Having begun here, I’m continuing a personal chronicle related to musical pitch (vibration frequency).
I was blessed to have had musical instruction earlier than most. Never a prodigy, I was however privileged and advanced, being around singers and pianists, and having the opportunity to start playing a wind instrument before I turned 9.
I recall that high school friends would “test” me by playing a note on the piano to see if I could name it. Another student had an absolute sense of pitch ingrained, and I did not, but I could still guess within a half-step most of the time. Part of that ability involved what I think would be termed “audiating” (hearing in one’s head without sound): I would sort-of pre-sing a tone, feeling where it “lay” in my voice. I could approximate how middle C felt to sing, or a D below that—or a Bb, that ever-droning tuning note for bands.
Facility with singing led to facility with the use of a tuning fork. Using such a thing as a basis for finding other pitches is a mystery to some, and I have viewed its use as a source of some small pride. (Those who used a lower-class pitch-finder, a “pitch pipe,” resided somewhere down the totem pole from my branch, I came to think. It was impossible to be discreet with the cheap, honking sound of the pitch pipe, which I came to despise.) The standard tuning fork vibrates at 523.3 MHz, which happens to have been designated a C. The collection above is 5/6 of mine. I have two cheap C forks (the silver-colored ones), a British Standard C (there on top), the Bb and G forks, which a friend picked up for me in England about 20 years ago, and a British Standard A that stays in my piano tuning bag.
In each a cappella chorus at Harding University, there had to be a means of starting a piece together. In my particular chorus, a student was the pitch giver, and when I arrived as a freshman, the designee was Jan Sykes, who became a friend. Jan sang a clear, strong first alto and was a conscientious, capable pitch giver. (She also played euphonium well. I’ve always felt that, all other things being equal, instrumentalists would have a more solid sense of pitch than singers who did not have instrumental abilities and experience.) Jan graduated, and the following fall, the tuning fork job was given to me. For the next two and a half years, I was the pitch-giver in a group something like this one (bad audio, bad video, but you’ll get the idea).
I obsessed about the pitch-giving role just a bit, never wanting to err. As memory serves, we used the piano as a pitch standard at some points during some rehearsals, but I would have had my tuning fork at the ready for every rehearsal. And for every piece we sang in a concert, I gave the pitch. Sometimes, announcements would run long, or my obsessiveness overshadowed reasonableness, and I would have to strike the tuning fork on my knee or a knuckle several times before feeling I had it in my head well enough to hum it the pitch loudly enough for it to be heard through the chorus. As a bass, I was near the center, on the next to back row, so I was well positioned.
Once, I remember giving a pitch that was a step off. I don’t know what had gotten into me. A few of my chorus friends noticed it but they didn’t give me too hard a time about it. I don’t think the director noticed it, either. Most other times, I’m sure I was a few cents off from true pitch, but only a person with absolute pitch would have known.
I became very confident with a tuning fork during college and used one regularly for years to come, leading singing in Church of Christ buildings through the 90s and even at camp. During the 1990s with the performing octet Lights, I used a fork but sometimes set up medleys that would not require giving a new pitch for each song. For the last dozen years or more, I have had fewer occasions to need a tuning fork, but I still have an attachment to the little things. I could readily find my collection this morning!
One more bit from college before finalizing this installment. I distinctly recall when marching band season was over in my freshman year, and we began to rehearse more artful music indoors. It was concert band time, and I liked it a lot more than marching band. The head drum major, Bill, moved to the saxophone section from the drum major podium and played a very fine alto. The horns sat in front of the saxes on the west side of the band room, and I was directly in front of Bill. I commented one day that I liked playing near him, because I had a good intonation model behind me. It was satisfying and worthwhile to try to play in tune with Bill.
My love of fine intonation has continued to this day.
Next: tuning pianos