Does teaching students how to tune their instrument ever feel like a necessary evil?
You can’t learn to play very well on an out-of-tune instrument, and yet the act of tuning does not connect very directly to learning how to play. Of course, we want students to train their ears, but that’s part of learning to play music. So when it comes to tuning, maybe it’s okay for them to cut to the chase and use electronic tuners. (I must admit I’ve only recently come to accept this!)
I once tried tuning my violin entirely with an electronic tuner. It took a lot longer than usual. But then, this should not be surprising–our ears are more responsive than our eyes. I remember a science museum exhibit which asked the visitor to squeeze a handle as soon as possible after a starting signal. When the signal was a beep, reaction time was always quicker than when the signal was a light. (This raises interesting questions about the role of reading music vs. learning by ear.)
How do you teach tuning? (Pianists, please take out your harpsichords for this discussion. And harpists, don’t worry, I won’t tell tasteless jokes such as the one about how they spend half their time tuning and the other half playing out of tune! Ouch.)
The principle I go by is that while it can be difficult to identify whether one pitch is higher or lower than another, it’s pretty easy to tell when two pitches are the same. They have the same frequency, and a peaceful, harmonic sound. Two out-of-tune pitches create a buzz, a dissonance that is obvious when compared to the clarity of two identical pitches.
The key words are “when compared.” If two pitches slide toward each other, people can almost always hear the point at which the two pitches match. If two pitches are static, it can be daunting for some students to identify whether they are out of tune, and if so, to tell which pitch is higher.
Perhaps the most important skill used in tuning is getting the ears to trump the physical senses. A singer may sing off key because s/he feels comfortable with the physical sensation of it, rather than guiding the pitch with the ears. A violinist who keeps turning the peg to the same wrong place is guided more by the muscle memory of turning the peg than by the ears.
For this reason, it’s sometimes important to have a student go beyond the correct position and then come back to it. This unfreezes the physical presumptions of how far a peg should be turned, or how tight the vocal cords feel, etc., and throws the responsibility back to listening. This idea can be used in some intonation exercises.
With the violin, I like to have students first hear the correct pitch using a pitchpipe or tuner, and continue hearing that pitch as they bring their string up to match it. I tell them to allow themselves many trials–after all, pros take 5 or 6 times to get a string tuned, so students should allow themselves lots of chances, always tuning up from below. If they match pitches, they will know; if they’re not sure, they should try again.
I think it’s best for students to keep trying to tune using their ears, in order to make progress and to keep training their ears. But it’s probably a good idea for them to check their work with an electronic tuner, or even to rely on the tuner to avoid frustration.
It’s pretty hard to fully address the skill of tuning and still have time for everything else.
What do you think? I’m sure everyone would like to read about your thoughts and experiences. How do your students learn to tune their instruments?