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Tuning Instruments

Teaching students to tune their own instruments is one of the most important things we do. The process of learning to tune a string instrument within an ensemble takes place over a period of years and happens in several stages, however, so the teacher must be patient.

Stage 1

In Stage 1 the students are beginners so the teacher must tune all the instruments. This process can use up valuable instructional time if not done efficiently.

Use of Fine Tuners

The teacher of beginning strings should make sure ALL violins, violas, and cellos are equipped with fine tuners on ALL FOUR STRINGS. As students become more sophisticated and start to use better strings and buy better instruments they can remove the fine tuners - but at the beginning they save huge amounts of time, in addition to the money they save by avoiding lots of broken strings.


  • Get students involved in the process.
  • Whenever possible, do not take the instrument away from the student. Have them play while you turn the pegs or fine tuners.
  • In an orchestra setting tune the low instruments first - basses, cellos, violas, then violins.
  • Once a student is in tune, they can become your assistant by asking them to pluck the "A" or the "D" for you. Students will quickly learn the names of the strings. When students have the strength developed to play long bows you can use the tuning time as an opportunity to focus their attention on tone and extending the bow stroke.
  • Make sure you give them a chance to rest if the tuning process goes on for a few minutes.

Stage 2

When students can bow and have control over the change from up bow to down bow they are ready for Stage 2.

Tuning Games

There are many activities to prepare the ear for the act of tuning:

Higher and Lower Game: You play your A string. Ask a student to play his A string. Is his A higher or lower? Ask different people in the class.

Match Pitch: Play a note on your D string. Ask the class to match the pitch.

Open String Song: Start on High E string and play down open strings- E-A-D-G-C. Start on C and go back up. Get students used to hearing the descending and ascending pattern of 5ths. (Basses ascend while others descend).

Sing the Other String: Once instruments are tuned have everyone play their A strings. Stop them quickly with a cut-off gesture. Ask them to sing (hum) a D. You may be pleasantly surprised, or bitterly disappointed, but if you keep at it, they will be able to this, and it will help. A variation on this activity is to have them play the A string while they sing (hum) the D string. Repeat this process with all 4 strings. Students will need to do an octave displacement of some strings to accommodate their vocal range.

Find the Tuner: Teach the violins and violas how to reach under their right arm with their left arm to reach the fine tuners. Show the cellos how to lean their instrument to the side and reach around with their left arm to reach the fine tuners.
Warning: The first time students try to tune their own instruments, it may take awhile. Be patient. You are investing in a skill that will save you an enormous amount of time once students have developed the ability to tune.

Going In and Out of Tune: Start with all the instruments in tune. While class listens, tune your A string down (make the pitch flat), but not too much. Have the class imitate and try to match your pitch. Then turn on an electronic A, or play on the piano, and tune your A string back up until back in tune. Then ask the class to do the same.

Journey to the Center of the Pitch: Ask the class to play a stopped pitch (for example, E on the D string). Use your arms to indicate sharp or flat. If you hold your arms together (on the same vertical plane) then students should play in tune. Wiggle your arms around - this indicates to play out of tune. Then bring your arms back into the same plane - cue to play in tune. You can get very creative with this game. For example, have the low strings do what you show in the right arm, while the high strings follow the left arm. Bring your left arm up - high strings go sharp. Bring right arm down - low strings go flat. Bring your arms back together - everyone moves back to the center of the original pitch.

Stage 3

In Stage 2 students focused on matching pitch, hearing the distinction between higher and lower, learning how to manipulate fine tuners, and hearing the melodic Perfect 5th intervals between their strings (4ths for bass). In stage 3 these skills are placed into a functional tuning routine for orchestra based on harmonic and melodic perfect 5ths.

Hearing Perfect 5ths: Students need to get used to hearing 5ths harmonically, as well as melodically.
The "Sing the other string" game from stage 2 gets students to hear a harmonic 5th.

Other activities:

Open string double stop song: Play E-A, then A-D, then D-G, then G-C (not so great on bass 4ths, so have basses play just the lower pitch).

Fiddling tunes can be accompanied using open string double stops.

It's Tuning Time!

We are at the point where we can try having everyone tune their own instruments.

Tuning one string at a time individually, listening to the harmonic 5ths across the orchestra.

