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Orchestral Tuning before a show
February 21, 2006 8:19 AM   Subscribe

Is there a proper name for when an orchestra "tunes" before a concert?

You've heard it before, when a violin sets of a generally one-note tuning session right before a big show. Usually everyone chymes in until the conductor gets fed up and taps his baton three or four times to start the show.
posted by omidius to Media & Arts (24 answers total)
posted by jdroth at 8:19 AM on February 21, 2006

And it's actually the oboe that sets the "A". The concert master stands up and sits down to indicate the beginning and end of the tuning session.
posted by margaretlam at 8:24 AM on February 21, 2006

I'm a violinist in an orchestra :)

It's just called tuning. Also, although when to start is indicated by the violinist (usually assistant leader, as the leader will walk on with the conductor), it's actually an oboe that gives the note which everyone tunes to (an A). The assistant leader then points to each section in turn, and instructs them to tune to the oboe's A. People often use the opportunity to have a bit of quick extra warm-up, which shouldn't really be done.

The strings (violins, violas, cellos, double basses) tune their A strings to the oboe's A first, then tune their other strings to their (hopefully now in tune) A string.

The conductor tapping his baton thing generally doesn't happen at professional gigs, because the idea is that everyone is tuned up and ready to go before the conductor and leader walk on.
posted by Lotto at 8:27 AM on February 21, 2006

As a musician myself, I gotta say here that most of this is for show. Any string player worth his/her salt has already tuned well before the concert; the extra tuning is to ensure that if anything has slipped, it is fixed before the first piece begins.
posted by rossination at 8:27 AM on February 21, 2006

I have heard it refered to as the "cacophony."

I like that description.
posted by AgentRocket at 8:31 AM on February 21, 2006

We used to do this at high-school band concerts. It was entirely for show - everyone would have warmed and tuned up just before coming on stage. Generally you'd play the A, then fiddle with the spit valves or do something similarly important-looking.

Name-wise, we just called it "tuning". A clever name based on the fact that it's fake is left as an exercise to the reader.
posted by pocams at 8:43 AM on February 21, 2006

Why is the oboe the default? Is it somehow more likely to be in tune?
posted by Miko at 9:02 AM on February 21, 2006

Miko: yes, the oboe is used because it is less affected by humidity and other weather conditions, hence, it is more likely to be in tune.
posted by ding3r at 9:06 AM on February 21, 2006

For what it's worth, I've always called this 'tuning up', never just 'tuning'.
posted by chrismear at 9:14 AM on February 21, 2006

chrismear: Ah, but what if you were sharp? ;)

Also, what rossination and pocams said - an orchestra will have always tuned before going on stage. I wouldn't say that it's "just for show" though, as a peg slipping or a wind instrument reacting suddenly to hot lights can always happen right before the start of a performance, and it's best to check these things before you launch into a unision opening and or exposed solo.
posted by Lotto at 9:20 AM on February 21, 2006

It isn't just for show. In addition to the purposes listed above, it also alerts the audience to end their conversations and find their way to their seats.
posted by leafwoman at 9:49 AM on February 21, 2006

Actually, I always heard that the oboe was used because of its sound quality. The sound of a double reed is quite distinctive and can be readily dissociated from all the other instruments in the orchestra.

There's also the story that you tune to the oboe because it's the hardest to tune, and so everyone else can adjust to the oboe more easily than the other way around. Of course, this ignore the fact that there are many orchestral instruments (piano, harp, celeste, xylophone) that take at least an hour to tune, if they can be tuned at all, so take that with a grain of salt.

Aside: I play trombone in an orchestra, and the tuning to A has always been a pet peeve of mine: a trombone is "naturally" pitched such that the notes in a B-flat major triad, where the slide is all the way in, are the only "tunable" ones. The uncertainty of where the slide is makes tuning any other notes somewhat futile.
posted by Johnny Assay at 9:59 AM on February 21, 2006

Actually, I always heard that the oboe was used because of its sound quality. The sound of a double reed is quite distinctive and can be readily dissociated from all the other instruments in the orchestra.

I was recently at a NY Philharmonic concert, and in the accompanying book (the name of which escapes me), there was a short section on tuning. I don't have it with me right now to quote verbatim, but I do recall that it mentioned the oboe was used for tuning for just this reason (distinctive sound).
posted by Godbert at 10:23 AM on February 21, 2006

I agree that it isn't just for show. For one, you can tune to the space; what sounds like an A in the basement where you warm up may not sound like an A in an accoustically-designed concert hall. For two, you can tune to your section; go a kick up or down based upon what's coming from everybody else. I think most people would agree that its easier to tune your instrument when you have a sound to compare it to coming from another.
posted by ChasFile at 11:24 AM on February 21, 2006

viola player here (heard all the jokes so don't bother)

yes, the oboe is no more likely to be in tune than anything else - the player will use an electronic tuner to regulate the note. But the particular sound of the oboe means it can be heard by everyone quite easily above the noise of their own tuning.

