Band Director
Close this search box.

Beyond Their Years: Intonation and the Young Band Chip De Stefano

by Chip De Stefano

Playing in tune is a skill. It must be taught, developed, and polished as our students mature as musicians. Too often, particularly in young bands, a good pitch is either left to chance or is so director and tuner-centric that students are unable to make the on-the-spot adjustments necessary during a live performance.

Intonation skills are second in importance only to tone quality. Because of this, training our students’ ears is deserving of the time necessary to do it correctly. By focusing Anthe long term, and training our students how to listen and adjust their pitch, ensemble intonation will greatly improve while the responsibility of good pitch is shifted from director to student. In addition, your students will have the skills and confidence needed to compensate when unexpected intonation issues arise in performance.

Tone First, Then Tune

Nothing is more important than the quality of sound our students produce. It’s very difficult to tune pitches with a bad sound. In addition, good tone can mask minor intonation problems. Students must have quality instruments and equipment, proper embouchure, good breath support, and the aural concept of the characteristic sound of their instrument.

When using a tuner, it’s important that the student’s instrument be completely warmed up. Students must tune their best sound. While looking at the tuner, the young student will automatically try to bend the pitch to satisfy the tuner without actually adjusting the instrument all. It may be helpful to ask your students to play their tuning pitch with their best sound without looking at the tuner. From there they will be able to get the proper reading and adjust accordingly.


It makes perfect sense that listening is the most important of the intonation keys.Intonation is a compromise. By listening to others rather than focusing on themselves, many intonation issues simply take care of themselves. They should constantly be listening, always aware of the music and others around them.

It’s not enough to say “that’s not in tune” or “listen better.” Specifics are essential. Let your students know where they should be listening in order to match pitch. Usually, we want them listening down. If something is in octaves, the upper octave should tune to the lower octave. “Flutes… watch the pitch on the D, the 2nd clarinets have it an octave lower than you, get your ears over there.” “Trombones, you have the third of the chord here, listen down to the root in the tubas and bass clarinets.” “Saxes we’re having issues on TH C-sharp. Make sure we’re listening to our neighbor and not ourselves.”

Inner hearing has many positive effects on one’s playing. Students must be taught to hear each note in their head exactly the way they wish it to sound. This aural image should have the ideal tone quality, articulation, style, dynamic, phrasing, intensity, emotion, and pitch center. Students can improve their “inner ear” by singing, listening to recordings of outstanding musicians, and simply by practicing listening to their “imagination” with outplaying.

Waves and Beats

Students of any age can be taught the difference between two pitches that are in tune and two pitches that are not in tune. When the combination of sounds produces “waves” or “beats” they are not in tune with each other. The slower the waves, the closer the two pitches are to being in tune. The faster the waves, the more out of tune they are with each other.

Young students can be taught to listen for waves through a simple rehearsal or lesson demonstration. Choose two students. When starting, it’s generally easier for the kids to hear if both students play the same instrument. Ask the class to listen to the combination of the sounds and the waves that are produced. If the selected students are close enough that it’s difficult to discern the waves, don’t be afraid to adjust one of the instruments to maker the difference a little more noticeable. Young students will often have the misconception that the waves are being produced by one or both of the players not keeping the tone steady, so it will probably be necessary to reinforce that the combination of the sounds causes the effect. It is the result of two pitches that are not in tune with each other.

Once the waves are recognized, have the two students play individually with the ensemble trying to determine who sounds higher. Don’t correct them if they make an error. Adjust one of the student’s instruments based on the ensemble’s assessment. Have the students sustain the pitch together again and ask if the speed of the waves have increased, decreased, or disappeared altogether. If the ensemble selected wrong, then it’s easy to determine which way to adjust the pitches for them to play in tune with each other. Explain that when they hear the waves when they are playing, they must decide whether they are sharp or flat and adjust accordingly. If the waves speed up, they should quickly adjust the other way. Emphasize that the only true error is to make no adjustment at all. Continue this process until the two students are in tune with each other.

This demonstration can, and should, be done with students as early as their first year of instruction.

Pitch Tendencies

By working with a tuner, and with our guidance, students can learn to anticipate notes that are consistently sharp or flat on their instrument and adjust accordingly. They must also know how to adjust the pitch higher and lower on their instrument through embouchure tension, amount of mouthpiece/reed, air temperature, alternate fingerings, shading, and venting.

It is beyond the scope of this article to cover each of these methods in depth. Improving Intonation in Band and Orchestra Performance, by Robert Grovel (Meredith Music Publications) is a wonderful text that details many instrumental pitch tendencies and their necessary adjustments.

Director Responsibilities

When rehearsing, we music treat an out of tune pitch as a wrong note. Remember, students are a reflection of their director. If we are intolerant of bad pitch, our student swill become intolerant of it as well. We must also resist the urge to micromanage by giving students “higher” and “lower” type instructions. Instead, as described previously, we must give specific instructions to our students on where they should be listening to match pitch. This frees our students to make adjustments without the fear of failure. Even if they’re not sure which way to adjust, they can’t sit on a bad pitch. Any adjustment is better than no adjustment at all. After all, if the move makes the intonation worse, adjusting the pitch the opposite way will fix the problem.

