Nature vs nurture My views on natural ability for pitch are similar to those for Rhythm . To a large degree you have a good ear for pitch or you dont. There are degrees of accuracy of the ear - from the tone deaf person who cannot sing anything close to related pitch thro to a piano tuner. Those with pitch problems should be encouraged to sing, as much as possible, in the bath, when practicing, in a choir, anywhere, just do it. This will not make a tone deaf dude into a piano tuner but it will help.

See the Singing section below.
Perfect/relative pitch Wikipedia  reckons that perfect pitch and absolute pitch are the same thing. I think relative pitch  is something similar but different, but I slightly disagree with the Wikipedia definitions.

I can whistle an A at around 440 Hz, I can tell you the notes of a pedestrian crossing or other external sounds. but there are some people who struggle to play at baroque pitch, A = 415Hz. This certainly sounds flat to my ear, but I am pretty happy tuning the bass down and playing at this pitch. I am also OK playing on solo strings. Some players, with a more finely tuned ear than me, struggle with both these things.

I once did Britten's Turn of the Screw and at one point the viola plays a high D flat as the note for the soprano to take. The problem was that the singer had a better ear than the viola player - no viola jokes please!!!

I would define the soprano in the above example as having perfect pitch, and me with relative pitch.

There seems to be pressure for pitch to go sharper. Jim McLoed, a retired top level London fiddle player had a wonderful phrase - "better sharp than out of tune"!! And its true, we seem to accept being a little sharp more readily than being a big flat. There is an excellent article at A415  that discusses the change in pitch of A over the years. In Australia there were any numer of pitches being played:-

1 Sydney Symphony played to A=442 but in my opinion often strayed brighter

2 Tasmanian SO (Barbara Gilby) and Orchestra Victoria (Jo Beaumont) went to great lengths to tune to 440 and keep the pitch at that level

3 Australia Chamber Orchestra play at a range of pitches based on the repertoire they are performing

And a principal bass player needs to make a decision on where to play in terms of pitch. A good orchestra will tune to the bass end. If the basses "go with the flow" and play brighter, it will push up the overall pitch and possibly lead to an upward spiral. Players like Davin Holt at Orchestra Victoria make a conscious effort to keep the pitch down at 440.

Tuning that bass is also an issue - see tuning the bass

Hows does all this related to bass players? Well, we need to be aware of :-

1 our ear and its limitations. Do you have perfect, relative or some other type of natural hearing ability. Maybe working on improving it via singing and Kodaly methods

2 the band we play with - where do they play. And if you are a free lancer make that bands plural!
Singing It is really important for musicians to sing - I am not talking about the Queen of the Night aria from Magic Flute, but to be able to communicate via singing. Conductors do it. I once performed Tchiakovsky's 5th symphony with Yuri Temirkanov and the Sydney Symphony, a memorable weeks work. When working on the horn solo in the second movement with the wonderful Rob Johnson, Temirkanov sang what he wanted, as his ability to sing wasnt a wonderful sound, but was a better mode of communication that his English.

I had one student who refused to sing a phrase in a lesson involving the Koussevitzky concerto, with some high leaps/shifts. I was taught by Duncan McTier that stage one in any shift is not technical - you have to hear the note you are moving to in your head. If you cannot do that you stand no chance of getting the shift right. The process is:-

1 play note before shift

2 sing note after shift while playing note before shift

3 shift

4 work on the technical issues of the shift to ensure its in tune

I believe the Kodaly  method can help with ear training.

Left hand techniques scales The traditional method of getting the left hand in tune is to play scales. I think this is a great idea, and I do it with...
slow practice with electronic tuner ...an electronic tuner at first then without. I use the tuner to check certain passages with notably tricky intonation or odd notes, a few example might be:-

quite a few of the notes in the Otello solo , for example the D# in bar 8, G flat in bar 9, C flat in bar 10, etc

in Ein Heldenleben  I shift back for the B natural 3 before fig 10 and the F two bars later - these are both tricky shifts and I use the tuner to help both the L hand and my ear

the tuning check exercise (fig 3) for La Traviata

the latter part of the 4th Mozart 40
3rds and 6ths Duncan McTier is pretty hot on this subject - when we play with the piano we need to be tempered and not play what is necessarily good to the ear, so:-

with piano - maj 3rds and 6ths should be lowered slightly, min intervals raised

without piano
- its OK to play brighter maj intervals and darker minor ones
temperament & perfect intervals And the debate about 3rds and 6ths leads me onto tuning with an electronic machine - it changes everything. "Perfect" intervals dont sound in tune - listen carefully to a perfect 5th on a piano, its not quite as wide as our ear would like it to be, and this is because the piano is tempered. For a complex explanation check Wikipedia , but basically if we tuned a piano from middle C up to the top in perfect 5ths, then down from middle C to the bottom, the extremeties would be wildly out of tune to our tempered ear - the top and bottom notes would be something like a minor third out.

Is this of academic or of any practical use? Well I think it is important to know, and I will give two examples:-

1 occasionally we have to play a perfect 5th, and one example is Bach solo suite no 1 in C (arr H Samuel Sterling) Menuetto no 1 bar 4 has two double stopped notes, the second of which is an open G with the D above it. One possible fingering is to play the open G with the harmonic D - if the strings are tuned to a tempered tuner this 5th sounds shocking and the D string needs to be tuned slightly sharp to make this 5th work. Or the more demanding LH option of stopping both notes

2 be aware of tuning tendancies around you. If a cellist tunes in perfect 5ths from the A down to D, then G then C the lower strings will all be flat, compared with a piano or tempered electronic tuner, getting flatter the lower you go. Good cellists will be aware of this and adjust thier tuning depending on the ensemble they play in, and will therefore slightly sharpen their G and C strings. In one Australian orchestra the basses tune thier low C strings slightly flat, probably for this reason. Its important to come to a compromise in a regular ensemble, otherwise we bass players can find ourselves in the deep blue sea between flat cellos and sharp bassoons (it is my experience that bassoons have a tendency to be sharp, but once again, good bassoonists will adjust and play in tune. Experience tells me they are very sensitive to this! I have been lucky in my recent professional career to work with spectacular bassoonists, to whom this has not been an issue, but this has not always been the case)


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