Slides & Valves: Tuning Your Brass Instrument

As we have been discussing over the last few weeks, playing in tune is one of he most important things for any musician to concentrate on. Some instruments in the band or orchestra can get away with being slightly out of tune, especially if they are in tune with themselves, but this little trick just doesn’t work for the group of instruments we’re going to turn our attention to this week: the brass section.

First, let’s take a look at the generalities of the brass section. The first thing to notice is that the name “brass” can be something of a misnomer, as many of the instruments in the section aren’t actually made of brass, and there are a few other instrument that are made of brass but aren’t a part of the section. The simplest explanation for what qualifies as a “brass instrument” is to focus less on the material it’s made of, and instead focus on where the sound is produced. In all brass instruments the sound is produced by the musician’s mouth, not the instrument alone. Instead of allowing the instrument to do all the work, a brass musician creates a sort of buzzing sound by blowing air through tightly closed lips. That’s why you may see things like the Australian didgeridoo listed as a brass instrument next to the more obvious examples like the trumpet, tuba, trombone, or french horn. It is also why playing in tune is so important. Any brass musician playing out of tune will always sound bad, regardless of the quality of the tone or sound.

Most brass instruments are tuned to B flat and utilize a tuning slide, so that is where we will begin. First thing’s first, make sure you are able to locate your tuning slide. I will be in a slightly different location for each member of the brass section, but it is usually the first curve in the piping, after the mouth piece. Once you have found it, make sure to grease all of your instrument’s slides, especially if it has been a while since you last did it. Be careful when removing slides, and never use pliers or excessive force; brass slides have a habit of denting or bending easily. Always be sure to use grease purpose made for your instrument, substitutions like Vaseline or Crisco can damage your it.

Once all your slides are greased up and you have identified you tuning slide find something to produce a B flat. This could be a piano, a pitch pipe, or even an online app, it doesn’t really matter, as long as it makes a true B flat. With the sound of that B flat in your head, play a C on your instrument without pressing any valves, if you have any. Assuming your instrument is meant to be tuned at B flat, its C note will be equivalent to a piano’s B flat. Alternate between playing the reference note, playing your own note, and making small adjustments to the tuning valve until the two notes match. Pulling the slide out elongates the tube, producing a flatter, or lower pitch, while pushing it in shortens the tube, and creates a sharper pitch.

If we were in any other section of the orchestra, we might be done right there, but not in the brass section. There are a number of other things to consider. First, just like last week, is the temperature of the air, and of your instrument. Because most brass instruments are actually made of brass, or at least metal, they are even more susceptible to expanding and contracting with the temperature. Be sure to warm both it, and yourself up before performing any large tuning techniques. One such way to warm yourself and the instrument, and is a good habit to get into for playing in tune, is strengthening your embouchure and keeping it steady. For the uninitiated, the “embouchure” refers to the way the mouth contacts the mouth piece. A lot of musicians use note bending exercises to warm up before a gig. This kind of playing deliberately changes the embouchure through the note, training their lips to play each note accurately, finding the pitch with their mouths first, before making any changes to the instrument. This exercise not only warms you and the instrument up, but also strengthens your embouchure for more consistent in tune playing, as a fatigued embouchure will go flat, or start strong and tail off.

Connected to the embouchure is the next pro-active solution to playing your brass instrument in tune: breath support. Proper breathing can fix a lot of tuning issues before they even start. Strong breath support is necessary before you can even begin to play. Any notes played without breath support will change your embouchure, and bring down the pitch rapidly.

Now that the generalities are out of the way, let’s look at a few variations. First and foremost is the trombone. As pretty much anyone in an orchestra or concert band can tell you, trombones have more than their fair share of tuning issues. It is inherently more difficult to find the proper notes on a slide than it is with valves, especially for those just stating out. But even once you have the hang of that, the instrument itself provides more obstacles in the form of minor differences between the positions on each partial. Briefly, from low notes to high:

Low B flat – E: generally normal tuning

F – B: tendency towards sharp

B flat – F sharp: normal tuning

D – B: tendency towards flat

F – E flat: pitch tends to be very sharp

Now, if you are one of the more fortunate members of the section, and have selected a brass instrument with valves, don’t think you’re off the hook, there’s a bit more to do for you too. Valved instruments have tuning slides for each valve, which should be tuned individually along with the main tuning slide, though they usually stay in place when playing. Trumpet players have an exception of course, with the third valve slide, which needs to be extended for D, C sharp, and A flat. Although there is the added task of tuning the valve slides, these instruments have an advantage. Valved brass instruments have the ability to change the tuning of a note by using different fingering. A classic example is the trumpet high A, which often sounds out of tune. Using the third valve alone, rather than the first and second, can fix this issue.

The most important thing to remember when tuning your instrument, regardless of which section you are a part of, is to listen to and learn the notes you are playing so you can tell when they are out of tune by ear. As with most instruments, tuning the brass section can be a little tricky at first, but the more you practice, the easier it will become, and you’ll be tuning in no time flat!