Taming the Beast: Stephanie Mortimore Revolutionizes Your Piccolo Intonation

MET Musicians are leaders in their craft, and most are highly sought-after teachers. A recent internal poll shows that the average MET musician began music lessons at the age of 6, and lessons on their primary instrument at the age of 9. Compare that to the leaders of most other fields: doctors, lawyers, and business executives all start specialized training in college. From time to time, we will be featuring specialized pieces by musicians that showcase a particular set of knowledge. 

Stephanie Mortimore is the Principal Piccoloist of the MET Orchestra.

Stephanie Mortimore is the Principal Piccoloist of the MET Orchestra.

At the beginning of the opera, the oboist gives the orchestra an "A". That's usually the last time anyone makes a definitive statement about intonation. After that, it's up to each musician to overcome the hurdles of their instrument and the piece to try to stay in tune with one another. To make matters worse, each instrument has different tendencies that can change with the weather, the key, the length of the opera, and other variables. For instance, a piccoloist has control over the subtle differences in pitch of every note she plays, while the piano is completely set in its pitch.

Playing in tune is probably the most challenging part of playing the piccolo.


If you struggle with tuning, don’t despair: every piccoloist wrestles with this issue occasionally, if not often. Learning some basic physics and simple math related to the principles of sound help you understand why and put you in a better position to address the problem. 


Why is This Instrument So Hard to Play in Tune?


The answer comes down to physics. When two concurrently played notes are close to—but not quite—a perfectly tuned unison, the sound waves interfere with one another and produce beats that can be heard as a distinct buzzing. As the notes approach each other in frequency, thus getting closer to a true unison, the buzzing slows. As they get further apart, the buzzing speeds up.

Making Cents of it All

A cent is a unit of measure that stands for one hundredth of an equal tempered semi-tone. For example, there are 100 cents between A and A#, 100 cents between A# and B, and so on. In all, there are 1200 cents in each octave.

I’m Losing My Temper

Musical temperament is, quite simply, a system of tuning. Equal temperament describes a tuning system in which the twelve tones of the chromatic scale are divided into twelve equal intervals. Pianos are usually tuned using a variation on equal temperament. This system is used not because it sounds best but rather, it is a compromise which sacrifices true harmony for the convenience of allowing music to be played in any key and have it sound the same. Pianos are tuned using a variation on equal temperament called well temperament in which the piano tuner, starting from a base of equal temperament, stretches the octaves, making the lower octaves increasingly flatter, and the upper octaves increasingly sharper. It is important to remember this because, when played with piano, the high register of the piccolo will have to be slightly sharpened.



Now, using some simple math, let’s apply this knowledge to some theoretical orchestral situations. Let’s say you and a colleague are playing the flute and both of you are asked to play A440. Easy enough, you might say. But let’s assume you are having a bad day and, instead of playing perfectly in tune, you play the note 10 cents sharp. I won’t bore you with the more complicated math of cents-to-hertz conversion, so you’ll have to trust me when I tell you that when played 10 cents sharp, A440 becomes A443 (rounded to the nearest whole number)—a difference of 3Hz. You will produce 3 beats per second—not ideal, but not such a big problem.

Stephanie poses with the piccolo section in Japan, 2011. These smiling piccoloists add marching in lockstep to the list of circumstantial variables affecting intonation. 

Stephanie poses with the piccolo section in Japan, 2011. These smiling piccoloists add marching in lockstep to the list of circumstantial variables affecting intonation. 

Let’s compare that with a slightly different scenario. You and your colleague are now asked to switch to piccolo and to play, in unison, A3520, the highest A on the instrument. And let’s assume that your day still hasn’t improved and you play this note 10 cents sharp too. Your sharp note would actually be A3540—a difference of 20Hz. You will now produce 20 beats per second. Bzzzzzzzzz!! This can start to be really painful for everyone within earshot.


The Inequality of Orchestra Intonation

The unfairness of the situation becomes even more clear when you start looking around the orchestra. All of those other musicians (who at this point are glaring at you) don’t have anywhere near the same challenges as you, the poor piccoloist. Take the cellists for example. Pretend two cellists are attempting to play A220 (the A just below middle C) in unison. For them to be to be producing 20 beats per second, one of the cellists would have to be playing 150 cents sharp (or flat). That’s one-and-a-half semi-tones apart—the difference between an A and a really flat B. That’s one bad cellist. 

We could go through the rest of the instruments of the orchestra in this same way but, while that might make us feel better, it should be clear by now why the piccolo is the most difficult of any instrument to play in tune. So what to do? Unfortunately, even though it’s not your fault, you still have to fix the problem.


You can't even trust your tuner.


In a well-meaning but misguided attempt, many players try to use the indicator on their tuner which shows them, visually, how many cents sharp or flat they are. The problem with this approach is threefold. Not only do most tuners register improperly for the high notes of the piccolo, but almost all of them use equal temperament. Because orchestras play using just intonation, tuning visually can be destructive to your ability to learn to play in tune with your colleagues. And most importantly, why would you want to train your eyes to do a job that your ears should be doing? Playing in tune has nothing to do with having perfect pitch. It is a learned skill. In order to learn the skill properly you have to train the right muscles.

Make a Difference

While the properties of sound production can be traced back to pure physics, hearing is a more complicated matter—biology also enters into play. When sound waves enter the ear they are translated into neural impulses which can be perceived by the brain. When two notes of different frequencies are heard simultaneously, events inside the ear or brain—there is some debate on this matter—often cause the listener to perceive a third tone. This “ghost note” is known as a difference tone, so called because of the mathematical relationship it has to the two primary notes; its frequency is the difference between the frequencies of the other two notes (the frequency of the higher note (f2) minus the frequency of the lower note (f1) is equal to the frequency of the difference tone(D). )


When the two notes are close together (less than about 30Hz apart) they will produce beats as described above. When the two notes are further apart (more than about 30Hz), they will begin to produce a difference tone which is audible as not just a buzzing, but as a separate note. Difference tones then actually combine with the primary notes to form the illusion of three note chords. As a result, the difference tone becomes a powerful tool for improving your intonation. By paying close attention to and tuning difference tones instead of the primary notes you will develop the skills you need to play in tune with yourself and with your orchestral colleagues. To use the bike analogy again, difference tones are your training wheels. 

This training will have two major positive effects. First, by sensitizing yourself to difference tones in your individual practice, you will develop muscle memory around how to adjust your piccolo so that you can play in tune with yourself (meaning you use just intonation to play arpeggiated intervals). Second, by using these skills when you play in the orchestra, you will hear the harmonic relationships which exist between your notes and your colleagues’ notes. When you hear difference tones which are not harmonically related and, therefore, not aesthetically pleasing to the ear, you will know how to adjust your instrument accordingly.

Each MET musician gets to where they are not by luck, but with a lifetime concoction of passion, love, obsession, and persistent hard work. It's not by chance that the MET orchestra has such a dedicated and excellent piccoloist such as Stephanie.

Read the full article at Powell Flutes.