I recently had a student ask me that they have troubles hearing pitch on the flute. They explained to me that they play other instruments and have no troubles. This quick article will help you understand what it takes to really learn to hear pitch.
First of all, let’s define pitch as being the ‘exact tone’ you’re aiming for. When people say they need to learn to play on pitch, they are actually saying they need to learn to play on tune. These are saying the same thing.
It just takes time and practice
The great thing about instruments is that you can press buttons, put your fingers in a certain position on a string, or pluck something and voila, the tone is created. The issue we have here is figuring out how to be sure the pitch you hear is the perfectly on tune one.
If you play an instrument like the piano, you’re not really in control of your ‘intonation’ (being on tune or not). You press a button, and what it plays is what you hear. If you play an instrument like the violin, you are in charge of the pitch (mostly) because you can move your finger either higher or lower on the string to find that center of the tone.
When you play the flute, there are many variables that go into getting your pitch right on. First of all you can put your instrument together a little longer or shorter by either pushing in or pulling the head joint out from the body. Another big variable is blowing harder or softer. There are even more ways to play on tune, but for the purpose of this article we’ll stick with how to learn to ‘hear’ if you’re on or not.
I remember watching a great flute teacher years ago. She was tuning a line up of young children of varying playing ability. I was mesmerized at the speed she could determine if a student was flat or sharp. She only had to hear a quick second of a note, and then she’d tell the student which direction to fix their pitch. They’d adjust and be off on their merry way. I really wanted to be like her. I asked her how I was ever going to reach that level of listening. She told me these words, “it just takes time and practice, and you’ll be doing this also”.
So, I set out to learn how to be able to hear exact pitch with my own little ears. I started with the tuner machine because it ‘shows’ you which direction (from exact pitch) your tone is. The more I watched this and learned to adjust my flute. The better I got at it.
Also, I play a game with myself occasionally called, “am I flat or sharp”. I also play this with my students. It is fun, and really really helps speed up this learning process. I use a piano that is dead-on as far as pitch goes.. this way I don’t accidentally hear bad pitch and get used to it.. I play a tone on my flute (purposefully sharp or flat), and then ask the question to the student, “Am I sharp or am I flat?” The student then has to guess one or the other. If they are correct, I move a little bead on (10 beads per row) an abacus over. If they are incorrect, I move one from another row of the abacus. Once we have played this enough times to have one row ‘win’ because all of the beads have been moved, then we have a winner… is it the student or the teacher who won? Treats are awarded accordingly, and usually the student wants to play again.
You can always make something fun up with yourself to practice listening for exact pitch. It’s not only an important skill, but it raises your level of musicianship when you become really good at it. And, that’s kind of the point of playing the flute, right?
Good luck with this. I hope you enjoy learning and reading about becoming a better flute player. I hope to see you again soon where we’ll discuss another subject about playing the flute.