exactly what is being tuned. Just the instrument! Playing in tune is not a given, just because your horn has been tuned properly (A-440). You can play in tune (A-440) with your instrument tuned correctly or incorrectly! You can bend the pitch almost a full half step either direction without touching the tuning slide. Good intonation is a result of learning to hear when you are in tune and when you are not.

I have worked with many high school bands that spend (what seems to be) hours tuning each player’s instrument. Even if all of the horns are (technically) in tune, there is little or no chance that they will actually play in tune unless the individual players can recognize when they are in tune to begin with. Good intonation resides in the players own ears, not in the default tuning of the instrument!

The problems arise when your horn is tuned to, let’s say, A-436. You now have to bend the pitch sharp in order to match the A-440 tuning of the ensemble. You are in tune with the other players but you are no longer playing in tune with your instrument. Your instrument wants to resonate the A-436, but you force it to produce the A-440 by over tightening the embouchure or whatever. This is not only less efficient physically, but also less efficient from the resonance standpoint of the instrument. You do not get the instrument to work with you as a team. You are now fighting the acoustical properties of the instrument. You have set the instrumentÍs tuning to resonate at A-436, but you produce A-440. This new pitch (A-440) will not generate as much resonance as A-436 will. Playing this way will not result in the Shower Effect!

After working as a trumpet tester at the Vincent Bach factory, I realized that (by design) most trumpets play in tune at about the same tuning slide setting. If the horn is designed and manufactured well, the tuning will be very consistent from horn to horn. If I notice a trumpet player with the tuning slide pulled too far out or pushed too far in for that particular instrument, I can already tell that their tone will not be as big or vibrant as it could be. I also know that they will be working a bit harder than they need to be which will result in endurance and production problems.

If I notice that a student has tuned his/her instrument in a manner that is inconsistent with the horn’s design, I change the tuning, placing the tuning slide in the correct position for the instrument. Then make the player adjust his/her pitch to the horn. You can check the horn’s tuning by popping the mouthpiece with your hand. You will notice that you get a pitch. This is the pitch that the horn wants to produce. This is the pitch that should be matched to the ensemble. This is the pitch that (if matched by the player) will produce the most resonance and result in a bigger and easier to produce sound.

While playing on the road, I would sometimes be running late for the show’s down beat. I would end up jumping onto the bandstand seconds before the start of the show. No time to warm up. No time to think. And, inevitably, I would just grab the horn out of the case and start blowing. It wouldn’t be until intermission (1 1/2 hours later) that I would actually be able to catch my breath and figure out which end is up. By intermission, I would notice that my chops felt very fatigued and out of sorts. After a couple of minutes, I would realize that, in fact, I never tuned my horn! I had just played the entire first half with my tuning slide pushed all the way in! The unusual thing was that I was playing in tune the entire first half. What had taken the real beating was my chops. All of the unnecessary tightening and pitch bending had really tired my face. Also, the increased effort needed to produce a big sound (because of not triggering much resonance inside the horn) increases the grunt per note ratio. After correctly tuning the instrument, the second half would always be a breeze in comparison. Tuning properly is one of the best ways to immediately increase endurance.

So, to sum all of this up: You can tune your instrument, you can tune your ears, and you can tune your ears to your instrument. When you are producing the pitch that your instrument has been tuned for, you gain resonance as well as ease of operation or efficiency. Playing in tune with your instrument is what I’m talking about. You should tune your horn to the ensemble and yourself to the horn.

How To Find The Center Of The Horn’s Pitch:

Pitch: While playing a long tone, bend the pitch up and notice the tonal change that occurs. Bend the pitch down and notice that the tonal change is not the same as when the pitch is bent up. A sharp note has a distinct tonal change that is different to the tonal change of a flat note. These tonal colorations are good to listen for when checking resonance. Even subtle changes in tone color can guide you back to the exact center of the pitch, and to greater resonance. Learn to hear pitch shifts by tonal colorations.

Resonant Oral Cavity: While playing the first note in the exercise below (G), open and close your teeth slightly. A “WA – WA” sound or movement. You will hear that as the teeth are closing, the sound changes to a tighter, pinched sound. As you open the teeth, the sound becomes thin. You will also notice that somewhere in the middle, the sound jumps out of the horn. You have just matched the resonant properties of your oral cavity with those of the horn. This is the point of greatest resonance.


Play the same G. Find the center of sound. Now lock your embouchure and do not let it move. While your embouchure setting is locked, slowly play down chromatically. Do not change anything (be honest) … Jaw, air, mouthpiece pressure, horn angle, etc.. Listen to the tone quality as you go down. You will notice that by the time you have reached low C, the tone has thinned out as well as the volume of sound (resonance) has also been reduced. This is because your oral cavity is resonating a G and you are trying to play a low C. You have to adjust your oral cavity for every note.

When making adjustments, you will want to match both the resonant setting of your oral cavity and the pitch you are producing with the horns tuned pitch in order to produce the maximum resonance.

Long Tones: On each long tone, find the correct oral cavity setting by physically adjusting the opening between the teeth, as well as by the sound. Listen for the center of the sound. Memorize this sound (tone color). Once you have found the center of each long tone, hold this sound and memorize the setting. Repetition will turn these settings into reflexes.

Long Tone Exercise #1:

Long Tone Exercise #1:

Advanced Long Tones:

When you played the first G in the first long tone exercise, you had to do a certain amount of assuming that you were in tune with the horn. In the advanced long tone excersizes, you will compare the pitch of the target note with the pitch of surrounding notes. This will give you a better idea of the horns tuned pitch. The closer you can get to the horns tuned pitch, the more resonant your sound will become.

As in Long Tone Exercise #1, The first long tone here is G. This is the target note. When playing these exercises, blow through each phrase as if you were only playing the target note. Blow evenly, do not gun or blast out the top notes. Listen to the notes surrounding the target note for pitch and sound quality. This will help you find the center for the target note. The last note should be held just as you would a normal long tone. Memorize this set. Keep the air relaxed and even.

Things to listen for:

  1. Tone quality. As in Long Tone Exercise #1, listen carefully to the tone color. It is possible to hear a single note and to determine if the player is sharp or flat to the horn by tone alone. Learn to make physical adjustments based on the sound.
  2. Intonation. Your best sound will occur when you are playing in tune with the horn. Tune the horn carefully and then play to the horn’s intonation. If you are playing low D or C sharp (or any other bad note on the horn), you will have to change the resonant frequency of that note by moving a slide or slides in order to play in tune with A 440.
  3. “Clicks.” When moving from note to note you are changing the harmonic slot to be resonated. Push the valve down quickly, and listen for a “click” between each note. These “clicks” are easier to hear when playing slurs, but listen carefully and you will learn to hear them even when you are using the valves. These “clicks” also tell you that you are playing in the center of the harmonic slot.

Advanced Long Tones #1.

  1. Big breath.
  2. Relaxed exhale.
  3. Compare pitch of surrounding notes to help determine the target note’s exact center of the harmonic slot.
  4. Push valves down very quickly.
  5. Listen for “clicks” when changing notes.
  6. Blow through each phrase as if you were playing a single long tone. Do not blast out top notes.
  7. Hold last note until you reach “negative air.”

(The G is the “target” note or long tone note.)

Play this Advanced Long Tone exercise in the same order as in Long Tone Exercise #1.

Play this Advanced Long Tone exercise in the same order as in Long Tone Exercise #1.

© 2004 MVC. Republished by permission.