Why Does the Oboe Tune the Orchestra? And how to do it right
In a full orchestra, at the start of every concert and rehearsal, the oboe will tune the orchestra by playing a long, sustained A (the second space on the treble clef).. This has become such a standard practice that it may seem like an arbitrary tradition at this point. However his procedure emerged organically because of a combination of reasons. In short, the oboe has become the standard instrument to give the tuning pitch because of the developmental history of the orchestra, the unique timbre and range of the oboe, and the non-existence of tuning slides on the oboe.
The modern orchestra as we know it got its roots accompanying opera and ballet. Nationalist styles arose in Italy, Germany and France, but it was in France that the oboe was treated as a star. The oboe, or hautboy as it was known at the time, became a staple wind instrument for both ceremonial court music and the national ballet. To learn more about the development of the oboe click here.
Eventually the oboe’s popularity reached across the entire continent, and composers were incorporating the instrument in their scores for opera and eventually symphonies, first as auxiliary instruments doubled by flautists or even string players, then as important, specialized members of the orchestra. Johan Juaquim Quatz, the famous German flautist and pedagogue of the Baroque era, included a small section on oboe playing in his treatise for flute instruction. However, the oboe was not yet used to tune the orchestra.
Keyboards, Tuning Systems, and Headaches
The Baroque and early Classical tuning systems were distinct from city to city. There are reports of oboists needing different top joints to swap out while traveling to be able to play in tune with each town’s orchestra. To further complicate the issue, there were various tuning systems that favored the purity of different intervals in certain keys and exaggerated the “wolf tones” (dissonant intervals) in other keys. Each tuning system was anchored to the keyboards (organs and harpsichords) of the region, and the string and wind players had to accommodate for pitch.
Each orchestra may have had its own unique tuning protocol, but it was common for the concertmaster, or “conductor” (who was usually the harpsichordist), to check the intonation with each player or section before the concert to make sure it was appropriate. In Lully’s orchestra in Paris there are apocryphal stories of Lully going from dressing room to dressing room to check the intonation of each player before each rehearsal and concert.
Eventually, tuning systems began to shift to well-tempered and then equal-tempered tuning, and the baroque continuo (keyboard with bass) discontinued its role and participation in the symphonic literature. Without a keyboard to govern the pitch, the concertmaster would go with the first oboist to each section backstage and tune to the oboist’s A. This was because they had to work their pitch center into their reed construction, and it was more stable than the string players’ gut strings. The pitch A was initially chosen for tuning because all of the string instruments had an open A string. Interestingly, this seems to have been the procedure even as bassoons clarinets, horns, trumpets, and trombones became regular members of the symphonic orchestra.
At some point, probably due to cost and time, tuning occured on stage. The concertmaster would signal the oboe to give a few long stable A’s for the orchestra to tune to, as is tradition today.
How to play the tuning note
While the orchestra is still warming up play a couple of practice tuning As to make sure everything is working right. Make sure you have a tuner that will pick up your sound even when there is a lot of ambient noise like there will be before the concert. My favorite tuner is the Korg TM60Bk but some phone apps also work great. To check out the current price on amazon click here.
At some point the concert master will stand to start the rehearsal and ask for a few notes to tune the orchestra by section make sure to start soft enough in case any adjustments are needed. Then crescendo so the orchestra knows that you have settled on the pitch and they are free to tune.
For concerts, the house lights will darken and the stage lights will brighten. The concert master will then walk out and signal for you to give the previously agreed number of tuning pitches. Just do as you did in rehearsal. If anything goes wrong just restart and move on.
Orchestral Tuning Order
The tuning order is usually agreed upon by the concertmaster and the principal oboist, and is informed by their backgrounds and the traditions of the orchestra they are playing with. It is common for the concertmaster to request two to four A’s, and to go from brass to woodwinds to lower strings to upper strings. Sometimes all the winds share their tuning opportunity and all the strings share theirs, especially if the orchestra is not large. Some student groups may take even more pitches and time for tuning at the discretion of the instructor.
Tune quickly and purposefully; then wait patiently and quietly.
Tuning should be brief and purposeful. This is a great and simple way to avoid personal and professional conflicts! Nobody likes the person who uses tuning time to practice their flashiest concerto or test how loud or high they can play.
Wind Players: Play your A at a mezzo-forte dynamic and adjust slightly if needed. Skilled players actually set their instrument up to be pretty close to correct before they even walk on stage. If there are any doubts about your intonation, you can test it with a low D or E.
Non-principal Oboes: Do not play your A against the principal’s A any louder than a mezzo-piano. If you must play at all, just pay a brief A and then a low D or E to check your soft response and then wait in silence. Playing from the oboe section can confuse other members of the orchestra as to which pitch they are tuning to.
String Players: Tune with tighter, narrower fifths in order to match the orchestra. Perfect fifths are wider than equal-temperament fifths. This results in a huge, ugly intonation gap between the high and low instruments, especially between the violins and the basses. A great way to check this is to compare the violin E string with the viola or cello C string. Often, the violin E will sound very sharp and the viola/cello C will sound super flat. The lower instruments are usually the ones who have to compensate the most, since the A is given directly to the concertmaster in the same octave.
The concert band genre has had some traditional conflict when it comes to tuning procedure. In some ensembles like the Eastman Wind Ensemble, the oboe tunes the group with two A’s; one for woodwinds and one for brass. Some university bands in the Southern United States tune with an A for the woodwinds and a B-flat for the brass. Some bands have the clarinet tune the group even when an oboe is available. The protocol is at the discretion of the band director or conductor and should be respected.
Rising pitch centers
Large ensembles tend to be conservative in their tuning procedures, so the oboist should be aware of their tuning traditions and be ready to adjust if needed. In general, pitch centers have risen since the twentieth century. In 1980, many American orchestras preferred to tune to A = 440; now they prefer A = 442, while some even prefer A = 443. European orchestras tend to prefer brighter pitch centers as well; some even as bright as A = 445.
Playing the tuning a for the orchestra is a point of pride among many oboists and real thought and consideration should be applied to the seemingly simple task. It is after all the first note of every concert and rehearsal, so keep practicing those long tones and remember the long history of the tradition. .
Bate, Phillip. The Oboe, An outline of its History Development and Construction. London/Ernest Benn Limited. Toronto,1975.
Burgges, Geoffery and Haynes, Bruce. The Oboe. Worldprint, Yalle University Print, 2004.
Sachs, Curt and Enich M. von Hornbostel (1994), Systematik der Musikinstrumente;Seitschrift fur Ethnomologie 46:553-90, London, 1996.