The Fine Art of Tuning
By Rachel Davis
In high school, at the beginning of each concert, like all orchestras, we would take some time to tune. Once the squeaking and squawking settled into a common A natural, our conductor would say, "Thank you very much. Our first song was 'The Fine Art of Tuning.'" The audience, slightly confused, would laugh and we would move on to the actual concert. His comment, while quite dry, actual holds a lot of truth. The concept may seem like simply matching pitches but there is "fine art" to it that I see even advanced musicians missing out on. In my experience there are two main things that will help you master the fine art of tuning: a strong pitch reference and good tuning habits.
A Strong Pitch Reference: Unless you were born with "perfect pitch," you will need a reference to the correct pitch.
-A tuning fork is the classic tool for tuning. It is a piece of metal cast into a specific u-shape so that when struck, it emits a particular pitch.
*NOTE: Never strike a tuning fork on your instrument.* I've seen this happen, which is why I have to say it…
-For beginners, an electronic tuner is useful because they can either emit the desired pitch or show you digitally what pitch you are playing. There are even some that clip directly on the instrument!
-Pitch pipes are lightweight and easy to use as well. All you have to do is blow. The downside is that if they get dropped or beat up, the notes on the pitch pipe will get out of tune themselves.
-Pianos are best used in a band setting. They aren't exactly portable like the other options but they are the best choice if you are going to be playing with a piano (I'll explain that later).
-Tuning Apps are available and are a great portable option. We recommend parents download one to help tune student instruments.
Good Playing Habits: some of this may seem like common sense, but it's good to be reminded.
-The best habit to have while tuning would be listening. It's not enough to simply look at the tuner see that you are in tune (or worse, just play a note and turn the pegs until you are tired of it or the rest of the group stops tuning). Listen to what it sounds like to be in tune and out of tune. On a stringed instrument, you will need to listen to the intervals between the strings. Traditionally, violin, viola, and cello strings are tuned in fifths (sounds like the beginning of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star"). If you are playing in a group, listen to the other players and "agree" with their tuning. At times, the people you are playing with may have instruments that aren't perfectly in tune and can't be tuned without great difficulty. I'm not talking about stubborn viola pegs or sticky clarinet keys, but a 250 year old pipe organ or a tinny house piano at a bar. Your instrument may be perfectly in tune on its own, but if it doesn't match the instruments you are playing with you will sound out of tune.
-Having strong fundamentals is another habit that will make the tuning process easier and more effective. In the violin family, a good bow hold is key to quality sound production. If you don't have a strong bow hold, you won't be able to produce a good sound to tune from . Also, applying too much or too little pressure with the bow can cause the note you are trying to tune to go in and out of tune. Long and steady bow strokes at medium volume are best for tuning. Likewise, having the correct shape and placement in the left hand directly impacts the intonation of the notes you are trying to play. I hate to say it, but it's best to practice scales over and over again to strengthen tuning in the left hand.
-Lastly, take the time you need to make sure you are in tune. I remember when I first started tuning my own instrument, the time it took to get it right was frustrating and felt like everyone else I was playing with was getting in tune faster. Yet, I know that my stand partner and my teacher always liked it when I took an extra 30 seconds to make sure that I was in tune.