Tuning is the first thing we as musicians do before playing, so we should teach our students to do the same. Many teachers tune their students’ instrument for them, especially when teaching younger beginning students. While this may give more time in the lesson to teach other things, I think students are missing out on a very important skill and should be required to tune their own instrument right from the very first lesson. Tuning is part of playing an instrument and so we need to take lesson time to teach it. When taught efficiently, this skill does not have to take up too much lesson time.
All levels of students can learn to tune at the first lesson!
These are just a few of the important reasons students should tune their own instruments. You may have more to add to the list!
I generally teach tuning in three stages:
Tune the individual strings by plucking
Tune the individual strings by bowing
Tune the A-string, then tune the others to it in pairs by 5ths
With few exceptions beginning students of all ages can learn to tune their individual strings by plucking. I use a Korg TM-50 metronome/tuner to help my students learn to tune. I have them tune to the sounding pitch, then check themselves with the needle function. I find this particular tuner to be accurate, easy to use, and it produces all the notes in the correct octaves to tune the strings on both violins and violas.
Tuning is not necessarily an easy skill to learn, and if you attempt to have your beginning students tune all four of their strings in their lesson you can easily take up a full 30min!
To get the benefits of learning how to tune without taking up too much lesson time I have found the following methods to be effective:
Have students start by tuning just the A-string.
Put a 5min. time limit on tuning – see how many strings the student can get done in that amount of time.
Put a limit of 3 “checks” per string on tuning. This encourages students to more diligently use their ears!
Give a sticker for every string tuned correctly in the given time limit.
Have the student verbalize if their string is “too high”, “too low” or “just right” before turning the fine tuner. This keeps the student engaged in the process and helps you know what they may or may not be hearing.
Have the student hum the the pitch of their string, then the correct pitch. Have them identify if they needed to go up or down in their voice to get to the correct pitch. Sometimes the physical sensation of feeling what their vocal chords need to do is helpful. (This process even works for students how have trouble vocally matching pitch!)
Once a student has successfully learned how to tune the individual strings by plucking they are ready to tune using the bow. Make sure that your student has also learned how to produce even long tones with their bow before attempting this step. A poor or inconsistent tone will change the sounding pitch of the string and make it difficult for students to hear the correct pitch.
At this stage it is also important to make sure that the student is turning their fine tuners only when their bow is moving on the string. Most students will attempt to play their string, stop the bow to turn the fine tuner, then bow again to check where they are. It is much more effective to have the student turning the fine tuners with their left hand while bowing with the right. It will be awkward at first, but a student will be able to match pitch much more easily this way.
Encourage students at all stages to go slightly above and slightly below the in-tune pitch to help them learn how to find the center of the pitch. Going back and forth like this helps them hone in on where in-tune is.
Lastly, students are ready to tune their strings in 5ths when they can easily tune their individual strings with their bow. I also recommend that you introduce double-stop playing into a student’s repertoire before attempting to teach this tuning step. Tuning strings in 5ths is very similar to tuning double-stops. The student who has trained their ear to hear double-stops and adjust their fingers appropriately will most likely find tuning in 5ths not too difficult.
When introducing this last stage of tuning I normally show the student on my violin what to listen for. I describe it as listening for the strings to produce a 3rd note. This overtone sometimes sounds like a low rumble. It will become louder as the 5ths are more in tune. Once a student understands what to listen for they can try it themselves with their instrument.
When approaching tuning in these three stages and in the ways described I have found that students of all levels successfully learn to tune, and that the process positively influences how they approach tuning the notes of the left hand as well because their ear is being trained to recognize small nuances in pitch from the start!
Emily Williams is the creator of Strategic Strings: An Online Course for Violin and Viola Teachers