Intonation Remedies

1. Specific intonation issues
2. Intonation as it relates to the oboe mechanism
3. Common pitch problems and solutions
4. Additional resources

This video is about the method book Oboe Tuning Duets written by Dr. Sarah Hamilton which works on oboe-specific intonation issues in a duet format. To play some of these duets with me, go here.

1. Specific intonation issues

Each note on the oboe must be adjusted, at least slightly, for optimal tone and pitch focus, but there are general tendencies for each note and register. Low notes tend to be flat except when they are played very quietly, while half-hole notes tend to be sharp. A5—C6 tends to be quite flat unless the air support is strong, the reed is stable, and the embouchure is adjusted appropriately. If these notes are sharp, the embouchure is almost certainly too tight and closed, and/or the reed is very closed and likely old.

Following are some common intonation concerns and possible solutions. The solutions assume the reed is stable.

Csharp 4Problem: Especially flat (worse on some instruments).

Solution: Roll in reed, close lips, close oral cavity; ask others to play flatter.

F4forkedProblem: Too fuzzy and dull.

Solution: 1) Adjust embouchure and oral cavity to focus pitch. 2) The E-flat key can be added (when there is no “F resonance key”) to clear the sound, but it also raises the pitch. And needs to be unlearned when there is an “F resonance key” on a better instrument.

Aflat4Problem: Tends to be sharp on the English horn.

Solution: Roll out and open up more than seems natural.

C5Problem: Can be flat or sharp depending on the reed and instrument.

Solution: Roll reed in or out as appropriate with focused air support. The right hand fingers for E, D and/or C4 can be added to stabilize this note.

Csharp, D, Eflat 5Problem: Tend to be very sharp on the oboe, (but can be flat on the English horn).

Solution: Drop the jaw and find the place where the reed is rolled out as much as needed without losing the note. To raise these pitches on the EH, roll in more.

E5Problem: Usually sharp, but can be severely flat on some reeds and instruments. Usually very sharp on the EH.

Solution: When it is sharp, roll the reed out of your embouchure and open your oral cavity. Adding the low B key can also help lower the pitch. When it is flat, squish the reed closed, and roll more reed in the mouth to bring the pitch up.

F5regularProblem: Generally good – a naturally clear, focused tone but can be oddly unstable on some instruments.

Solution: Sometimes forked F needs to be used instead. Experiment with the amount of reed in the mouth, and reed opening, as those may also affect the pitch.

F5forkedProblem: Tends to be fuzzy, dull, and can be very unstable.

Solution: 1) Adjust embouchure and oral cavity to focus pitch. 2) The E-flat key can be added (when there is no “F resonance key”) to clear the sound, but it also raises the pitch. And needs to be unlearned when there is an “F resonance key” on a better instrument.

Fsharp5Problem: Can be sharp or flat depending on the reed and instrument.

Solution: Roll the reed in or out as appropriate, focus tone with good air support and firm embouchure. The low B key can be added to stabilize pitch.

Aflat5Problem: Tends to be unfocused, and either flat or sharp, especially on the EH.

Solution: The embouchure and air need to do more work than normal to create the focus for this note.

Bflat5Problem: Tends to be flat and dull. Especially bad on the English horn.

Solution: To be in tune, the reed needs to be rolled in more than for A5, rather than bitten, and the air support should be increased. The oral cavity may also need to close into an “ee” shape. The C4 key can be added to help stabilize the pitch.

Csharp, D, Eflat6Problem: Tends to be too sharp on the oboe, and too flat on the English horn.

Solution: When sharp, drop the jaw as far as it goes and make sure the reed is not pushed too far into the mouth. However, if the reed is pulled out of the mouth too much, the note will not respond. When flat on the EH, roll in more, and use fewer right hand fingers than with the oboe fingering.

E and F6Problem: Tends to be flat; can be sharp if played in isolation.

Solution: Generally the reed needs to be rolled in and “bitten” slightly to get these notes out. Be sure that A-flat/E-flat keys are fully depressed. If the oboe has a third octave key, it can be used instead of the first octave key to raise the pitch. Adjusting the third octave vent so that it opens further makes these notes higher; the reverse makes these notes lower in pitch. If these notes are too sharp, open the oral cavity and pull the reed out of the mouth as much as possible without losing the note.

Fsharp6Problem: Tends to be sharp, but stable.

Solution: Pull reed out of the mouth and open the oral cavity. Experiment with adding either the 3rd or 4th finger on the right hand to see which lowers the pitch appropriately.

Gsharp6Problem: Can be hard to speak.

Solution: Needs very strong embouchure pressure to speak, and an appropriate reed. Biting the reed may be necessary.

A6Problem: Tends to be very flat, depending on the fingering.

Solution: Needs very strong embouchure pressure for response and to keep the pitch high enough. Biting the reed may be necessary.

