Orchestra and Attitude Tuning

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Not too long ago, we attended a concert by a youth orchestra in which our daughter, who plays the cello, is a member.  I would say that the concert was definitely a success and the music was fantastic. Of course, I am extremely biased. I am a proud parent, can’t you tell?

The orchestra was actually composed of 2 symphony groups combined: the Des Moines Youth Philharmonic (kids grades 7-9) and the Des Moines Youth Symphony (grades 10-12). The combined youth orchestra was conducted by the same Maestro who directs and conducts the professional Des Moines Symphony. The concert hall was filled like sardines to standing room only, as you can imagine, just the number of the proud parents (like me) and families present, were enough to pack the whole auditorium.

The orchestra was more than 100 musicians-strong, with their different instruments – the strings (violins, violas, cellos, and double bass), the woodwinds (clarinets, piccolo, flutes, oboes, and baboons bassoons), the brass (horns, trumpets, trombones, tubas) and the percussions (drums, timpani, cymbals, triangle and others that I don’t even know the names).

my daughter's orchestra

In the concert, it was interesting to witness – that much before the loud applause, standing ovation and catcalls; before the magnificent music pieces that were inspiringly performed; before the thousands of melodious notes that were harmoniously played with the various instruments; and before the conductor even raised his baton –  was one instrument playing one simple note. One oboe played a sustained key of A note. What followed after, was that all the instruments keyed in and were adjusted, making sure that all were in tune. Only then, did the concert began.

Why the oboe? It’s not that this is the easiest to play, in fact it may be the opposite, according to one musician friend. There were a few explanations, but the best answer I read is that this instrument is the least adjustable among other instruments. The oboe is tuned at the time that it is manufactured and cannot be otherwise tuned. It will retain its perfectly calibrated note, and will never go flat or sharp. However, some orchestras use a different instrument for tuning besides the oboe. I don’t think you can tune using the cymbals though.

Why the key of A, or also known as concert A? It is the pitch of 440 hertz or 440 cycles per minute. By the way, the human ear can hear between 20 to 20,000 hertz, and an astute music student can distinguish between 440 and 442 hertz. Interestingly, during the 17th and 18th century, the key of A can range from 410 to 425 hertz. Only during the 20th century was the key of A set at a standard of 440 hertz. I am really not sure why this pitch is used as a standard. I can speculate that it is the pitch that will optimally vibrate the human tympanic membrane or that it is the natural cosmic vibration of the earth, but that is not true.

Whatever reasons why it is the oboe or why the key of A is used as a reference tune is not important. What is important and what the point of this discussion, is that all the instruments in the orchestra needed to be in perfect tune.

I would say that life is like an orchestra. Different people have different qualities and capabilities, like the various musical instruments. We don’t need everybody to be playing violas, or all playing the tubas, or all banging the drums, for that will not sound good. We need each other’s individuality, and we complement each other if we work and play together. However, in every endeavor, we need a “standard pitch,” a common goal if you will, to which everybody attunes to, or aim of achieving.

Once our attitudes are “in tune” with each other, and only then, can we make beautiful music together. May we all have a harmonious New Year.

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