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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Tuner Station - make tuning easier in your string orchestra classroom!

I made this tuner station for my classroom using a double sided easel/blackboard from Wal-Mart.  Ten tuners are clipped to each side.  To keep track of them and make sure they last a long time, cello and bass students were assigned a specific tuner.  (I numbered each tuner with a silver Sharpie).  I requested that my violin/viola students buy their own tuner to keep in their cases.  After tuning, students clip the tuner onto the underside of the rim on their music stands. At the end of class, all tuners must be returned to the 'tuning station'.  If there is a tuner missing, no one gets to leave until it is found.  Students have been really responsible and I feel like we are all tuning more carefully.  Plus, it shaves a few minutes off our tuning routine.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

How to teach your beginners to tune: Lesson 2

This is a follow up to LESSON 1.

1.  Have students pick up the worksheet, "How to NOT break a string" on the way in the classroom.  I allowed students to study their notes from the day before for a couple of minutes.  Then we had our quiz where students wrote the 5 rules on their worksheets.

2.  Review ear training games.  Spend a few minutes playing the games on iPads or on the computer.  This can be done as a class or in small groups.

3.  Teach about pegs and fine tuners.

  • TRADITIONAL PEGS.  It is important for students to understand that traditional pegs are fitted to the instrument and they come out.  They naturally will slip out a little bit so when tuning you have to push the peg inward while turning the peg. You can't turn the peg, then push in and expect it to stay.  Only use very small turns.  A small movement will create a big change in pitch.  If the string is only marginally out of tune, it would be better to use a fine tuner if available.  Stress the need for SMALL movements.  

  • PRECISION/PERFECTION/WHITTNER PEGS.  Many of my school cellos now have precision pegs, which are totally amazing.  They work just like fine tuners and make tuning very easy.  These pegs are great because there is no need to push them in while turning.  They turn easily and always stay in place.  You can make small adjustments with these pegs, so there is no need to ever use the fine tuners.

  • FINE TUNERS.  These are for small adjustments.  It is important to watch the mechanism of the tuner below the tail piece. If the tuner is turned all the way to the right the metal mechanism may start to dig into the wood of the instrument and create a buzzing sound.  If the fine tuners get too low, you have to loosen them and re-tune using the pegs.  How do you know which way to turn a fine tuner?  If you want the pitch to go higher, turn the fine tuner towards your higher string.  If you want the pitch to go lower, turn your fine tuner towards your lower strings.
4.  Allow students time to study their instruments and find which string goes to which peg and fine tuner.  Have them teach their stand partners about pegs and show each other which string goes to which tuner.  I teach students to hold their instruments so they are facing the instrument.  Turning the peg away from them will cause the pitch to go higher.  Turning the peg towards them will lower the pitch.  We practice this in the air and students teach each other this concept.

5.  TUNERS.  In order to tune we have to begin with a reference pitch.  I get out a few different types of tuners and demonstrate how they are used.
  • Tuning Fork.  When I was a student, this is what I used to tune my instrument.  Students enjoy seeing how it works - and how you can make the 'A' audible by placing the end on the instrument.

  • Pitch Pipe:  I found this old chromatic pitch pipe in my desk and I thought it must be an antique but them I saw them at an online store.  I show students how you can play a pitch on the pipe and compare it to the open strings to tune.  During this demonstration I project my TE Tuner app on my screen and we learn the pitch pipes are not very accurate.  The 'A' on the pipe proves to be very flat.

  • Cell phone apps:  There are many great tuning apps.  I use TE Tuner and Tunable the most.  I show students how to read these apps and I tune my instrument with their help as they read the signals from that app that is projected on my screen.  I recommend students use their phones for tuning at home, but it is not as useful to use a phone in class.  It has to be very quiet for a phone app to be useful - otherwise the mic on the phone could be picking up people around you.

  • Clip-on Tuners:  These are what I recommend for cello/bass students to use in class.  Clip-on tuners like Snark or D'Addario pick up the vibration of the instrument so they are ideal for noisy classrooms since they will pick up only one instrument.  I just purchased a set of these tuners for my cello/bass students to use in class.  They tend to get lost if you're not careful.  I plan to make a docking station to help me keep track of my new little toys.

