Besides learning how to play a string instrument, the second hardest obstacle for a beginner is learning how to tune it. I've heard parents tell me that their child couldn't practice for a lesson because the instrument wasn't in tune, or they tried to tune it and broke a string. In this post, I'll give step by steps solutions aimed to help the beginning musician tune their instrument at home in between lessons or classes.
The first step is to get an electric tuner. Pitch forks and pipes are great tools, but can be frustrating to young beginners, because they require ear training they probably haven't developed yet. Snark makes great inexpensive clip-on tuners with colorful displays. Other great alternatives these days are tuner apps for smart phones. They all work basically the same, when a string is bowed, the display shows the letter of the pitch being played. There is also an indicator that shows whether that pitch is sharp (high) or flat (low). The indicator can vary by make and model. Some just have three lights, the left one means flat, right means sharp, and in the center is in tune. Other models can have a wavering line, but it essentially has the same meaning, left is flat, right is sharp and center is in tune.
Make sure to know the tuning of the instrument. Violin from highest to lowest (highest being the thinnest string and lowest being the thickest) is E, A, D, G. Viola and Cello are A, D, G, C.
The next step is to locate the tuners on the instrument. There will be two sets, one on the top and one on the bottom. The ones on the top near the scroll are called the tuning pegs and the ones on the tailpiece are called fine tuners. The tuning pegs are used when the string is out of tune by more than a half step (ex. F#-G, B-C, etc) and the fine tuners are used when the string is less than a half step out of tune.
If you're not sure which ones to start with, always start with the fine tuners. They work just like a screw, righty tighty, lefty loosey. Screwing it in, raises the pitch and loosening lowers it. If it screws all the way in and you haven't reached the desired pitch, unscrew it and switch to the tuning pegs.
The tuning pegs are more difficult to use. I usually recommend that young beginners shouldn't use these by themselves, so if your child is younger than 9 or 10, you may have to do this for them. I also should warn you that its very easy to break a string using these pegs if you turn them too much or too fast. The pegs are wedged into place, there's nothing holding them other than pressure.
Position the instrument so its facing you with the scroll at the top. Hold the peg firmly in your hand (follow the string with your eyes into the peg box to make sure your holding the correct peg) and turn it clockwise. Make sure that you're pushing the peg into the peg box as your turning it or it will slip once you let go. Only turn it a little bit at a time and check the current pitch with the electric tuner frequently to make sure you haven't passed the pitch. This will greatly reduce your chance of breaking the string. Also having your strings changed on a regularly will diminish the chance of it breaking while tuning.
Once you get the pitch close, switch back to the fine tuners to finish tuning. After all strings are tuned, its a good idea to check them all once more because they can change slightly while tuning other strings. If you notice the pegs are slipping a lot or are very hard to turn, bring it to a local shop and they can apply a compound or drops that should make the pegs work easier. I hope these tips helped, if anyone believes I missed anything, feel free to leave it in the comments.
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