Practicing With An Electronic Tuner

By: Jerry A. Greene

Question: When I am playing my violin with other people (in my quartet), I notice that I am often out of tune with the other players. Is there a way that I can practice my intonation?

Answer: Any musician that plays a string, brass, or woodwind instrument can benefit from working with an electronic tuner.

Inital Tuning

One thing you must do before you attempt to play with others, or even by yourself is make sure that your instrument is in tune. It is a good idea to purchase an electronic tuner and tune each of your strings (in your case of playing violin). As you get better, you'll want to start by tuning the A string and doing the rest by ear. Make sure that you have your tuner set to concert A (A440) before starting to tune.

Tuning Exercises

The first exercise you should do everyday is to play a few scales very slowly while keeping an eye on the tuner. Make sure that you are hitting the tone as close as possible to center (if you have a needle, or digital representation of one). If you have a tuner that has lights that flash and change color to show how sharp, or flat you are, you may want to use that. This feature is great for working with songs in which you can not keep an eye on the tuner's display. Out of the corner of your eye, you'll be able to tell how in tune you are by the speed of the flashing and/or color of the lights, while keeping your eyes firmly on the sheet music. You need to make sure that you do a lot of "active listening" to allow your brain to recognize when you are above, below, or on pitch. Acquiring this sense of "being in tune" will ultimately be your goal so that you don't have to always work with a tuner.

Different Positions

Since you play violin, you will definitely want to practice switching from one position to another while looking at the tuner. Practice some scales that use at least 2 different positions and practice "on the break" back and forth between the two tones. Focusing on this part of the scale will give you the muscle memory to make the change smoothly in the future.

Without the Tuner

Once you have played a scale in tune many times, you will want to tune the tuner off and use your ear to hear how in tune you are. If it sounds good to you, play the scale another 4 more times without the tuner. Once you are confident that you are in tune each time, turn the tuner back on and play the scale while watching the needle/lights and see how close you actually are.

Self Correction

Using a tuner is the best way of doing "self correction". Without a teacher that has the ear to help you, this is the single best way to work out your intonation problems by yourself.

Just Intonation

Just when you though you were right on, you may be slightly out of tune! At least you generally should be. This sounds a little contradictory to everything stated above, but it is actually the truth. What an electronic tuner says about your pitch is mathmatically correct, not necessarily what sounds the best! This is the difference between what's known as equal temperament (each half step is tuned to sound exactly the same distance from one another) and just temperament (what sounds the best). You have to use your ear and develop a sound of exactly where each tone should fall in the scale. This comes with experience and most of all, playing with others musicians that have a developed ear. Being that you play in a string quartet, it is going to be very important for you to learn to play this way. Working with the tuner gives you a great start, but the intonation that sounds the best will have extremely slightly different sounds. You'll know the difference as you progress with your studies and gain experience.