  • My Favorite tuner for violin/viola students - D'Addario NS Micro Violin Tuner.  These are my favorite because they can be attached to the instrument and they just stay attached.  No need to take them off and on.  This is great because they never get lost!  I have had so many students bring Snark tuners to school and lose them.  The battery life is great and they are so easy to use.  I highly recommend all my violin/viola students purchase one of these to make tuning faster and easier.  

We do need to hear small variations in pitch while tuning, but tuners help us with speed and precision.  When a tuner is used properly there will never be an accidental broken string!   


Next we finally get to tune and I teach my tuning procedure.  Students sit with their instruments facing them.  I play an 'A' from my tuning app.  We quickly have a discussion about different octaves....cello A sounds like a 'Daddy' A and Bass A's sound like 'Grandpa' A's.  I had a student break a cello string once because he was trying to tune it to a 'Mommy' A.  Once students are aware of this they seem to have no trouble.  After listening to the reference pitch, they are allowed to pluck their A's to determine if it needs adjustment.  Students then make small adjustments if needed as I walk around the room.  I remind them to pluck as they make adjustments and stop when they match the reference pitch.  We do this for every string.  Sometimes I sound our tuning pitch in a lower octave.  I feel students do better when I play the pitches in the cello range.  This takes approx. 5-10 minutes.  Students find it's nothing to be afraid of and are relieved to finally to be able to tune.  We review this tuning procedure every day and students are aware that our goal is to take only 3 minutes for tuning.  Many have begun purchasing tuners and that will help tuning happen even faster.

Now go ahead and do a happy dance.  It is truly a joyous day when students can tune themselves.  :)

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

How to teach students to tune in beginning orchestra: Lesson 1

Oh happy day!  This week I taught my beginners how to tune and I wish I would have done it months ago.  They were excited to learn how to tune.  Students want to be able to tune their instruments because it's not fun practicing when your instrument is way out of tune.  Sometimes we assume that students can not tune their instruments and we don't want to risk it because strings are expensive.  I usually don't have my students tune themselves until their 2nd year, but I teach how to tune at the end of the 1st year.  After my experience teaching tuning this week, I have decided to teach tuning much earlier - probably in January.  Teaching tuning was a breeze and thanks to technology it is easier than ever for students to tune with confidence.  Let's all be brave and start teaching tuning earlier!  Think of the time it will save in your rehearsals!

LESSON PLAN for Day 1:  How to NOT break a string

This lesson plan introduces ear training and fine listening skills needed in order to tune an instrument.  We learn and memorize 5 rules of tuning so that we don't break any strings.

Pass out the worksheet:  How to not break a string.  Students can write down games and apps for ear training on the back.

1.  Begin the lesson with a demonstration.  Play your A, and turn the fine tuner just a tiny bit.  See if the students can hear a difference.  When we tune, we have to discern very small changes in pitch in order to tune accurately.  There are games to help us improve our hearing and sense of pitch.

2.  Show the 'Intonation Game' from  Students should write down the web address on their paper so they can try playing the game at home.  Play the game with the class. I start with the Advanced level and I tell students that is the level they need to to use to train for tuning.

3.  Project the app InTune from your iPhone or iPad.  Play the game with the class.  They can use hand signals (thumbs up and or thumbs down) to indicate where the pitch it too high or too low.

4.  Project the app Blob Chorus from your iPad.  Play the game with the class.  Students love to see the blobs explode when they guess incorrectly.  After playing these games in class students often choose to purchase the apps and play and home.

5.  I next address the biggest fear of students and teachers alike....breaking a string.  Explain to the class that strings are expensive.  Tell them the difference between quality strings and cheaper strings.  You might want to share personal stories about strings you have broken.

6.  Show slide presentation (You may make your own presentation or purchase mine HERE):  How to NOT break a string.  Explain and demonstrate each rule using your instrument.  Students can practice turning/tuning with you with their imaginary instruments.  Let them mimic your movements in the air.  Students are required to write down the 5 rules on their paper.  Their assignment is to memorize those 5 rules by the next day.  They take their notes home to study.  For bell-work the next day, students have to write those 5 rules from memory.  They are not allowed to try tuning if they don't have those rules memorized.  After the presentation, have students 'teach' the 5 rules to their stand partners using imaginary instruments.  This will help them remember.  Students should not try to tune their actual instruments, yet.  Let them internalize and visualize the process of tuning before they experiment.

Watch for 'How to teach students to tune' lesson 2 coming up later this week!