If the piece is a piano concerto, the oboe will take his/her A from the piano and ignore the electronic tuner.

Johnny Assay - I've played with several orchestras where the brass (and horns, I think) were given a B flat specially...

chrismear - I usually call it 'tuning up' when it's just me, but 'tuning' when applied to the whole orchestra. No idea why.
posted by altolinguistic at 11:34 AM on February 21, 2006

Regarding the B flat versus A issue, I don't know if there's a good note that would allow all instruments to tune naturally to the same pitch. A D would work great for the strings, trombone, and Bb trumpet, but I don't know about the other brass/woodwind instruments. I have been in groups that have given a Bb to the brass, but these groups were conducted by brass players. All the big orchestras I've played with always give an A and the brass players just have to suck it up. There are generally more string players on stage than brass/wind players, so the majority rules. I play string bass in orchestras, but used to play trumpet so I can empathize.

I'm not sure about how weather resistant the oboe is. I played this weekend with the Boulder Philharmonic and the woodwinds were screaming that the door to the stage be kept closed to prevent the cold outside air from moving their pitch. They even requested and received a plastic shield to cut down on the breeze generated when the door had to be open.
posted by dr. fresh at 12:07 PM on February 21, 2006

Yes, it's called "The Intro to the Wing Commander Games".

Sorry. Best answer already provided, had to add my funny old school video game reference.
posted by twiggy at 12:07 PM on February 21, 2006

In a wind ensemble or band, usually a Bb is the only tuning note (sometimes an F). Occasionally an A is given for the saxophones, because Bb is apparently a squirrely note for them to tune to. In truth, an A is pretty useless for a lot of brass (especially if you're a trombone player, like me), because it sits in a valve combination/slide position that you often have to adjust anyway.
posted by rossination at 1:09 PM on February 21, 2006

Damn, a little late to the party, but here's a bit more input.

I'm not sure about how weather resistant the oboe is.

Oboist here, often principle, so I get to play that A a lot. Our horn is made of wood and just as susceptible to weather as the other winds. The instrument will crack if it's too cold out. Reeds (our "mouthpiece") generally have it far worse; you can feel them die as you play in poor conditions.

There's also the story that you tune to the oboe because it's the hardest to tune, and so everyone else can adjust to the oboe more easily than the other way around.

I've heard this, too, and I just don't get it. It's very easy to "lip" the pitch up or down with just the slightest embouchure change. And if you're really off, you can move the reed in or out of the top joint with minimal fuss (say, compared to a clarinet player who has to mess with a ligature).

I also disagree on tuning being just for "show".* Lots of folks make some last-minute decisions on reeds and other instrumental issues and that tuning A is a good time for any final decisions. And, as said before, it gives you a better sense of the "space" you're in. I've been on enough tours where that tuning A was the first time I got to hear what a particular stage sounded like.

Alas, no one has ever really explained to me the full history of why it's *my* job to give the A. (Or a Bb when I'm in a wind band.) But it's also of worth to note that the oboes usually sit pretty dead-center in the symphonic orchestra, so it's pretty easy for everyone to hear us.

* It's entertaining to note that I have, in musical theater, been a part of a pit orchestra requested to "noodle around" prior to a performance in order to add to the "ambiance". Most of the pit was rather put out by this because (a) it meant having to get to the venue early, and thus, not get compensated for the time and (b) when we're done warming up, that's it; we want to save our chops for the show.
posted by Sangre Azul at 2:12 PM on February 21, 2006

Whenever I hear an orchestra start tuning up I like to turn to my companion and say "I know this one!"
posted by JamesMessick at 2:45 PM on February 21, 2006

Another violist here. Never noticed that the brass players cared about being in tune, except for trumpet players, who liked to be a bit sharp so it sounded like they were playing louder. Trombone players were usually busy trying to hit poor innocent violists in the head with their slides.

More seriously, it is tuning, and while everyone has tuned before hand, temp changes, humidity changes or even just a bunch of lights can knock you out, so a brief check is in order.

And I've never played in a group that did a B flat for the brass.
posted by QIbHom at 2:52 PM on February 21, 2006

Trombone players were usually busy trying to hit poor innocent violists in the head with their slides.

Now that's just poor setup. If the trombonists have to constantly worry about hitting the violists with their slides, how can they concentrate properly on being loud enough to deafen them?
posted by Johnny Assay at 9:46 AM on February 22, 2006

Well, Johnny, some of those stages when we were touring Europe were really small. When you are in a half-ruined church outside, you have to take what you can get.
posted by QIbHom at 1:47 PM on February 22, 2006

Here's a follow-up question from a string bass player. Why is the A often followed by an ephemeral D minor chord? Is it to provide an f, which works quite well for B flat instruments? I always wondered about this, from the back of the stage.
posted by billtron at 6:44 PM on February 24, 2006

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