Tuners in the Full Band Rehearsal

Nothing is a bigger waste of time than starting each rehearsal going around the room checking every kid against a tuner. This not only kills rehearsal pace, but often dosen’t make a significant impact on the ensemble’s pitch. During the course of the rehearsal, you can easily spot check sections that are inconsistent against the rest of the ensemble. Over the course of a couple weeks, you’ll not only reach most of the group, but will have done so without breaking up the momentum of the rehearsal.

With young bands, I’m not even fond of building up from the bottom on a sustained unison pitch. Each instrument, after all, has a different ideal pitch for tuning. Instead, consider using homo phonic chorales to develop the quality of sound and listening skills. If your schedule accommodates, students should warm-up and use a tuner prior to rehearsal. This tuning should take place on their own, either at one of three or fortuning stations you have set up, or using their own tuner (such as the Korg CA-30).

Don’t forget the valves! Each of the tuning slides for the valves on brass instruments need to be adjusted individually as well, and should be spot checked periodically throughout the year.

Recommended Tuning Pitches for the Young Band (written pitch)

If your first and second year brass and flute students have a tendency to pinch their upper notes sharp. It is advisable to have them tune on the concert F below the recommended tuning note.

Tuner in Tune is Not “In Tune”

Getting unisons and octaves in tune with each other will only go so far. Chords must also be in tune with themselves. It is not possible to achieve this result using a tuner. Intervals also produce waves when they are not in tune with each other. The actual pitch depends on the notes’ placement within the chord. For example, an “in tune” concert F in a Db major chord will sound a bit lower than an “in tune” concert F according to a tuner. In a minor chord, the third will need to be raised slightly. That F as the dominate 7th in the G7 chord will need to be 29 cents lower than a tuner tuned F!!!

An obvious exception to this would be when equal tempered instruments are involved and clearly audible. This is typically when they have a melodic passage in unison with a wind instrument. Since it’s not possible for those instruments to make quick adjustments,using equal temperament is necessary.

There are several Cd’s (, available to assist students in developing their intonation skills. These products produce drones on different fundamentals that more easily allow the students to hear the waves when they are not in tune with the CD. These Cd’s are most effective when used with individual students or in small group situations.

Using a specific order of pitches makes it easier for students to hear how they note fits within the chord and the adjustments they need to make for the chord to be in tune with itself. Begin by getting the tonic pitch and octaves in tune. The fifth of the chord should lock in fairly easily. The third of the chord can then be added. If it is a major chord, ask the students to lower the pitch slightly. For a minor chord, it should be raised slightly. If necessary, sevenths and other chord extensions can be added one by one at this point.

Do not disregard intonation when dealing with dissonance. Dissonant intervals can absolutely be played in tune and should not be considered a lost cause… Balance is extremely important when dealing with dissonant pitches. The lower note should be brought out and often lowered slightly.

Final Thoughts

Regardless of the difficulty of music, there are few things more impressive than a band that plays with in-tune, characteristic sounds. Good intonation is an essential component to good musicianship and performance. As such, it must be no less a priority in rehearsal than any other aspect of performance. There is a stunning brilliance and resonance clearly audible when bands play a chord perfectly in tune. Once experienced, the standard has been raised. Anything less will become sorely lacking in the ears of your students.

Chip De Stefano received both his Bachelor of Music in Trombone Performance and Master of Music Education Degrees from Northwestern University. While at Northwestern, he studied conducting with John P. Paynter, Steve Peterson, and Don Owens, and trombone with Frank Crisafulli and Art Linsner. Mr. De Stefano was director of the Northwestern University Basketball Band (1994-1996) and the University Jazz Lab Band (1995-1996). In addition to these responsibilities, he assisted with all the office of band’s performing organizations and had conducting appearances with the wind ensemble, symphonic band, trombone ensemble, and marching band.

Mr. De Stefano is currently in his tenth year as Director of Bands at McCracken Middle School in Skokie, Illinois ( Under his direction, the McCracken Symphonic Band has received first division ratings at all district and state organization contests of the Illinois Grade School Music Association (IGSMA). The Symphonic Band has performed at several prestigious events including multiple appearances at the Illinois Music Educators Association (IMEA) All-State Conference, the University of Illinois Super state Concert Band Festival, and MENC North-Central Division Conference. In 2005 the Symphonic Band served a demonstration group for a rehearsal lab session at the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic.

As a published arranger and composer, Mr. De Stefano has received commissions from the marching bands of Northwestern University, Samford University, the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, the University of Idaho and dozens of high schools from across the United States. His works have been performed on ABC’s 1996 Rose Bowl Halftime Show, Live! with Regis and Kathy Lee, and WBBM News Radio 780. Mr. De Stefano’s works are available from Grand Mesa Music, Kagarice Brass Editions and

Mr. De Stefano’s professional affiliations include the Music Educators National Conference, the Illinois Music Educators Association, the National Band Association, the International Trombone Association, and Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia.

Mr. De Stefano is a recipient of six National Band Association Citations of Excellence. He was awarded the Chicagoland Outstanding Music Educator Award in 2001 and the IGSMA Barbara Buehlmann Young Conductor Award in 2004.