Band directors are constantly asking their students to adjust their instruments on out of tune notes and unfortunately many students are unaware of the need. I will try to first identify the most difficult notes and suggest some exercises which will help students know exactly how much adjustment needs to be made.
What notes are the most out of tune and why?
All instruments with three valves face the same problem. Because of the length and acoustics of our instruments, there will be some notes or partials which will not be in tune. If you begin on the lowest open note on a trumpet, you will play our lowest C. There is another partial or fundamental tone below the C but it is not a note we are capable of using. As we ascend from the second harmonic or partial, the next will be the note G, second line, which is followed by C, E, G and so forth. If every instrument were perfectly in tune, each note would be centered and additional adjustments would not be necessary. One such harmonic is the E, top space or the fifth harmonic. This note tends to be flat and addition adjustments may need to be implemented. The two most out of tune notes on a trumpet are the low C# and its neighbor D. The D is sharp and the C# is very sharp and both need to be lowered substantially.
How far do I have to lower these notes?
A very simple way to find out how far you should extend your third slide to put these two notes in tune would be as follows-
1. Play second line G with your conventional fingering (0).
2. Now play the same note with the first and third valves (1,3).
3. Alternate the two different fingerings on the same second line G.
4. Extend your third slide until the two notes have the same pitch.
5. This is the distance your slide should be extended when you play your low D.
6. Now finger your second space F# with the usual fingering (2).
7. Play the same note now with all three valves depressed (1,2,3)
8. Alternate the two different fingerings on the same first space F#.
9. Extend your third slide until the two notes have the same pitch.
10. This is the distance your slide should be extended when you play your low C#.
Most performers adjust pitch on these two notes by extending their third slide but adjustments could also be made by extending their first slide if it is equipped with a ring or saddle. For many years I used my first slide rather than my third and had no issues with the alternate slide. One advantage the third has over the first is that you can lower the pitch further with the third than with the first slide. To be truly effective in slide extensions for pitch improvement, you should be able to move each whenever the situation dictates. Several of your first valve notes will need to be lowered and they cannot be adjusted with the third slide.
In some instances, alternate fingering may be used for troublesome intonation. On early trumpets and cornets, the fifth harmonic, (top space E) played more flat than our modern instruments and this could be the reason why the great jazz cornet player Bix Beiderbecke may have chosen to play this note with an alternate fingering (1,2). Jazz enthusiasts have criticized Bix for his practice of alternate fingerings, saying “Bix didn’t even know the correct fingering for his instrument”. I’m sure Bix knew the correct fingering and may have chosen to use the alternate fingering so that his note would be more in tune.
The ability to play in tune is challenging for even the best players for in many cases when performing in an ensemble, you will be expected to adjust your pitch even when you are perfectly in tune so that the overall intonation of the ensemble would be improved. Most of my playing requires me to play the second part in ensembles and in that position, I am more aware of intonation problems than if I were playing the first part. If the lead player next to me is playing sharp, I adjust my pitches to help the intonation by pushing my notes up a little. Life is full of adjustments and you should be ready at all times to make these changes.