Music Teacher's Helper Blog

tuning instruments for students

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?

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This morning we added two new pages to your studio website. An “About” page and a “Contact” page.

The “About” page can be used to tell visitors about your studio or about yourself. To edit your about page, simply login to your account, click “Home”, then “My Profile”. You’ll see an area for the “Bio” down near the bottom. Anything you type in that box will appear on your about page. It works just like the teaching policy and email editor so you can use different fonts and colors to customize the look of your page.

The “Contact” page is simply an email form so that students can contact you to ask a question, without logging into their account. We’ve kept your email address hidden to help prevent spam.

We hope you enjoy these new features! As always, more is on the way. 🙂

Feel free to contact us if you have any questions.

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music student billing

Originally I discovered Music Teacher’s Helper (MTH) because I was looking for a way to track student payments. After teaching for a while in a music school which collected student tuition, I added a day of teaching at a place where I needed to collect lesson payments directly, and I wanted these transactions to run smoothly for everyone involved. Having payments show up online, having receipts emailed, and even allowing students to pay online with a credit card, are great benefits for those who accept payments directly from students.

But then I discovered that MTH was a big help regardless of how students paid for lessons. Soon I began using MTH for all my students, including those who pay tuition to the music school office instead of to me.

Here are 6 reasons I like to use MTH for everyone, including my music school students:

1. Scheduling

Students and parents can go online 24/7 to check on the date and time of an upcoming lesson. If they realize they are going out of town at some point, they can go online and submit a cancellation request, instead of hoping to remember to mention something at the next lesson, when things could well be too rushed to talk about it.

At the music school where I teach, students pay for a certain number of lessons in advance, but as we come to the end of the term, they need to know when their last paid lesson is. There have, on rare occasions, been disputes at our school, between teachers and students, as to how many lessons have been taught and how many remain. With MTH, students can see at any time when they’ve taken lessons, and how many they’ve paid for. With everything laid out online, there’s not much chance for misunderstanding.

With some students, especially parents of students, their support for the MTH system is palpable. Our school office system can sometimes be hard to understand, but the MTH calendar is transparent and accessible. I’ve seen a few students (or parents) change from having a dark cloud over them, as if they feared they were being taken advantage of, to practically beaming with confidence about how their lesson payments are being handled–even though I’m not even handling those payments. I’m just making the information accessible.  (I don’t list their payments; that’s the school’s job.  They just like seeing a listing of lessons completed and futures lessons which have been paid for.  I tell them to ignore the MTH account info on their home page.)

It’s also helpful to list special events such as must-see concerts, sessions, recitals, and my performances on the online calendar for all students to see.

2. Lesson notes for students

Entering lesson notes is a huge help to me in teaching, but it’s also a boon to students. This is done when “reconciling” a lesson or class after it’s over, either from your home page, or from the calendar where you click on a lesson and select Reconcile. I like to check off the box that offers to email the notes to students as well. It’s great for them to be reminded of what I thought was most important in the lesson, what they should focus on for next time, and what they accomplished.

Whether or not the notes are emailed, students can also log in and see what was done in any past lesson by hovering the mouse over the lesson in the online calendar.

These notes are of special benefit for parents, since at least one, and often both parents, do not attend their kids’ lessons. With MTH they can get an email, or see online, information about what is being done in lessons. Even if a parent attended, it can be very helpful for them to see what the teacher thought the key points of the lesson were.

3. Lesson notes for me

My systems for keeping track of what I’ve taught have ranged from creating a small looseleaf notebook alphabetized by student, to using a Palm Pilot. But there have always been lessons and classes where I just had to wing it, find out where the students were at and go from there, sometimes realizing later (by checking my notes) that I had meant to follow up on a certain idea or exercise but forgot. The problem was I sometimes couldn’t put my hands on the notes fast enough.

With MTH, I get my Daily Summaries emailed to me (in the reports section, the last choice at the bottom is Daily Summaries, and on the report page is a box you can check, to have the summaries emailed to you). I can easily print out notes from each student’s last lesson.

This keeps me more on top of what I’m doing with each student or class; a printed daily summary page also gives me a place to jot current notes down to enter when I reconcile the lesson.

I can also review all the notes for a particular student by going to the Lesson tab and clicking on Lesson History, where I can search for that student.

4. Student emails

With Outlook or Outlook Express, I found it cumbersome to keep creating and shifting between group emails for my students, and it was hard to avoid emailing duplicate messages to students who were in two of my classes. With MTH, I can email all my students by checking “Select All”, or I can filter by entering a few letters in the “school” or “instrument” boxes.

Since I teach only one instrument, I happen to use the “instrument” box for the name of a class if that student is taking one. Then I can enter a keyword in the email filter and the list of students will instantly narrow to the members of that class. I can check off “Select All” and email a message to a whole class.

It’s also very friendly to be able to select a variable, such as the student’s first name, to enter into the greeting of the email. This allows students to get a personal email, instead of a generic greeting. I was happy to discover that emails sent from MTH are sent from my own email address, so that replies come directly to me and not via the MTH site.

I’ve mentioned checking off boxes to have messages emailed. The only reason I’m comfortable doing this is because MTH lets me customize the email messages to better represent the way I like to come across to my students.

The only down sides to the emailing in MTH are that it won’t keep track of the emails I’ve sent, although I can check a box to have a copy of the emails sent to my address. Also, only one attachment can be added to each message. Brandon Pearce of MTH is always working to improve the system, and I understand these are being worked on.

5. Lending Library

Although I’ve only used the lending library feature twice, I found myself much more relaxed about lending something to a student when I knew I could enter it into MTH and not forget what I loaned out and to whom.

6. Reminders and receipts

I don’t currently use the reminders myself, but I can understand how they could work well for some teachers. Students can automatically be emailed reminders of lessons and of cancellations by checking off the Event Reminders boxes (see Calendar tab). Paying students can be reminded of amounts due with emailed invoices.

If a student pays you for anything, whether for a lesson, a CD, music book, or concert ticket, you can enter a payment and check off the box to have a receipt emailed to the student. This gives the student confidence that the money is being kept track of, and gives them a record of the payment, which they can find at any time in their emails.

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The transparency of scheduling, lesson note reminders, emails and online calendar are just some reasons I’m happy to use MTH for music school students as well as those who pay me directly.

Educationally speaking, the system encourages in my students more commitment and involvement.  And financially speaking, if MTH encourages even one student to hang in there who might otherwise have been on the fence about lessons, it will have easily paid for itself.

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