Whether you’ve been playing the cello for 3 weeks, 3 years, or 30 years, intonation is something that demands our care and attention.
It is a non-negotiable prerequisite for good cello playing. Poor intonation can sabotage our careful work in other areas of our playing, distract both the player and listener, and take us out of the moment.
Fortunately, we have some great tools literally right in our pockets to help us in the pursuit of ever more accurate pitch. Practicing with a tuner can be an incredibly informative way to help improve intonation, and these days, acquiring a tuner is as easy as spending $4 on an iPhone app.
Here, I’ll share the basics of practicing with a tuner, and some tips on how to get the best results from this method of practicing.
Firstly, it’s important to remember that the tuner itself won’t improve your intonation – it merely gives you important information you can then use to develop accuracy in the hand both within positions and when shifting, and of course, perhaps even more crucially, train your ear.
Choosing a cello tuner
Next, choose a tuner or cello tuning app. While you can purchase a separate device like a combination metronome-tuner (Check out this article on the best cello tuners on the market), there’s really no need.
My favorite tuner app is called Tonal Energy, available for $3.99 on the app store. It has a lot of helpful features, the most charming of which is a bright green smiley face that appears when you play a note in tune. It also has a very comprehensive pitch-generator, which we will discuss later in this article.
Other popular apps include Cleartune, Tunable, and a number of completely free apps which are fine but won’t have as many features as the paid apps.
Choosing the right reference pitch (Hz)
Make sure you set your tuner to your preferred pitch – the most common pitch standard is A = 440 Hz, though some orchestras and chamber groups prefer to tune to a slightly higher A like 441, 442 or even 443.
I personally prefer working alone at A440, but if I know in advance that I’m going to be working with an ensemble that uses a different pitch, I will practice that repertoire at that specific pitch to get used to it.
Tuning your cello’s open strings
Start by tuning all of your open strings with the tuner.
You can also choose to only tune the A string to the tuner and then tune each string from the one above, but if you’re new to working with a tuner, it’s best to make sure each string individually is purely in tune.
Use your tuning pegs to make larger adjustments, and your fine tuners to make slight adjustments.
Once you tune all your strings individually, the double-stop 5ths between the strings might not be perfectly in tune, so you may need to adjust slightly with your fine tuners. Check your open cello strings with the tuner regularly during your practice session to make sure your cello strings are still in tune!
Now you’re ready to use your tuner to practice anything: a scale, arpeggio, exercise, or passage from a piece.
When practicing with a tuner, don’t use vibrato as that can disturb the pitch to the point that it’s not recognizable by the tuner – it can also be harder to hear your own pitch if you’re using vibrato!
Also, play close to the bridge for a nice focus in the sound, and try to use a constant bow speed as those types of fluctuations can also cause inconsistency in the pitch reading.
Tuning cello with harmonics
Another method of tuning, which is super helpful when a physical tuner is not available, is tuning with harmonics.
This involves us dividing the cello string into certain even divisions, which reveal different overtones.
We can use these overtones to cross check the pitches of each of the cello strings.
If you want to learn more about specifically how to do this, check out this article I wrote titled “How to use harmonics to tune your cello”, where I’ll guide you through everything you need to know to tune with harmonics.
Tuning while playing your cello repertoire
When playing your passage with the tuner, your goal is to get that green smiley face immediately upon landing on the note.
Going through note by note and moving your finger around until it reads as in tune is useful one time to really hear what the correct pitch is, but it will not help you play consistently in tune.
If you land on a note and need to slide your finger up or down to get to the correct pitch, use that information to determine your tendency for that note, back up by 1-2 notes, and try again.
When you try again, do not just hope you get it in tune this time – remember whether you landed flat or sharp the last time and aim a little bit higher or lower.
Repeat that process until you can land on the note and immediately see a green smiley! Keep going back through the passage until you can play all the notes in a row in tune without adjusting, preferably several times.
