Tuning an orchestra

February 22, 2006 at 05:31 AM · Greetings,

in interested in peoples` experience of how their orchestra tunes. However, please exclude beginner or school orchestras unless soemthing earth shattering is happening.... To whit?

1) Do the ww and brass tune separately section by section?

2) Do the lower strings tune to the oboe or to the first violin playing them an a?

3) Do many players tune using very quite little up bow at the point of the bow, perhaps bounced?



Replies (36)

February 22, 2006 at 08:40 AM · This is my experience from Youth Orchestras. It depends on the conductor, but generally this is how it goes:

rehearsals: WW tune to oboe (other oboes tune at the same time), Brass tune to oboe, Lower and then upper strings.

Concerts: families divide into groups, go into different rooms and tune to A440. Then go onstage and "show" tune.

Really don't like oboes tuning at the same time, as other ww don't know which pitch to choose.

February 22, 2006 at 02:58 PM · Well, I would have to agree with that...always make sure your instrument is already tuned...but fix anything you have to during the show tune...

I played in Seussical the Musical, during which the show tune after intermission is interrupted by the overture! It was really fun to just snap into the song in the middle of the "tuning"...but we had to make sure we were perfectly in tune before the show tune, because we knew there wouldn't be enough time to tune for real!

The one thing that bugs me is when I go to a concert and they do a show tune (that almost sounds like movie tune!) and the last pitch played is about a quarter step too high or too low...that means the whole concert will be out of tune!

February 22, 2006 at 05:41 PM · There's a famous story about Sir Thomas Beecham, who asked the oboist in the orchestra to give an "A" during a rehearsal so everyone could tune up. This particular oboist had a very wide vibrato. Beecham looked around and said, "Gentlemen, take your pick."

February 22, 2006 at 08:44 PM · Greetings,

so what do professional orchestras do?

Oboe for everybody?

Or does the cocnertmaster take the a and give to string.

I have a very specific reason for asking so could people try and stay on track just a little bit.



February 22, 2006 at 09:24 PM · In my youth orchestra the oboe gives three a's. The woodwinds tune first. THen, the brass tune. Then, when the concert master starts bowing, all of the strings tune. As far as the bowing you just use full bows or what ever. Everyone usually tunes outside of the concert hall before the concert but we'll get a specific A for everyone, during the concert.

February 23, 2006 at 02:06 AM · Greetings,

thanks for all the comments so far. What I am trying to egt at is this.

Tuning the ww and bras sis no problem. But these days, In =profesisonal= or high level orchestras (semi pro etc) do the lower strings take the a from the oboe or the concertmaster who ha stuned ot the oboe?

I do have a reason for asking.(Besides improving my spelling...)



February 23, 2006 at 04:46 AM · The last time I saw New Jersey Symphony, all sections tuned to the oboe. The only variation I've seen is that sometimes the strings split (lower strings first, then violins), sometimes all the strings tune together.

Same goes for NY Phil, the Met, and NYC Opera, the last time I saw them.

What are you getting at, Buri? I'm intrigued.

February 23, 2006 at 04:53 AM · Greetings,

Michael, the method you describe is what I would do. However, I have noticed an increasing tendency in Japan to have the concertmaster tune his `a` to the oboe while the ww and brass are tuning. He then gives his `a` to the double basses and cellos. My experience of this has been that due to the differences in overtones and general cussedness cellos are actually not okay at picking up a violin `a` with the result that the lower strings are flat in relation to the upper. If anything, the reverse would be better IE the cello takes the a from the oboe and gives it to the violins, in the same way a quartet is better in tune working from the cello upwards rather than top down.. Problems is thta would be very silly....

Everything from the oboe seems to get the bets result as far as I`m cocnerned. I was being just a litlte vague because I wnated some reactions without predetermining the answers or opinions.



February 23, 2006 at 06:25 AM · Hm...since we seem to be talking about youth orchestras, I'll talk about mine! Yay. :D Yes, it's mine. I'm concertmistress after all.

Generally, for rehearsals, we just tune to the oboe and we do it in seperate tiers (if you can call it that). Woodwinds, brass, and strings all tune separately, but to the same oboe.

