Tune with your ears, not your eyes!
And cellists tune by listening.
It's ridiculous to tune with your eyes. If you attend a fancy wine-tasting and only allow yourself to distinguish between each variety by listening to the sound the different liquids make in your glass (without touching a drop of the stuff on your tongue!), you'll get the feel of just how ludicrous this visual-tuning thing is.
It's not only a dumb idea. It's also EVIL!
For cellists, visual tuners are worse than Voldemort! They murder a prime opportunity for you to train your ear, thereby robbing you of an empowering sense of aural stability.
Why would someone ever choose such pain and suffering? We have enough of that already!
Seems like it might be too tempting for busy teachers to plop a cello student in front of a tuner and have it do all the dirty work, quick and easy! Then that student becomes a teacher and doesn't have any experience tuning, so that person tells all his or her students to use a visual tuner.
And the horror keeps seeping into the future... (This is actually the subject of nightmares for me!)
Stop it now!
If you continue to use a visual tuner, you are hurting yourself as a cellist and as a musician.
"But I can't tell what is in tune!"
How do you train your ear? One effective way is by simply tuning your cello everyday. By ear.
Seems so circular. But you have to start somewhere! And why not in the privacy of your own practice routine?
After all, there is no way to get around tuning by ear. You must actively listen all the time as a cellist or you'll be out of tune. You'll stick out like a sore thumb. You'll make people squirm.
Tuning your cello by ear does more than calibrate your open strings; it helps you develop a taste for what being "in tune" actually means, so that you can easily recreate that in-tuneness on the fly. Whether you are playing with other musicians or even just trying to fit in with the notes you played a moment before, you have got to be listening.
The Korg lies!
This type of tuning is called "equal temperament." (Geek out on this subject HERE.) It allows a person to play in every key without having to retune the entire instrument for each modulation--but not without a cost: purity of intonation.
In other words, pianos are slightly out of tune.
And so is your beloved tuner.
This all makes for a lot of confusion as to what "in tune" actually means. If your tuner is not in tune, then what is?
Never fear! Turn to the only thing upon which we musicians can rely: relative pitch!
"B" or not a "B," that is the question
So a "B" is not just a "B," a standard, run-of-the-mill version of that note that fits beautifully in every situation that calls for a "B," that snuggles in it sublime precision against every note in every chord in every context. That standard "B" is a myth.
It simply does not exist.
Instead, there are many different versions of "B." And of every other note too. The only way to find which one works in each situation is to RELATE that pitch to the others around it.
That's why we need to develop our RELATIVE pitch.
What is relative pitch?
Perfect pitch is a completely different skill. It can seem almost magical! The people that have perfect pitch can tell you the name of the note being played just by hearing it. Tell them to sing and "A" and they can-- without having any context whatsoever. This is a wonderful talent to possess, but if you don't also have the skill of relating your "perfect" pitches to the pitches that are around it, you might as we'll be tone-deaf!
(More about relative pitch HERE)
How can I develop my relative pitch?
Here's a simple exercise to get you on the right track:
D Major Drone Scale
Tune your cello by ear everyday!
Simply use that one neglected button on your visual tuner that produces an actual "A" sound and then try to match your A-string to that. Once you feel comfortable with your A-string, tune your D-string by playing it with the A. Then, do the same for the D and G, and then the G and C. If this feels impossible to you--especially if you feel you can't tell what's in tune and what's not-- watch my instructional video to learn a trick to help you easily tune your cello without the usual guesswork.
This way of tuning simulates the professional tuning process in which someone plays an "A" for you and that's it! You, as a cellist, are required to calibrate all four open strings to that one, sometimes brief, note.
Sounds intimidating, right?
Not when that's how you've been doing it in your practice sessions. Then it's just another day at the office: nice and familiar!
"But tuning by ear takes too long!"
(For tips on how to use your pegs without fear of breaking strings, stay tuned for a video on tuning with pegs!)
And it will seem to take forever!
This is normal. As you continue this listening practice by tuning by ear, you will feel more and more comfortable with what sounds right and how to manipulate your fine tuners and pegs to calibrate your open strings efficiently and quickly.
This process requires patience, but the reward is incredible ease and confidence! And we all could use more of that!