As you work this way, keep your ears open.
You will start to hear when a note is in tune (or not), and need to rely on looking at the tuner less and less. You may also discover general tendencies you may have for certain notes, which you can keep in mind generally. You may be surprised, when working with a tuner, that you’re not playing things you thought were “easy” perfectly in tune, for example, notes in first position or simple shifts.
This can be because, when something doesn’t feel difficult, we may assume it’s fine without really listening as intently as we would if it were a more difficult, higher passage.
Practicing with a tuner is a great way to reveal these little habits that may creep into our playing without us even realizing it.
Remember to check in with your body regularly and make sure you are relaxed, as tension is the enemy of good intonation!
Space out your intensive cello tuning sessions
My advice is to do this kind of intensive work with the tuner in small doses, as it can be tedious and if we do it too much, we can become reliant on the tuner, rather than our ear.
After working this way for a significant chunk of time, take a break, turn off the tuner, and just play the passage without worrying too much about getting every single note perfectly in tune.
Focus on vibrato, tone quality, phrasing, and general music-making.
Record this play-through so you can check your intonation after the fact and make a note of any problem spots that you can continue to work on in the next practice session!
Remember, this is an ongoing process.
If you want to learn more about this subject, Click here to learn exactly how often you should tune as a cellist at different skill levels.
Practicing cello with a drone pitch
A nice middle ground between relying solely on the tuner and solely on our ear is practicing with a drone pitch.
This is a separate feature of the cello tuning apps that generates one continuous pitch. I like the Tonal Energy pitch generator because you can choose the type of sound it generates for you (strings, winds, piano, robot…).
Playing a scale or a passage from a piece against a drone pitch can protect you from gradually creeping flat or sharp, which can be so subtle and gradual you might not even notice it.
If you are new to this practice, start with a scale. Set the drone pitch to the tonic of the scale you are playing.
You can try different octaves depending on how many octaves you are playing in the scale, but a drone more or less in the mid-range of the cello (between middle C and the octave below it) will be the easiest to hear and compare with the notes you are playing.
As you go through the scale (once again, refrain from using vibrato at first), pay special attention to the perfect intervals: unisons, octaves, fourths and fifths. These intervals, when you play them perfectly in tune with the drone, have a special, clean ring to them.
Like the tuner practice, your goal is to land on the note and immediately get that ring, not slide your finger around looking for it.
Without the tuning needle or smiley face, you will need to rely on your ear to tell you whether you are flat or sharp. Adjust accordingly and then back up 1-2 notes, aiming your finger differently based on whether you were flat or sharp and by how much.
You should be able to play these perfect intervals, well, perfectly!
Other intervals are more difficult with the drone, as there is not one absolute pitch that is considered in tune, and you may play that pitch differently depending on the melodic and/or harmonic context and what other instruments you may be playing with once you leave the practice room.
So, while all the notes within the key are important to check with the drone, keep in mind that your seconds, thirds, sixths and sevenths will be ever so slightly more variable.
Once you move on from scales with a drone to passages from your repertoire with a drone, experiment with different pitches.
If your music is tonal and all in the same key without modulating, you can easily set the drone to the tonic (or the dominant!) and play the passage over it.
But if the music modulates or is atonal, choose a pitch that will give you the most perfect intervals to check as you go through the passage.
And, like the tuner practice, limit your drone practicing and turn it off regularly!
One last thing to consider
Something to be aware of as you progress through your cello journey is that temperature can have a huge impact on your cello’s tuning and intonation.
As cellists we can perform in all kinds of spaces, and transporting our instruments can expose them to different effects of temperature.
If you want to learn more about how temperature affects the cello and what you as a cellist can do to work around it, click here.
Ultimately, while these tools are incredibly helpful in giving us information, great intonation is not possible without truly developing the ear.
Record yourself often and listen back with careful attention towards pitch. Forgive yourself. Work on it a little bit every day. Breathe. Enjoy!
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