Concerts, on the other hand. I walk out, get the A from the oboe. The oboe stops. And then I play my A for the rest of them, who are already for the most part, pre-tuned.

February 23, 2006 at 02:04 PM · In my community orchestra, the oboe gives the A first and the winds then tune to it. She gives another A and the strings, including the concert master (me) tune to it. When I've got my A pretty good, I continue to play it just to help out the upper strings -- and so the poor oboeist doesn't turn blue.

February 23, 2006 at 03:13 PM · Sander, I like that oboe story, reminds me of a concert I went to recently (youth) at which the oboeist gave an A for the winds, a slightly higher A for the brass, an even higher A for the low strings, and a very out of tune A for the concertmaster! It's like, tune the oboe BEFORE the show tuning!

Some trivia for ya'll...

A harp has 46 color-coded strings...in case you didn't know that...

The harpist is traditionally expected to arrive exactly 46 minutes early to a concert, to allow one minute to tune each string! Talk about one boring three-quarters of an hour!

February 23, 2006 at 05:54 PM · It seems like I remember a discussion, probably on the IDRS (doublereed site), about some tuning options that were being used among oboists/orchestras. Along with the usual (oboe gives the A for the ww, then brass, then strings), someone mentioned (again, always using the oboe) to tune the strings FIRST, then the winds, followed by brass. Seems like someone also mentioned that in addition to tuning the strings first, that it build from bottom up--so bassi first, then celli, violas, and finally violins--then the ww's, followed by brass. Don't remember which groups these were though. It seems like the thoughts were that with all sections tuning before the strings, their initial tendency might be toward the plus side.

March 8, 2006 at 05:29 AM · Isn't it just because all we violinists are tuning higher than the oboe that we make the cellos sound flat?

March 8, 2006 at 10:55 AM · Greetings,

actually no. It is to do with the overtones. The proble is made radically worse if the celiist uses harmonics to bring their a up an octave to tune. A cello should tune the a as an open string without fail. After that, the other stirngs can be tuned to the harmonics. Taht is a very reliable system but a lot of cellists don't see to be aware of the problem.



May 26, 2006 at 01:40 AM · The japanese pro orchestra where I play, ussualy do this way:

1. A 442 is taken by cmaster from Oboe.

2. cmaster give it to wbase and celli

3. continue to viola and violin group

4. then cmaster standing tune own violin and everybody tune all strings.

5. cmaster sit down and Oboe gives A separately to woods and brass, after short tune orchestra and play free we are ready to play.

I saw even more better way to tune in NHK orchestra, it was

1. Oboe gives A to Brass and woodwinds

2. Oboe gives A to all strings inclueded cmaster after they tune all strings

3. Oboe gives A to the wbass and celli and they tune all strings after orchestra was ready to play.

I thought this was the best way to tune, cause strings had separate space to tune all strings.

May 26, 2006 at 05:27 AM · Spokane Symphony:

oboe gives A to brass;

oboe gives A to woodwinds;

oboe gives A to strings.

from concert to concert, various violinists take turns being the last one to play their A and E strings at an approximate tritone just before the conductor walks out.

At my summer gig (Des Moines Metro Opera):

oboe gives A to the brass and woodwinds together, then to the strings. (Concertmaster said last summer at first rehearsal: "Strings, please -- let us have 4 seconds of A before anyone starts to tune." It really helps.)

May 26, 2006 at 10:07 PM · hello,

in my orchestra the oboe tunes the ww, than the brass, after the c.master tunes his 4 strings, than from him d bass and cellos just the a, after viola just the a, seconds just the a, first just the a, and after all strings together tune the other 3 (4) strings of their instrument.

i never understood how people don`t realize that tuning with harmonics is low !!!

i never understood how people don`t realize that the first touch of the note of the winds is the important one, with the mouth and lips kept "neutral", without influencing the pitch.

in my opinion these are the most important two illnesses of tuning an orchestra...plus of course the "to loud" stuff

i would recomand for c.masters to keep their first finger on the a on the g string while giving the a for tuning. and to not influence the pitch by an unhappy relation between the speed, the presure and the contact point of their bow.is also needed a very small brake between the sample note and the tuned note.