Step 1 - Start with the double basses. Get the first bassist’s A in tune. When that student is in tune, they keep playing, while you ask the second bassist to QUIETLY play his A. Get the second player to adjust until in tune with the first player. Repeat this until the entire bass section is in tune.

Step 2 -All Basses play their A and sustain it. Tell them if they get tired to rest for a few seconds, but the rule is you can’t rest while the person next to you is resting.

Step 3 - First stand cellist plays A, and adjusts to the basses. When the first cellist is in tune, they keep playing, while you ask the second cellist to QUIETLY play his A. Repeat until the entire cello section is in tune. Always add ONE person at a time.

NOTE: Tuning should be done upbow, at the tip. Quietly. Encourage students to tune quickly and insist that they bow their string and turn the fine tuner at the same time so they can tell when they are in tune.

Step 4 - Repeat this process with the violas and violins. Always adding to the sound, always playing softly. Effective tuning is never done at a loud dynamic.

Step 5 - Congratulations. The A strings are now in tune. Have the first bassist go to D, while everyone else sustains A. Gradually add the D strings, until everyone is playing a D. Important: Students should sustain A until they go to D and tune D.

Repeat with all strings, going in this order: A-D-G-C-E.

To tune the E string, first have everyone play an A. then have the violins tune their E strings, one at a time until everyone is in tune.

The first time you do this complete tuning process it may take 20, 30, even 40 minutes depending on the size of your orchestra. Each time you do it, however, it will take less and less time - until it can be done in about 5 minutes. Do this everyday!!! Make it part of the routine.

Stage 4

In Stage 3, students tuned one string at a time individually, listening to the harmonic 5ths across the orchestra.

In Stage 4 students tune in sections.

Unison tuning in sections, listening to the harmonic 5ths across the orchestra.

1) Follow the same process as in Stage 3 to get everyone’s A strings in tune.
2) Basses play D, let ALL THE BASSISTS TUNE  D STRINGS AT THE SAME TIME, while other sections sustain the A.
3) When basses are in tune to D, have the other instruments (one section at a time) tune their D strings.
4) Repeat this process for all the strings.

Tuning in sections in 5ths

1) Get everyone’s A strings in tune.
2) Get Basses D string in tune
3) While the basses sustain their D strings, have the cellos check their D strings with their own A strings (double stops). Repeat for viola and violin sections. Encourage students to play softly. Playing double stops can get loud.

The big moment: Teaching the basses to tune with harmonics

The double bass is tuned really tuned with unison harmonics. Here’s how to do it:
  • Play up the D string - D-E-F#-G-A (all on the D string) Use fingering 0-1-4-1-4
  • Instead of pressing down 4th finger on the note A, just touch it. This will produce a harmonic A one octave higher than the stopped A. The harmonic A is A 440, the same as open violin string, or the A the oboe sounds. You may have to adjust your finger around on the harmonic to find the "sweet spot" where the harmonic really projects.
  • Keeping your hand in the same position, touch 1st finger to the A string. This should produce the same harmonic A as the one your 4th finger just played on the D string (the exact same pitch). If it is sharp or flat, adjust the tuner for the A string until it is in tune.
  • To really get it in tune, go the same direction with bow on both harmonics (slur) and keep the speed and pressure steady. Balance the Bass (See Sequence of Technique for Left Hand) so you can quickly reach back and adjust tuners.
  •  Once the A string is in tune, move the left hand over to A string (keeping in same position) and play 4th finger harmonic on the A string. This will produce the pitch E. Play 1st finger harmonic on the E string. Adjust E string tuner until in tune.
  • Move hand all the way over to the G string (keeping in same position). Play 4th finger harmonic on the G string. This will produce the pitch D. Play 1st finger harmonic on the D string. Adjust G string tuner until in tune (Note: G string tuner, not D string tuner. We tuned the D string already!)

Stage 5

Have concertmaster play open A string. Let the basses tune first. Let them tune ALL of their strings using unison harmonics.

Concertmaster plays another open A. Cellos and violas tune their A strings. When you feel satisfied with the quality of the A strings, let them check their other open strings (D-A, G-D, C-G, check A-D again)

Concertmaster plays another open A. Violins tune their A strings, then check other strings (A-D, D-G, A-E)

Stage 6

Concertmaster plays one A for the basses, another A for all the other strings. Tuning takes about one minute. Everyone is happy and in tune. Sometimes students will get sloppy and loud in their tuning, and you will need to revert them back to Stage 4, or Stage 5.


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