Training With Tuners
Posted by Chase Sanborn

Raise your hand if your band director stands in front of you with a tuner, calling out: “Flat! Push in!” “Sharp! Pull out!” Does this really help you play in tune, or do you simply try to make the tuner stand still for a minute so he or she will go away? Being told—by a tuner or a band director or that annoying kid with perfect pitch—that you are out of tune doesn’t get to the real issue: training your ear to hear when your note would sound better played a little higher or lower.

In fact, if your note is the only one sounding, it is impossible to be sharp or flat. Those are relative terms; you can only be sharp or flat relative to another pitch. Unless you hear that reference pitch (e.g., by using a drone; see my last column), your ear gets almost nothing out of the exercise.

That is not to say that tuners have no place in the quest to improve intonation. A tuner can teach you about the intonation tendencies of your instrument. It can help you find the best position for your tuning mechanism. This is a compromise; no instrument is perfectly in tune, and more to the point, the operator has more to do with it than the tuning slide. But finding a position somewhere in the middle is a good start. Some notes will be a little sharp, some of them flat, and others right in the center. Knowing which are which on your instrument will help you move in the right direction when tuning by ear.

Using a tuner in combination with a drone is highly effective. You tune by ear first; the tuner then provides visual confirmation or correction. In the process, you improve your ability to hear subtle variations in pitch and make corresponding adjustments. Be sure the tuner is responding to your pitch, not the drone, by using a clip-on microphone or a tuner that attaches directly to your instrument, like CenterPitch.

The most effective tuner is your ear. Used properly, however, an electronic tuner can be used to train and assist your ear, not replace it.

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