This article discusses how to use a chromatic tuner when practicing long tones.
It seems like a no-brainer: You’re either in tune or you’re not. Well, yes and no. While it is true that when you play a note into a tuner that it is either in-tune, flat or sharp; there is, however, a small window of imperfection that you can work within, since we are human beings playing the instrument and not machines.
A tuner measures musical notes using a logarithmic unit of measuring intervals called cents. And the interval measured on most chromatic tuners is a semitone (or half step). For example, the distance between a C and C# is 100 cents. The 100 cents is divided into 0 to 50 (+) to measure the sharpness of the note and 0 to (-) 50 to measure the flatness of the note.
The following figure shows a semi-tone (or half step) divided in cent measurements. When the needle of the tuner goes left of the 0 then that means that the note sounded is flat, and when the needle of the tuner goes to the right of the 0, it means that the notes sounded is sharp.
Figure 1: Cents measurement on a chromatic tuner for a semitone (or half step)
I’ve divided cents reading into three pitch cautionary zones: yellow zone, green zone, and red zone:
1. Yellow Zone: This is 0 to (-) 10 and the 0 to 10 (+) cents area. When the notes played fall within this zone, it’s very unlikely that the flatness or sharpness will be noticeable, unless you’re playing unison with another soprano player or sustaining the note for several beats. Otherwise, it’s very normal for the pitch to fluctuate within this cent vicinity.
Figure 2: The yellow alert area for the needle of a chromatic tuner
2. Green Zone: This is (-) 10 to (-) 20 and the 10 (+) to 20 (+) cents area. When the notes played fall within this zone, the flatness or sharpness of the note (s) be more noticeable--not alarming, but noticeable--unless you’re playing something really fast, or you’re going for some type of effect. And this is definitely not an area in which you want to play in unison with another instrument, especially the soprano sax.
Figure 3: The green alert area for the needle of a chromatic tuner
3. Red Zone: This is (-) 20 to (-) 50 and the 20 (+) to 50 (+) cents area. When the notes played fall within this zone, the flatness or sharpness of the note (s) become very noticeable, no matter how fast or slow they’re being played. Unless you’re playing some type of scoop or bend, in which you’ll still have to return the note to yellow zone in order for it to sound like a scoop or bend and not an out of tune note. And this is definitely not an area in which you want to play in unison with another instrument, especially the soprano sax.
Figure 4: The red alert area for the needle of a chromatic tuner
When the pitch starts to fluctuate into this zone, it usually means that the note is need of special attention, which is often caused by a problem in one or more the following areas:
Ø Adjustment within the oral cavity
Ø Embouchure adjustment
Ø Mouthpiece placement on the neck of the saxophone
Ø Reed replacement
Ø Problems with the instrument
Benefits of practicing these exercises:
Ø Playing in the altissimo becomes easier
Ø Increased flexibility
Ø Heightened oral cavity awareness
Ø Sound becomes richer in harmonics and overtones
Ø Strengthens embouchure
Ø Better breath support
Ø Increased endurance
One last thing: Given the difficulty in playing the soprano in tune, some notes are going to be nearly impossible to play at the 0 mark of the cents reader; however, having an area of pitch leniency does allow you to strive for more attainable goals with regards to pitch accuracy. This holds particularly true in the more extreme areas of the soprano, such as low Bb to low D; and high C# to high F (or higher).