While most audience members view the oboe’s tuning “A” before the concert as they would a preview at the movie theater (and continue to talk through it), most are completely unaware of the long and complicated relationship that most oboists have with this particular note. There are actually many factors to consider and it is never as straight-forward as simply playing one pitch. There is no universal standard when it comes to the tuning “A” but ask an oboist and they will likely convince you that in fact they have discovered the perfect method. Here is a quick look at the many elements of tuning; the cue to tune, tuning pitch, tuning device, crescendo vs.static volume, use of vibrato and general orchestral acceptance.
The tuning note occurs traditionally only after the ceremonious cue from the concert master and this is true for rehearsals as well. However, there is the tradition of having the concert master simply come take his bow and be seated instead of giving the cue for the “A” first. In this case, the assistant concert master gives the cue beforehand and only for the concert. I learned from a colleague that in the Netherlands, it is tradition to have the principal oboist stand to give the tuning “A” instead of remaining seated.
The precise tuning pitch of the orchestra is so critical that it is a part of every orchestral musician’s contract along with salary and health benefits. This is vital information as it affects not only traditional orchestra instruments, but those that need advanced tuning such as pitched percussion, piano and harp. In my experience, I have found the majority of orchestras in the United States tune to A=440 and occasionally A=442 (there are of course exceptions). In Europe, the trend seems to be higher starting pitches, even cases of A=444. Of the one South African orchestra of which I am aware of the pitch, it stands at A=441.
I personally always use a tuner, despite the rapidity of this task for one main reason; a machine is perfect, oboists are not. There are many who feel confident enough not to use a tuner, but then again, when needing to convince other musicians, there is little debate when the little light flashes green.
When I have attended concerts, there are typically two approaches to the start of the actual tuning note; gradual crescendo or immediate forte. I personally like the gradual approach seeing that the oboist is the only member of the orchestra who is not allowed to be heard “fixing” or dare we say “tuning” a pitch. The quieter starting volume demands more attention and concentration from the string players and as more join in, I increase the volume. Once the note begins, the question of vibration immediately arises; should one use vibrato or use a straight tone? While oboists rarely will ever play senza-vibrato tone in orchestral works, to me the vibrato interferes with the basic function of tuning. I would personally find it easier to tune to a straight-tone even though the use of vibrato is more in synch with what I would here in the concert.
Then of course there are those situations where an orchestra veers off the traditional path. The Boston Symphony Orchestra has taken this element of tuning one step further and in fact has absolved the oboist of the responsibility all together, well, almost. The principal oboist actually turns on a tuning machine that gives a straight-tone pitch (though not a recorded oboe sound). I admire this system and would personally have no problem adapting to it. There have been two occasions where “creative tuning” made for an interesting concert experience. I can remember a concert where the conductor felt so strongly about having the oboist play a concert “D” then an “A” every time as part of the tuning process and the result was a most confused audience. It is amazing how audiences zone out of this process but the moment one adds a note, the chattering simply will not die away. The other occasion was attending the performance of Beethoven No. 4 in Bb Major in which the work begins with unison Bb. This presented an interesting challenge as tuning to the 7th of a particular key is not ideal; the strings were tuned first to “A” and the winds and brass followed on a concert “B”. While it made the most sense for the sake of the musicians, deviating from the system even slightly draws a great deal of attention to the tuning process.
While studying at the Eastman School, the art of tuning was a topic discussed thoroughly. Playing the perfect tuning note was given the same weight as an Olympic performance, such as instituting a point system and talking about the success of the classes’ collective tuning “A”s during our weekly master class. With all of the guidelines we were given to think about, we also received different advice when it came to keeping ourselves in tune. The thought was that simply by warming up within the wind section, one could find where the pitch center was and where we fit in. It was even suggested that the second oboist not tune directly on an “A”, but on a low “D” instead as to get the section thinking about intervals instead of tuning one pitch. In recital settings, one needed to hear or play with the pianist beforehand instead of opting to “tune” to a piano pitch once on stage. Of course, not every work is written in a key that is compatible with the “A” pitch (if it is in a key at all…) which was all the more reason to opt out of the whole process and simply come to the stage in tune.
Looking back, I am most grateful for the intense experience of weekly tuning- judging sessions as it made one examine the many elements that go into this unique responsibility.