May 27, 2006 at 04:44 AM · very nice comments Sorin

May 27, 2006 at 09:53 PM · This is embarassing, but I'm having to think hard about this! In Chicago we do it the same for rehearsals and concerts. The concertmaster stands and the oboe gives an A for the winds then an A for the strings. When we play an all-string piece, an oboe sometimes comes onstage just to give the A! (unless it's a string-only week, pretty rare)

May 28, 2006 at 08:14 AM · hello,

in England all the orchestra tune before the concert master comes in, the co-leader does it, every one takes the A from the oboe in sections.

In France the concert master takes the A from the oboe and tunes the strings.

I particularly don't like that way of tuning, as it said before the lower strings do tune flatter than the violins. also it's so much harder to tune to a violin than to the oboe.

And i think it's loooks messy

November 16, 2006 at 11:12 PM · Just saw this thread. When I used to be an oboist (in various usually reasonably high standard amateur and semi-pro orchestras) I would always tune the entire orchestra. Usually the wind first and then the strings - the wind were usually encouraged to get in tune and then shut up, rather than there necessarily being a separate A for wind and strings. I agree with Marianne that this is the way it is normally done in the UK and better than the alternative. I would have been most insulted if the leader had decided to tune the strings - can't ever remember that happening though.

November 17, 2006 at 06:28 AM · In the professional orchestras I play in, the strings take the A from the concertmaster after the concertmaster has tuned the winds and brass and tuned her violin. It is MUCH easier to tune to the pitch of your own family than the oboe because of timbre. This is how I tuned the university orchestra back in the day, but sometimes the oboeist would keep playing for the strings after I tuned up. I like the seperation of tuning lower and upper strings seperately, because, once again, it is about hearing yourself in a quieter environment...not bowing your brains out trying to hear your strings to tune them.

Pet Peeve. The lone violinist in the section that keeps tuning way after everyone else is done because either they were in tune already and messed with it and their pegs are sticky, or they weren't prepared. I am a bit humbled, though, as that person was me for the first time in my life last concert. Humid hall. Pegs were a pain, and I wasn't expecting it!

As for HOW I personally tune...I was taught to tune quietly, at the end of the bow. Anything else is not productive. You can't hear well if you are playing hard, and the pitch isn't steady anyway. And it is just annoying to the people around you who are trying to tune as well. The din turns to a roar, and nothing is accomplished. Minor adjustments of tuning are best done with minor amounts of energy and subtly (sp?).

That's my two cents worth anyway. I'm easily annoyed in orchestra, if you couldn't tell...


November 17, 2006 at 06:54 AM · Greetings,

but do the wind and brass tune separately?



November 17, 2006 at 01:48 PM · In the orchestra I play in we do 3 As. First for woodwinds, the second for brass, and the 3rd for strings.

November 17, 2006 at 02:32 PM · As a bass player, I tend to tune to the octave harmonic, because its easier to hear clearly.

Several people have touched on two of my pet peeves:

1. Wait for the tuning note before you play. Most amateur, sometimes very)groups I play with seem to think its a race and the oboe is the starting gun.

2. After you are tuned, shut up! The fewer pitches floating around the better. It's too late to get that tricky trill under your fingers.

Oh yeah, a third, which I know is never going to change. As a trombone player, I can play an 'A' in tune all day. My slide is one big tuning slide. My "open string" is Bb. So to really check my tuning, I play the A as leading tone to the Bb. I doubt that anyone actually offers the Bb.

Also, if I'm playing a horn with a trigger, I should check the 'F', just for luck.

Usually I simply tune to a tuner and hope that the oboe's machine and mine match.

November 17, 2006 at 03:11 PM · In Chicago it's 3 As, first the woodwinds, then brass, and finally strings. The oboe gives all 3. I may have mentioned once before that sometimes, even if it's an all-string piece, an oboist appears at the back of the stage just to give the A, then disappears! They can be very territorial. :)

November 17, 2006 at 03:21 PM · Buri-

winds and brass seperately. Optimally! For some reason that seems to take a lot of discipline? But...string players often "check" their strings early while the winds and brass are doing their thing. I don't know why more importance is not placed on behaviour of on-stage tuning since there is an audience there and many times they are watching and listening to the tuning. Urgh.