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2. Intonation as it relates to the oboe mechanism

For more on adjusting, and pictures of the adjustment screws, see the North American Oboe House Adjustment Guide.

The following information is intended to give information on the kinds of intonation problems that are fixable by knowledgeable repair-persons, as well as a few basic adjustments that most oboists can do on their own. As many pitch problems are a function of poor playing technique, however, before blaming the instrument for faulty intonation, look for patterns over a period of time, and compare with other oboes.

1. On the oboe, the height of the first open key of the fingering for each note greatly affects the pitch of that note. For example, for G4, the height of the F-sharp key determines the pitch and tone colour of the G. The higher the F-sharp key, the sharper the G. Usually the height of the key can be changed by adding or taking away cork under bumpers.

2. If a high note, one of the “harmonic” notes including C-sharp6 and above, is sharp, sometimes a key is not closing properly. For example, with C-sharp6, if the C4 key is not closing the 3rd finger key of the bottom joint fully, then the C-sharp6 can be extremely sharp. Many oboes have an adjustment screw on the C4 key, which can be tightened to solve this problem. There is often an additional screw on the English horn below the E-flat key for this adjustment. Another key that affects the C-sharp6 is the height of the half-hole key. If this key is too far open at rest, the C-sharp6 will tend to be sharp. Adjusting the screw so that the key is lower can help a great deal. If the oboe has no adjustment screw, then a bit of tape or cork on the body of the oboe beneath the half-hole key lever can work. If the height of the key becomes too low, the C-sharp6 will not speak easily.

3. There are times when a tone-hole can become a bit clogged with debris, such as lint. It doesn’t take much to make a difference in the pitch of a note. Sometimes taking off the keys and gently removing the debris will solve the pitch problem. Usually it can just be blown out, but for more stubborn debris, a cotton swab coated with bore oil can remove it.

4. Other intonation problems can be addressed by an oboe repair-person. Experienced repair-persons can affect pitch by changing the size, shape, and undercutting of a tone-hole, and can change the heights of keys that are otherwise difficult to change. However, not all repair people are equally capable in this regard.

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3. Common pitch problems and solutions

Problem: The low register tends to be loud and flat. Attempts to raise the pitch can affect the consistency of the response.

Solution: It can take time to find the balance between rolling in to raise the pitch, closing the lips to play softer, yet opening the oral cavity for a round, responsive sound. Having an appropriately responsive reed is also extremely important.

Problem: High register is very sharp and pinched.

Possible Cause: Either the reed is too closed (and likely old), and/or the embouchure is too tight.

Solution: Get a new reed. Strive to use the embouchure and jaw less for biting and instead the lips more for rolling in, making sure to use consistent air support. Practice playing 2 octave scales in which the upper notes are played louder than the low notes.

Possible Cause: The 2nd (side) octave key vent could be tuned sharp, which means the diameter of the hole in the vent is too large.

Solution: Have the oboe evaluated by a qualified repairperson. It is possible to get a new octave vent with a better diameter for tuning. This is fairly rare, but can happen, especially with poor quality student model oboes.

Problem: High register notes are flat or unstable

Possible Cause: The air support is not strong or consistent enough.

Solution: Blow more air to support the high register notes. Practice long tones in the high register to get comfortable with the effort required.

Possible Cause: The reed is not supported enough by the embouchure.

Solution: Roll the reed and lips more into the mouth. Possibly tighten the lips and close the oral cavity more without biting so much that the sound is pinched.

Possible Cause: The oral cavity is too open.

Solution: Form the vowel “ee” with the oral cavity.

Possible Cause: The reed is unstable.

Solution: Get a new reed, or close the opening of the reed by squishing the back after it has been properly soaked. If the reed needs to be adjusted,  see Fixing common reed issues using some tools.

Problem: C5 is flat, sharp, or ugly sounding.

Possible Cause: The embouchure, mouth cavity and air placement are too open if the pitch is flat and too closed if it’s sharp. There also may be too much reed pushed in the embouchure for the flexibility required.

Solution: Roll out to get flatter with an “oh” vowel, and roll in to get sharper with an “ee” vowel. Search for the sweet spot where the tone is focused, round, and steady.

Possible Cause: There is water in the little C tone hole making it flat.

Solution: Clean out the water with cigarette paper by blowing water out of the tone-hole from the inside of the oboe. Then swab the inside.

Possible Cause: The reed is unstable making the tone and pitch variable.

Solution: Squish the reed closed when soaked. Adjust the reed to be more stable by separating the heart and tip and clipping the tip. See Fixing common reed issues using some tools.

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4. Additional resources

Aaron Lakota on pitch adjustment

Jared Hauser on pitch adjustment

Aaron Hill on intonation and slurring

To Practice Tuning

The Tuning CD

Intonation exercises by Nobuo Kitagawa

To Tune The Instrument

Tuning rings


Tuning Tips

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