QUESTION: What IS practicing over a reference tone?
To me, it’s using your ears vs. your eyes. Using a tuner is critical; it helps understand the tendencies of each note and also keeps us “honest.” However, you must train your ears to anticipate and lock in without only relying on the happy face lighting up on our tuner when you place things well!
Let’s take this step by step to really “digest” this often misunderstood practicing tool. The reference tone should be able to be sustained at a volume similar to that which you are playing so that you can play without strain and still be able to hear the generated sound. External speakers (even connected to your phone) are better than earbuds in order for you to hear your tone quality accurately and freely. At least in the preliminary stages, I find it important to play the generated tone at a strong volume (but please, always safeguard your hearing!).
There are a variety of tone generators, including those created by some tuners, but I have found these to be the most useful in my own practicing:
Before you start, check your set up to see if you’re in tune. Go ahead and use a tuner to keep yourself honest, as I wrote earlier! Keep in mind that you want to play with your best tone as you execute these exercises at a comfortable (not forced or strained) dynamic. After you’re comfortable, then experiment with different dynamic levels. Consider this a comfortable mezzo-forte, middle-of-the-road tone.
Begin by playing the same note (strive for a unison, not an octave) the reference tone is sounding. If this proves too challenging or uncomfortable, start by playing the 5th (next step), and then come back to the unison. Let’s start on a low G (for flutists; the second line in the staff) over the same exact pitch sounding on your tone generator. Try not to adjust at first so that you can hear any beats that are created between your tone and that of the drone. (Beats are created by the difference in frequencies.) Are the beats fast or slow? If you’re not sure, try raising and lowering your intonation just slightly. Notice which change decreases the beats – we want to match a unison as much as possible so that means the goal is to eliminate as many beats as you can. Take care to play without excess tension in your body – check in with your jaw, embouchure, tongue, neck, shoulders, hands, and lower. Consider this a chance to create a beautiful and in tune tone. Try making the beats faster. Sense how that feels in your body, to your ears, to every cue you can process. Dial it back to where it’s more in tune (slow the beats down/eliminate them), and compare your personal inventory to feel secure in your work.
As always, if you’re not sure when it’s better or worse, record yourself. Jot down what you did (played sharper, then flatter, etc.). Listen back to notice the difference. It’s likely much more obvious when you’re not busy playing and adjusting!
Now, graduate to playing the 5th (five notes higher than your generated tone is sounding; so if your reference tone is a G – play a D above that). Repeat the steps above, including recording if possible. Now practice playing a G and then a D, slowly slurring up in pairs, and then slurring down from the same D to that first G. Notice if you’re succeeding in locking back into your in-tune tonic (and 5th!) as you play your pairs. Did you record yourself? Did you listen? What did you notice?
5-note scale: now try a super-slow G-A-B-C-D (5-note scale, or Taffanel & Gaubert No. 1) over the same reference tone, but play as if you had all the time in the world (because you do!) to figure this out. Really play into the beats when you hit that A – bring it up too sharp, bring it down too low, zero in when it sounds and feels “right.” Breathe as needed! Next is that minor third, which we need to place low (flat) to really sound in tune. That means that if you play the B with a tuner, it will be too high, but in tune by equal temperament. Without turning this into a dissertation, we seek a purer sound with less beats. Watch this video (at least the first minute) for a quick visualization paired with accompanying tones of equal and pure tuning.
. . . Back to playing this 3rd: go ahead and play the B too sharp (yes! Simon says so). Notice how that feels and sounds (is it uncomfortable? Does it make your “skin crawl”?). Now try lowering the pitch, and compare your personal inventory again (does this feel more grounded?). For an even greater exercise, try your reference tones at G AND D, sustaining both, and play that B. Don’t be afraid to record yourself! Now keep going on your 5-note scale to play the C (this should be a perfect interval), testing the placement of your C by moving it too sharp and too flat, to Goldilocks land of “just right,” and when you’re ready – back to your old friend, D. Play that whole thing once again, even if it took you five or ten minutes to really feel locked in and comfortable. Then play a descending 5-note scale from D to G. Record yourself, and listen back.
This might well be enough for your first exploration (MAYDAY - INFORMATION OVERLOAD!), but be sure to try your 5-note scales in different keys, including minor keys (see T&G no. 2, or G-A-Bb-C-D, etc.). You’ll do the opposite with the third (Bb) since it will need to be a bit sharp! A good rule of thumb is to do at least one or two 5-note scales a day to really awaken your ear. As your endurance and critical listening skills improve, you can continue onward to more complicated exercises. Quality, not quantity – so take great care in this type of practicing to get the most value out of it!
When you’re ready, try a one-octave scale or a simple arpeggio over a reference tone. Playing these in all the keys, major and minor, will make everything you play much easier! You may wish to experiment with different dynamic levels, too, so play these 5-note scales, one-octave (or more) scales, and arpeggios softer and also stronger. Be sure to record yourself here so you become acutely aware of your tendencies for soft and strong playing.
Next, try the above steps in whatever you’re practicing. Assuming you’re playing a tonal piece, pick a small section no longer than two to four measures. Here’s a plan of attack:
Sustain the tonic on your tone generator (your key, or tonal home base) – and if you're not sure what key you’re playing in, just sustain the most common pitch you see in the section. Remember to keep the volume fairly high on your reference tone. Play very slowly - SLOWLY! - and patiently, being curious and giving yourself enough time to really hear the beats that are created between you and the reference tone. Most people aren't willing to play slowly enough to experience the magic of this practicing approach. This is our challenge! Try sounding the tonic and the 5th scale degree together as you play your excerpt. What do you hear in your playing? It’s ok if you’re not sure which direction to go. The only way to really learn is to experiment! Note any observations you can, such as “I think the beats increased when I raised the note higher,” etc. Record yourself to build your confidence to check your observations.
Playing scales and arpeggios, etudes, and passages from our pieces over reference tones can assist us in many ways. I find that being in tune is really a way of playing with a superior tone quality – and I strive to make it a part of my tone vs. an additional aspect to consider. Of course, we can achieve changes in intonation at the cost of a good tone (like rolling in and out on the flute), but the key is to really discover how to play with ease and freedom at varying dynamics while still being in tune! Playing in tune with a resonant, vibrant tone is an important ingredient in our playing.
We often become dependent upon using our eyes when checking in with a tuner, rather than developing our ears. As we play over sustained pedal points we dramatically change our attention to listen vertically as well as horizontally - not easy to do when playing a solo line! I hope these exercises help you accomplish these goals.
For lots of useful information, check out this booklet on equal temperament (like piano tuning) vs. just intonation, and interval ratios.
What are some tricks and favorite methods you use in your practicing with reference tones?
Happy [slow] practicing!