When we think of tools and aids for practicing, the first things that come to mind are undoubtedly the tuner and the metronome. Most of us use the tuner as a visual aid to adjust intonation. But there's also a feature on most tuners that is just as, if not more, helpful, and often goes unused: the drone.
We all know that long tones are an important part of the daily routine. I had always practiced mine using a visual tuner, and often struggled to keep the pitch steady during crescendos and decrescendos, even though I'd been doing similar exercises since college. One day, I decided to try doing my long tones against a steady drone of C, starting on C and going down chromatically. I worked on "getting rid of the wobblies," as I say to my students, making sure the notes locked together with no unsteadiness. Of course, some intervals, like minor 2nds, were more difficult than others. I did this also with some scales in whole notes. I found that I was adjusting more quickly, and that I was much more mentally engaged in my long tone practice. I then decided to continue my long tone practice as such for the next few months, resisting all urges to use the visual tuner. After a few months passed, I returned to the visual tuner, and found that I was remarkably more accurate, even while doing dynamic changes. I believe that before using the tuner, I wasn't really using my ear to adjust the note - I was only reacting to what I saw on the tuner. But our eyes are not what helps us adjust in ensemble playing!
Want to try it out for yourself? Keep reading!
Most tuners have the ability to play a drone, a steady pitch of your choosing. There are also CDs with drones that sound more notes (like chords and open fifths), like "Breakfast: Intonation Practice for Trombonists" by David Schwartz. Whichever you use, it's important to be able to hear the drone above your own playing. I have friends that say they just hook their drone up to a speaker system and let it rip. I personally use headphones, so the steady pitch is practically inescapable. This is also a good option if you live with other people, you don't have a loud stereo system, or you want to drown out noise around you.
Here are some examples of how I use the drone::
*Always set the drone to the tonic note. If you're doing something chromatic, set it to the fundamental pitch of your instrument.
1) With long tones, chromatic or scalar. Experiment with dynamics, too, doing steady crescendos and decrescendos, paying attention to keeping in tune with the drone (and noticing what your tendencies are).
2) With scales or arpeggio exercises
3) With etudes. For example, I play Rochut etudes every day on tuba. I play these etudes one octave below written (middle register), 2 octaves below written (low register), and as written for trombone (high register). I love the drone for lyrical exercises especially, and I often intentionally go slower so I can clearly hear every note resonating with the drone.
4) With solo music. I found this especially helpful while practicing Bach earlier this year.
Thanks for reading! Please feel free to leave comments with any feedback or helpful practice tips!