Tuning The Oud and Keeping It In Tune (Part 3)

1:44 pm Music, Oud

In part 1, the process of tuning the oud was discussed. Of the methods suggested, some do not require using the ear, namely the methods that employ electronic tuners. Others require using the ear to “match pitch” where you match the tuning of the string to a pitch provided by another instrument. The preferred method, however, requires using the ears to determine the tuning based on relationships between strings. This method requires more refined interval hearing skills than the others.

The question that many students ask is how does one improve their ability to hear intervals and relations between pitches and especially in Arabic music which contains micro-tonalities that are smaller than the equal tempered semitone? This is important not only for tuning the instrument but also for playing in tune, and being able to identify accurately what one is hearing.

There are many things one can do to improve this ability. Some of them have to do with education that one can get from an outside source such as college or private teacher. Others have to do with the instrument and changes to our approach to practicing and performing. They all, however, have to do with discipline and commitment to following through on a process that takes time and effort to complete. Aural skills, like instrumental technique, and like any other skill really, in the absence of miracles, take consistent work over a prolonged period of time.

Let us tackle those one by one.

Ear training courses

Ear training and musicianship courses are offered in all music departments. They usually consist of a series of courses taken over two, three, or in some conservatories, four years. Like any education, this is a two-way street. It requires a good teacher who guides the student to the acquisition of the desired set of skills within a reasonable period of time. It also requires, equally as importantly, that the student be willing to perform the tasks and exercises usually on a daily basis. If you are able to receive this type of training, you should do it without hesitation. While time consuming and possibly (unless you receive scholarships and/or are independently wealthy) costly, the skills that they offer a musician are extremely valuable.

Naturally, in the west these courses do not teach Arabic maqam hearing. However, this type of training goes a long way toward that. The skills that are needed for maqam hearing are developed by ear training courses. Then it is just a matter of learning the parameters specific to Arabic music. In a work I completed at SFSU, I developed an approach to teaching maqam ear training to western trained musicians. The theory was that the skills needed for Arabic maqam hearing are developed by western ear training. The maqam ear training needs only introduce the relationships within the maqam system in terms that relate to the western ear training. I have since tested this approach on both private students and in workshops. The results overwhelmingly support it.

Conclusion: If you can take the musicianship courses at a university, community college, or conservatory, those would help you with your Arabic music work as well.

To repeat myself, having taught both Arabic and western ear training, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of daily practice of the stuff.

Work done while practicing instrument

There are a few things that should become habit for a serious musician.

1- Practice slow. Really slow. Listen to the resonances of the instrument. In our desire to play fast, we neglect to pay attention to what we’re hearing. When playing, and after making sure the oud is well in tune, dedicate some time to playing an open string with each note you’re playing and hearing relationships. This has to be done while you’ve slowed down the scale or etude considerably. Try it. See if you hear new things.

2- Observe good tone. When you are handling the pick correctly and playing in the right part of the oud (usually on the outskirts of the peg-guard, close to the rosette), you will produce a tone that has a rich dose of overtones. Hearing all those will make out of tune notes clash harder with open strings. In other words, playing out of tune will sound uglier to your ear, stand out more, giving you a better chance of noticing.

3- Do this daily. Once in a blue moon is not enough unless you live on a planet with frequent blue moons. But seriously, when you do this daily you begin to notice smaller and smaller details as the sounds becomes more and more familiar.

4- Do not cheat. If your finger has to move horizontally (not just vertically) as you switch from an in-tune A on second string to an in-tune E on third string, then you’re cheating. One of the strings is out of tune. Another example is third finger playing F on third string and C on fourth. Get the message. Intonation is mostly technique. But that works if you are honest in observing these “minor corrections” you do by sliding the finger after hitting an out of tune note. Be honest and retune the oud until all those relationships are correct.

5 – Sing and visualize. OK, you want to play a phrase lyrically, in tune, with a certain feel. Sing it lyrically, in tune and with the desired feel. But go a step further. While you’re singing it, visualize playing it. Try that today. See if it helps. And, by the way, what if while you’re visualizing playing something you realize that it requires a technique or acrobatic skill on the oud that you don’t yet possess? Well you have two choices, either learn, practice, and develop that technique. The second choice is to find another way to play it using skills that you already have. Whatever you do, don’t play it sloppy because you’re using a technique that you don’t have. Playing sloppy requires you to compromise the phrase’s beauty and integrity. It is my belief that a musician should never compromise the beauty or integrity of a phrase.

Leave a Comment

Your comment

You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>