Orchestral tuning

May 14, 2019, 3:58 AM · I would like to know how trombones should tune in an orchestra. A is usually played by oboe, then flutes, clarinets, etc etc but for trombones in particular they would prefer Bb but I don’t think I’ve ever heard the oboe play a Bb after the A.

Thanks

Replies (26)

May 14, 2019, 4:01 AM · The oboist always plays a Bb for the brass section in every orchestra I've played in!
May 14, 2019, 4:14 AM · Brass instruments in most of the orchestras I've played in have tuned to the A. One casual community orchestra in my area tunes brass to Bb, but it's the only orchestra I've played in that does that.
May 14, 2019, 4:19 AM · I've never heard an oboe play a Bb. Depends on your orchestra, Sonia. If it's amateur, get the trombones trained better!
May 14, 2019, 5:56 AM · in our orchestra and other community orchestras I am aware of, the oboe plays A, then Bb. but I readily admit I've never seen this with professional orchestras.
May 14, 2019, 6:25 AM · This is a legitimate question. The A is not a natural note for a trombone to tune. Its pitch depends on the position of the slide. It would be like tuning violins to C#. Maybe they tune offstage and the onstage tuning routine is just for show (like pretty much everyone else anyway).
May 14, 2019, 8:03 AM · I used to play trombone professionally. In orchestra jobs, we tuned to A.

That's a lie. We didn't actually tune on stage (I'd usually tune before coming out, and tried to be just a little bit sharp). Like violin fingerings (when not on open strings), we'd automatically adjust the slide position to pitch while playing. Unlike violin, open strings were not a problem if you tuned a bit sharp - first position wouldn't be "all the way in", but just a few mm out, and your ear would cause you to magically adjust.

And, of course, tuning at the start of a concert was futile anyway. The pitch could change quite a bit based on the temperature of the instrument, and with trombone you usually sat around for half the piece swilling vodka counting rests until your first entrance. You'd try to blow some air through the horn to warm it up a little before you played, but like violin, you just had to use your ear.

May 14, 2019, 9:29 AM · Brass, even in a youth symphony or not-great community orchestra, will generally still tune to an A. I think the only times I've ever called for a Bb was for public-school elementary or middle-school band kids combining with a string orchestra to do a full-orchestra work for the first time.

Community-orchestra players should actually be tuning privately before the rehearsal begins, so that all that needs to be done at the start of rehearsal is a quick tuning check.

May 14, 2019, 10:24 AM · In my two best non-classical pro. bands, we never had a formal tuning session at the start of a show. Everyone just knew how to play in tune.
May 14, 2019, 11:52 AM · We played a performance recently with an electric piano; the conductor asked the piano for an 'A'. It was dreadfully sharp (I guess someone had reset it above 440). So we all ignored it and I don't think anyone was aware.

It was only recently that I realized the strings don't tune to the oboe 'A' (as we used to in the old days). As Lydia mentioned, everyone (at least the strings) tunes to an electric tuner beforehand and then goes through what is really a 'tuning pantomime' for the concertmaster.

May 14, 2019, 11:53 AM · I have been wondering: Isn't the tuning ritual obsolete now that electronic tuners are available?
May 14, 2019, 12:03 PM · I know a very fine orchestral violinist who is convinced that his violin goes a little flat when he puts a mute on. I don't know whether anyone else has noticed this - I haven't - but I guess what is happening is that the mute cuts out a lot of the upper partials, which he may subconsciously be relying on when tuning or playing, and his auditory system interprets the fundamentals and lower partials as being flat by contrast when the upper partials aren't there.
Edited: May 14, 2019, 12:24 PM · In a radio interview with a retired clarinettist I heard some years ago he related the story of a day-long studio recording session of a very avant garde and complex piece for wind instruments. The conductor was also the composer.

Come the end of the day, when the recording was finished to everyone's satisfaction and the musicians were packing away their instruments, our clarinettist noticed to his horror that he had been using his B-flat instrument instead of the A, as specified in the score. And no-one, including the conductor/composer, had noticed.

Our man, bearing in mind the cost of re-recording from scratch and, certainly not least, his own future prospects, decided to keep shtum. It was only many years (decades) later when everyone involved was either retired or not around, and the LP had long disappeared into the oblivion it doubtless richly deserved, that the truth was told.

