30. July 2007 · 5 comments · Categories: Ramble

Bolcom sees a danger of the computer replacing the composer’s imagination instead of sparking it. He tells of visiting Igor Stravinsky and finding that he had dampened his piano strings with cloth: “He’d play and the note would just be this ‘plink,’ and in his mind, he would assign the shape and the color of the note. That’s what’s missing — that hearing it in your mind,” he says. “The ear isn’t as developed because there are too many helps.” A member of the younger generation shares Bolcom’s concern. “I’d much rather hack through something really badly at the keyboard,” says fellow Andrew McPherson, “because it requires a certain extra leap of imagination.”

Thoughts? Composers … agree or disagree?

I’m not a composer. Not at ALL. But I occasionally play new works by young composers. It’s often quite interesting to watch their faces as we play their pieces. They seem surprised by the sounds. While they use their computers and, they think, hear an oboe tone, it isn’t the same. There’s something about our sound … I’ve never heard anything close to realistic by a “fake” oboe! And the way we attack notes, or cut them off, can’t be duplicated. They are also taken aback if we aren’t able to play their complicated rhythms at first glance like their computers could. The ones I played for this past year were also surprised that we had to ask questions about some of their notations and requests. (I really wondered if some had actually heard live instruments before, or studied an instrument at all!)

But I’m not really writing about that.

Well, that’s a lie, isn’t it? I did just write about that! But still …

The article just got me to thinking about something else I lived without until I was in college: the wonderful world of tuners!

When I started up with oboe back in, I think, 1968, those little tuners weren’t invented. Or at least I sure didn’t know about them. (I do remember hearing about this “black box” when I was in college. Many of us put our noses up in the air and thought it was cheating to use a box to tune an orchestra rather than one’s ear. Silly of us, eh?) We did have a huge machine that we could tune to at school. I think it was called a Strobe-a-con or some such thing. It had a different window for every note, quite unlike our handy dandy little tuners that know which note we are playing (or at least they think they do; sometimes a student is so sharp it decides the note is a half step higher!). Aside from that tuner at school, I had to use my ear. And a tuning fork.

To tune a group, I’d hit the fork on my knee, press it up against my ear, and then play an A to match the fork. Hardly a precise way to tune, but then the principal oboe is the boss, so whatever. (And we should make our reed to play on pitch, yes?)

But I ramble. (Surprise!)

I love my tuners (yes, I have a number of them). It’s so much easier to turn that on to check my pitch or my reed crow. It’s wonderful to have the tool, and I’ll never stop using mine. I will continue to tune an orchestra with it; no one can tell me I gave a sharp or flat A if I use the tuner. Well, okay, they can, but they’d be wrong.

[Short story, for example: Years ago I was hired to play as a ringer for, I think, a university orchestra (the memory is somewhat vague, although I’ll never forget the concertmaster’s name!). After giving the A, the concertmaster—another ringer, mind you—looked at me and shook his head. In front of an audience. I’m not terribly brave, but in that instant he just pushed a button I guess, because I looked up, shook my head back at him, and held up the tuner. Note to students: That was poor form on his part, but it was probably also poor form on mine and I should have just played another A and gone on with things. Still, it did feel good to be right!]

BUT (and you knew that was coming, right?) … I think some musicians use the tuner so much that they forget to listen. I think some of us become so set on seeing the pitch we turn off our ears. And that can be a big problem. This is why I don’t let my students see my tuner when I have them play an A. I’ll ask them to play an A andI will then turn the sound feature on on my tuner so they can hear it. “Sharp or flat?” I’ll ask. They frequently get it wrong for a while. Eventually they start to really hear. Or I’ll play an A and have them match the pitch. That is, after all, what we have to do when we are playing with a group; we have to match. Being a perfect 440 when everyone else is playing 442 means the 440 person is wrong.

When we are playing in orchestras most of us aren’t hooked into a tuner. (Yes, some players stay hooked in the entire time; that, to me, causes other problems. I won’t deal with that right now, though.) Listening is a very good thing to do. Really.


  1. It’s an interesting question. I, too, love my tuners. I feel they’ve helped me to sharpen my ears quite a lot. I believe they can be limiting when they’re viewed as a sort of “algorithmic” way of setting pitch. Real musicians play around with the pitch in complex and interesting ways… but it’s only “play” if it is rooted in a very secure aural awareness.

    Interestingly, I believe much the same question arose when the metronome first came into usage. Beethoven famously said (I paraphrase) that the performer should not adhere absolutely to his MM markings throughout, but should take them only as a high-level guide. By now, we all accept the metronome as a good tool — you never hear somebody saying it might somehow impair their rhythmic sense. And, of course, musicians also make all sorts of inflections and “play” around the plain notations of rhythm, don’t we?

    So, the tools of technology are A Good Thing. But we will always need our musician brains (and hearts).

  2. Regarding the issue of composers hearing in their heads versus hearing through their ears… I understand the point, but it is odd that we wouldn’t expect this in other arts. Would we really expect a painter to fully realize a painting in his/her mind before using paint? There are advantages to working directly in the media of visual art, and I can imagine equal advantages in working directly in the medium of sound.

  3. I’ve wondered about the players who hook their instruments up to tuners in the bell and leave them there, or play with their tuner in front of them all the time. I guess I am old-school too (yes, I remember the strobe-panel tuners in high school as well!), but I would rather listen to what’s going on around me than stare at the tuner all night. I was in a production of The Mikado last fall, and had to play with Yum-Yum while she sang “The sun, whose rays are all ablaze”. She was almost a half-step sharp on one note(that real long one the oboe has, or course), and if I had just used the tuner it would have sounded awful. I just did what she did— she was pretty consistent from one performance to the next. But I really had to listen to her! Not to mention the normal listening as well. If anyone uses the tuners all the time, I would love to know your perspective and how it helps you. I’m probably missing something….

  4. Several years ago I was working on an opera and writing it on our family computer (that’s when we had only one). In order to approximate voices (which are impossible to synthesize on the computer), I used brass instruments for the voices and left the rest to my imagination.

    My son came in to the room where I was working and asked me why everything I was writing always sounded the same, with those same sad horns. He (obviously) couldn’t hear the voices in the theater inside my head. I was still able to use my imagination in spite of automated music notation and pitch replication.

    I think that the computer is an excellent tool for composers. I would never use it as an “instrument” though, though it is possible, with a lot of skill, care, and a huge hard drive, to make a pretty convincing approximation of an orchestra or a wind ensemble.

    I think that the most wonderful part of writing music is giving people stuff to play so that they can express themselves and interact musically with other people. A computer just can’t do that, but it can make accomplishing that task easier.

  5. Tuners aren’t an evil thing, but certainly we do want to keep our ears “in tune” too! So I use mine on and off, and I continue to work on listening. I used to think I had a very good ear, but recently colleagues in the opera pit have groused about pitch (not mine, thankfully) and I was unaware, so I do wonder if the tuner is partially to blame. Better the tuner than the “tunee”! 😉

    As to computers and composing … I think I see this in much the same way; computers are a wonderful tool, and I doubt a good number of composers would want to give theirs up. I just wish young composers would understand that we “live” folk are NOT computers! The incredibly difficult rhythms they write are easy for a computer, but sometimes nearly impossible for us. The other problem is that a computer has no bad intervals or impossible fingering changes. OH … and a computer is in tune! Try having three oboes play in unison … in tune. Hah! 🙂