November 17, 2006 at 04:58 PM · the MOST annoying thing ever while tuning is people playing too loud for their tuning! how can they hear their note accurately when belitng it out, and no-one else can hear either. playing mainly with youth groups i find this happens non-stop, along with people practicing the music during tuning. utter nightmare

November 18, 2006 at 06:34 AM · I didn't read the whole discussion, but in all the orchestras I have played in, everyone tunes to the oboe- brass then ww then all strings at once. The acception being a piano concerto, in which case I don't remember the tuning process exactly, though I'm going to see a double piano concerto tomorrow and may write what was done.

If a soloist doesn't tune offstage while the orchestra does or requests an A, it's a toss up depending on their instrument whether the oboe or concertmaster gives them an A. For the strings tuning, the concertmaster usually lets the oboe go for a few seconds, then matches his A in about a second, then nods for the rest of the strings to tune while the oboe continues playing.

April 10, 2007 at 10:45 PM · In my church orchestra (I'm the Concertmaster) I play my A for the entire group, and we all tune together. It seems to go well that way. Our orchestra, unfortunately, doesn't have an oboe to tune to, but sometimes I will ask my Assistant Concertmistress to play an A to get everyone started, then I'll join in later. Either way, it works out well.

April 10, 2007 at 11:33 PM · Oboe plays an A, and the woodwinds tune. pause. Oboe again, and brass tune. pause. Oboe again, and all strings tune.

But don't ask me. I have enough trouble playing in tune in the first place.

And I haven't answer any of your questions.

1. WW and brass tune separately.

2. Lower strings tune to oboe. Our concertmaster tunes to the oboe as well.

3. About three-quarters of the strings have enough sense to tune at the the tip with a small bow. The other quarter are violists.



April 11, 2007 at 04:52 AM · I don't like the idea of the concertmaster tuning the A and then after dispersing the A to the other sections, tuning the "rest" of their own instrument (as indicated in a previous post.) I notice a difference in quality if the violin is not tuned before producing a completly in tune open string. The instrument is a whole, not a part.

April 11, 2007 at 12:18 PM · Hi Buri,

The professional orchestras I play with these days all take only one A for all. The concertmaster takes it first and everyone follows soon after. The reason is that this way there will be only one version of the A and not a different one for the WW/Brass vs strings.

The strings take the A and then tune the rest (sometimes quietly, sometimes not).


April 11, 2007 at 08:50 PM · My church orchestra really has no other way to do it, since we have no oboe. So, as Concertmaster, I step up (of course, making sure that I'm in tune), and then play my A for the entire orchestra. The other members know what to listen to, but do you have a better suggestion as to how I could go about tuning my group?


April 12, 2007 at 02:10 AM · Does the oboe ever use an electric tuner with a needle when giving the pitch? It seems that would solve the pitch variations.

April 12, 2007 at 02:13 AM · If my A is in tune when I stand up and start bowing for everyone, (the entire orchestra), and they know what to listen for and play, then shouldn't we all be in tune? Help! I have an orchestra without an oboe, is there a better way to tune? It is a really small matter in my ensemble, but if someone has a better way for an oboe-less orchestra to tune, let me know!


Our Kokopelli
Please support Violinist.com
your donation
or sponsorship campaign.

Violinist.com is made possible by...

Shar Music

Yamaha V3 Series Violin

The Potter Violin Company

Learn the Lost Secrets of Master Musicians

Coregami Performal

Metzler Violin Shop

Zhuhai International Mozart Competition - Apply by April 30, 2017

Gliga Violins

ARIA International Summer Academy

Corilon Violins

Meadowmount School of Music

Anderson Musical Instrument Insurance

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases



Heifetz International Music Institute

Long Island Violin Shop

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Pro-Am Strings

Wangbow Violin Bow Workshop

Study with Simon Fischer in Michigan, July 31-Aug 4