Edited: May 14, 2019, 1:24 PM · "violin goes a little flat when he puts a mute on. I don't know whether anyone else has noticed this - I haven't - but I guess what is happening is that the mute cuts out a lot of the upper partials"

That's one possibility. Another is that he sometimes moves the bridge a bit when putting on or taking off the mute, which makes a difference. Whether it goes flat or sharp or which strings do what would depend on the details of the motions, and of course when some strings are used for relative tuning, it could be that the target string is off or the reference or both.

Some people complain of the sound remaining dull after taking off a practice mute, which might happen by the bridge being moved during the application or removal.

Simple experiment to find out if it's making a difference. (1) measure the pitch. (2) be very careful with the process, minimizing force and chance of movement and measure if the pitch changes. (3) use normal/previous process/force and measure if the pitch changes.

I'm certain that the pitch can indeed change when at least practice mutes are applied or taken off, and it's not subjective - it's due to the movement. Whether or not it happens for someone else in some other case depends on the details and how they do it.

May 14, 2019, 2:38 PM · Finally a question that I can answer without sounding like an absolute moron! Given that a trombone's center of pitch and center of resonance is identical, a trombone should not need to tune! I was a trombone major in college. Likes string instruments, it must tune each pitch. Unlike string instruments, there is no being in tune, there is only playing in tune. If you really must provide a pitch, go with an F; it is a more stable pitch in the instrument.
May 14, 2019, 3:50 PM · Back in the day when I played in a community orchestra we dispensed with the tuning in front of the audience. Tuning was done off-stage.

I've never seen a chamber orchestra or quartet, quintet, or octet tune on stage and I have to wonder why the tradition persists with professional orchestras where I've never seen one musician actually tuning their instrument. Yes, the hand goes to the scroll but the pegs or fine tuners are never actually moved - they were in tune when the walked onto the stage.

So, why does this practice persist?

Edited: May 14, 2019, 7:45 PM · I have had single strings go a bit out of tune before walking on stage and tuned them on stage on two or three occasions in the last several years.
May 14, 2019, 5:56 PM · "I have to wonder why the tradition persists with professional orchestras where I've never seen one musician actually tuning their instrument"

Because its part of the show and it provides the audience a segue into the music. I think its a lovely tradition. Besides, if you have that many string instruments, at least one will have a recently replaced string that is going flat and needs to be retuned before playing.

May 14, 2019, 7:17 PM · "I've never seen a chamber orchestra or quartet, quintet, or octet tune on stage"

Odd, it seems that you haven't seen enough of them then. It's fairly common in my experience with quartets at least. Here's how it often goes: Start the program with Haydn, energetically, with lots of motion. After the first movement, everyone stop and re-tune. Continue until done with Haydn. Then play for real.

May 14, 2019, 7:51 PM · "Some people complain of the sound remaining dull after taking off a practice mute..."

That's because the wood fibers aren't vibrating as much, so when you take off your mute, your violin has to "play in" again for 30 minutes or so...

May 14, 2019, 8:40 PM · … or its because you are now used to playing quietly and loud is alien to your ears.

Thus, its not taking the mute of the violin that's key, its taking it off the player....

May 15, 2019, 7:51 AM · Thanks for all your input. I thought there might be a right answer for this but looks like I was wrong
May 15, 2019, 10:01 AM · Lydia gave the right answer. :-)
May 15, 2019, 10:08 AM · Tuning up in front of the audience also gives the audience an important initial impression of the quality of the performer(s).
May 15, 2019, 11:55 AM · "Tuning up in front of the audience also gives the audience an important initial impression of the quality of the performer(s)"

I could do entirely without any such impression or in fact any and all distractions which appear during performances, particularly gaps between movements, which seem to be free-for-all to completely break the mood and continuity before going on to next period of forbearing until the end when we can all clap with glee that it's over. (Note that this post is over - you may applaud.)

Edited: May 15, 2019, 8:07 PM · So much insight!

In fact, in a way, it's more professional to tune at the backstage when everybody were informed of the required tuning than to tune out there at the last moment.

Also, it's better to tune with a tuner esp for strings players to match their open strings with equal tempered instruments, despite how well you claim your ears are.

May 16, 2019, 8:50 AM · No professional violinist would tune any open string except the "A" to a tuner. We tune by fifths, listening for the proper interval, and yes, the ears of any professional musician are that good.

I make my students learn to tune this way also. No, their ears aren't as good as mine, but the only way to develop that kind of pitch acuity is to practice listening for it!

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