May 2022
Tuning Up Your Recorder Ensemble
by Emily O'Brien
If you’re like many recorder groups, this is how your gathering begins: You pick a piece, everyone takes out an instrument, and someone says, “Shall we tune?” Everyone nods in acquiescence and maybe you all play C or G. It’s not quite right, so a few folks fidget with pulling out their head joints. You try it again, and maybe it’s a bit better, maybe a few people make some apologies or comments about revoicing, weather, oiling, etc, and then you start playing. You probably don’t focus specifically on tuning again unless you hear something particularly egregious somewhere in one of your pieces.
If that sounds familiar, you are not alone!
Devote Time to Tuning for a Big Pay-Off
Tuning is an often-neglected aspect of playing in recorder ensembles. But devoting a little more time and attention to it pays huge dividends that go beyond intonation - although even if it didn’t, intonation is probably the single most noticeable aspect of a recorder ensemble’s overall sound, so it’s well worth your time. 

I recommend starting ensemble meetings with a warmup consisting of a couple of short tuning exercises. In addition to improving your tuning, it gets everyone focused on listening, adapting, and blending in to the group sound right away. 
Pitch comes from the Player
The first thing to remember about the recorder is that the pitch you play comes from the player as much as it comes from the instrument. How hard or soft you blow changes the pitch as well as the sound. Your first line of adjustments should be in how you are listening and how you are blowing, rather than pulling out your head joint. 
Exercise #1
The first type of exercise I suggest is to play a scale together, in unison and/or octaves. Choose a key that makes sense for pieces you’ll be working on. Your group probably consists of a combination of F and C recorders, so you will not all be using the same fingerings. This is useful, because different ranges and fingerings on the recorder have different tendencies. Adjusting to match other players helps hone your skills at adapting to these changes. Play very slowly, and try to get each note to match before you proceed to the next note. When you have made it through the whole scale this way, try the whole scale again at a slow but measured tempo.
Exercise #2
The next type of exercise is to play what I like to call “fake Medieval" music. Play a slow scale or a melody, but this time have everyone use the same fingerings. You will be playing in parallel 5ths and 4ths if you have a mixture of sizes of recorders. In this exercise, you want to make sure that the intervals between all the different players are the same on every note. This exercise will reveal if one person tends to under-blow in the middle range or when playing ascending patterns or if everyone disagrees on the fingerings or pitches of some cross-fingered notes. 
Exercise #3
The third type of exercise is to play chords and chord progressions that appear in the music you will be working on. Final chords are a great place to start, as well as any other important chord where everyone is together. Build up chords starting with everyone who plays the root, then add everyone who plays the 5th, and finally add in the 3rd. When you are happy with how your final chord sounds, try the same thing with the penultimate chord. Finally, practice going back and forth as a group between the penultimate and final chord.
Exercises Like These Are Invaluable
Not only do they improve your tuning, they start your playing session off in a way that has everyone listening and paying attention to each other and to how they fit into the overall group sound. Once you start working on challenging music, sometimes it’s hard to keep all of that going at the same time, so it’s always helpful to start with things that allow you to think and listen as a group. 
Adjust How You Blow, Not Your Recorder
As your group proceeds through these exercises, always start with making adjustments to how you are playing FIRST, before you try pulling out your head joint. Remember that when you first start you are probably not warmed up yet, and neither is your instrument or the rest of your ensemble. As you warm up and settle in, you may well find that you don’t actually need to adjust your instrument itself. Pulling the head joint out does not affect the pitch equally throughout the recorder’s range. You can really only make a small adjustment that way before it disrupts the internal tuning of your recorder to an unacceptable degree. That means that when you pull out your head joint, you will have to change how you adjust your breath for different ranges and notes.

To see for yourself, try playing a slow scale across the range of the instrument with a tuner. Then pull your head joint out by an extreme amount – half an inch or more – and do the same thing. You’ll notice that the first octave is affected much more than the second octave; and the top of the first octave is affected more than the bottom of the first octave. Pulling out your head joint a little bit may be helpful at times. But you want to be aware of what it actually does, and it shouldn’t be your first response after playing only one or two notes.

You are better off adjusting how you’re playing first; only pull out your head joint if you feel that you’re still consistently sharp in the whole first octave. 
The A=442 Recorder
Today, many new recorders are made to play at A=442. Yes, this is a little bit higher than A=440. However, this is a small difference. The difference in how different players like to blow can result in a bigger pitch difference than this. It is well within the range of what you should be able to adjust to. If some of your group members have instruments that were advertised as A=440 and some were advertised as A=442, that should not be a problem. You will need to work a bit to adjust to each other, but you need to do that in any case. Of course, sometimes instruments really are out of tune with each other. If you repeatedly struggle with mis-matched recorders, having everyone play plastic Yamahas can work wonders.

Room Temperature and Pitch
Room temperature has a very noticeable effect on pitch. Wind instruments get sharper in warm temperatures and flatter in cold temperatures. For the sake of consistency, instrument makers strive to do their tuning work at a consistent and stable room temperature. But for the rest of us playing out in the world, the temperature is much more variable and not always easily under our control. For a recorder ensemble, this isn’t really a big problem; all the instruments are in the same room and at the same temperature, so they move up and down together. 
Using a Tuner
If you’re using an electronic tuner, calibrate your tuner up or down until you find the pitch that feels right for where your instruments function and match each other best regardless of temperature. If it’s a chilly church in the winter, that could be A=438; if it’s an un-airconditioned room in the summer, it could be A=445. You can then use the tuner to make sure that your intervals are correct relative to where your overall pitch wants to be. Your instruments do warm up as you play, from your breath and your hands. But they are also still affected by the air temperature in the room, so in a chilly space your overall pitch will never be as high as it is in a warm space, even after you’ve warmed up.
Of course, there is always more to say about tuning in recorder ensembles, and many ways to approach it. But in any case, the time you spend focusing on it is great for your breath control as well as for your whole group’s skills at listening to each other and working together. A few minutes for a tune-up before you start is time well spent! 
Emily O’Brien is a native of Washington, DC where she played recorder from a young age. She studied recorder and french horn at Boston University, and recorder and Baroque flute at the Hochschule für Musik in Karlsruhe, Germany. She performs in recorder ensembles and historical chamber music, as well as English Country Dance bands. As a teacher, she works with private students and ensembles in the Boston area as well as teaching at various summer workshop such as CDSS’s Early Music Week at Pinewoods and Amherst Early Music Festival. Emily’s solo album, “Fantasies for a Modern Recorder” explores the variety and possibilities over four centuries of repertoire offered by the Helder Harmonic Tenor recorder. In her spare time, she enjoys long distance cycling.
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