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 student’s instrument for them, especially 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. It really doesn’t eat up that much lesson time in the end.
All levels of students can learn to tune at the first lesson! Here are some reasons why it is important to teach this skill from the start:
- Students get in the habit of tuning before playing
- Students learn how their instrument works
- Students begin ear training
- Students learn to take responsibility for all aspects of playing
- Students begin understanding the concepts of sharp and flat
These are just a few of the important reasons students should tune their own instruments. You may have more to add to the list!
This post will primarily address tuning in the lesson. You will also need to teach the student how to tune at home when you are not around. I will not be covering that here, but will write a separate post to address the specific challenges of that task and my approach.
Now, let’s talk about tuning in the lesson and approach it from the aspect of addressing the different levels of students that you will encounter.
Beginning students may be young children, teens or adults. You can start them out tuning basically the same way. I usually have younger students sit on the floor and hold the violin in their lap, while I have older students tune standing up.
I show the student the A-string on my violin and have them find their A-string. I pluck my A-string and ask them to pluck their A-string. Then I ask the student to identify if their A-string sounds higher or lower than mine. Go back and forth a few times if the student seems to have trouble hearing if their string is too high or too low. Once we determine if the string is high or low I show them how to adjust the string using their fine tuner. Do this for all four strings.
This a great thing to do for the beginning student because in this one exercise they are learning all five points listed above. They get to touch and play on their instrument right in the first few minutes of the lesson, which is really what they came to do. They will have to learn all the correct technique of holding the instrument and bow, but they don’t need any of that in order to tune!
For students who seem to have great difficulty tuning and take an enormous amount of time tuning just one string, don’t have them do all four strings in the lesson. By just tuning one string they are still practicing all five points above. As they get more proficient at tuning you can have them tune more strings. Tuning is not an all or nothing thing. Tuning one string is teaching them much more than tuning zero strings and it is well worth the 5 min. of lesson time.
If the pegs need to be used I usually do this for the student, but talk them through what I am doing so they can begin to understand. If the student is old enough, I have them try it the next time. It is also good to teach parents how and when to use the pegs of their child’s instrument so that you can be sure the student is able to play on an in-tune instrument at home if the fine tuners get screwed all the way in (or out) in between lessons.
The Intermediate Student
Once a student knows how to play with the bow and can play long bows easily, staying consistently on one string, they are ready to tune with the bow. I approach this aspect of tuning much in the same was as I approach tuning with the beginner student. If the student is able, I have them play their string at the same time I play my string and have them bring their left hand around to turn the fine tuner while they bow. If the student is unable to do this, go back and forth like you did when plucking the strings and have them identify if the string is too high or too low. You can gradually work up to having them bow at the same time they turn the fine tuner.
The intermediate student is also definitely ready to use their pegs if they have not already been taught this skill. Always demonstrate and talk through with a student how and when to use their pegs before allowing them to try it. You will avoid many broken strings this way! I always have students learn how to use their pegs by resting the instrument on their leg and plucking with one hand while turning the peg with the other. When the student is comfortable doing this you can have them try it up on their shoulder.
The Advanced Student
When a student can easily tune their individual strings to your individual strings they are ready to learn how to tune all their strings from their A-string. By the time a student is advanced they should be pretty comfortable using both their fine tuners and their pegs and be able to do both with the instrument up on their shoulder.
By this time the student should also have encountered double stops in the music and have trained their ear to hear when the double stops are in tune and when they are not. Tuning the perfect 5ths of the open strings is very similar and a good way to introduce what the student should be listening for.
Have the student tune their A-string and then demonstrate on your own instrument how to tune the D to the A. Ask the student to listen and see if they can identify when the strings are out of tune and when the strings are in tune. Tell the student to listen for the strings to produce a 3rd pitch, or overtone which lets them know the strings are in tune. Once they know what they are listening for by hearing you do it, have them try it for themselves on their instrument and see if they can hear when the strings come into tune.
If the student picks up on this quickly, great!, move onto the other strings. If they have trouble, that’s OK. Remind them that this is a new skill. Work on it for about 5 or 10 min. and then move on. Have the student practice tuning at home, but allow them to tune their instrument the “old way” to check to make sure they are playing on an in-tune instrument. You should see progress week to week on the student’s ability to hear. Don’t rush the student to tune. Sometimes it takes awhile for the student to tune this way, especially at first. What seems obviously in or out of tune to us is not obvious to them. If you try and rush them they will start to feel pressed for time and this will hamper their ability to correctly identify what they are hearing. This is the last thing we want to do! So sit back, relax and give them space. Don’t jump in and tell them if it’s too high or too low, have them figure it out for themselves.
If a student knows they can’t rely on you to tell them what direction to go it will force them to listen more closely and they will begin to feel more confident about relying on their own ear. I have encountered many students who have a good ear and can tune, but don’t think that they can. They have been relying on a teacher to “hear for them” and are insecure in their ability to hear. When you force them to do it themselves they blossom under your encouragement that they don’t need you as much as they think they do!
Thanks for reading and good luck tuning with your students!