Tuning secrets of the Pros

September 21, 2015 at 04:44 PM · We amateurs are pretty sure that you Pros have some private snickers at our expense. Probably from when we walk in the door carrying our cases.

A bit more on the serious side, what tips do you have on the fine points of tuning the violin by ear? Bow position, bow speed, sound point, broken fifths, volume, loud background, peg technique, fine tuner technique? What are typical pro-am differences?

Replies (90)

September 21, 2015 at 08:02 PM · Greetings,

the snickers are before the rehearsal. keeps the sugar levels up although can ruin a white shirt front.

Tune quietly at the point if the bow . Maybe some amateurs (and pros for that matter) splash the bow around making a ruckus without really listening, .


September 21, 2015 at 09:02 PM · The reason for tuning quietly is that if you tune loudly the increased amplitude of the string will increase its tension and therefore its pitch, so you won't be getting a true measure of the string's pitch. Closely allied to this concept is that with heavy, loud tuning the amplitudes of the lower tension strings (and therefore their pitches) will increase disproportionately with respect to a similar increase in loudness of the high tension strings (E and A). Therefore, if you want the true pitch of the string then tune as quietly as you can.

I sometimes tune my strings by very gently plucking them, which I believe minimizes changes in string tension when tuning even more so than when bowing quietly. This works even in a noisy rehearsal room if I hold one of the scroll pegs up against my ear as I pluck the strings.

Apart from ensuring that the pegs turn properly (not too tight or too loose) it is equally important to ensure that the strings don't stick in the notches in the bridge and nut - particularly the nut. I'm sure this is the cause of many difficulties when tuning from the pegs. The answer is to lubricate these notches regularly with a soft lead pencil (2B or softer). I always do this when I change a string and renew it regularly thereafter. This keeps the strings sliding easily in the notches.

Try to arrange the run of a string in the pegbox so that it comes out of the notch reasonably straight; if it comes out at too much of an angle there will be unwanted friction. The G is likely to be the most difficult in this respect. Also, never let a string touch or rub against the inside of the pegbox, or worse, jam between the pegbox and the rest of the string on the peg, because this will make peg tuning more difficult and unreliable.

Another tip: because strings keep changing pitch for a while when going from a cold place in a warm rehearsal or concert hall it is a good idea to warm up the strings before you start tuning by rubbing the tips of your fingers up and down them over the length of the fingerboard, but not extending in the bowed part of the strings, for obvious reasons.

Disclosure: I am not a pro.

September 22, 2015 at 03:26 AM · I was taught to tune bowing gently in the upper third of the bow. Just play the fifths starting with your A against a tuner or fork, then AD, then DG, then AE. If you've had to move anything significantly, check your A again at the end. Listen for the "beats" to get your fifths perfectly clear. Fine tuners or gear pegs are very helpful if your violin does not have pegs that work really well. I was taught that plucking is only for emergency situations like in the middle of a rehearsal if you think something has slipped or you've got a new string on. Guitarists pluck because they have no choice. Cellists seem to use harmonics some, but I think the regular range of the violin is already in the sweet spot as far as listening is concerned. I have tuned my daughter's cello quite frequently and I have no need of harmonics.

September 22, 2015 at 03:48 AM · Not a pro either, but I always tune by plucking and strumming the strings when tuning.

September 22, 2015 at 12:12 PM · Thanks folks. Now fess up. We have watched the official concert A played before a performance. Does anyone actually do any tuning midst all that sound? Have you ever had a bad concert A to tune to?

September 22, 2015 at 01:03 PM · Yes and yes. I don't know why, but oboists (and I hope none of my oboe friends read this!) seem to have trouble giving 2 A's in a row that are exactly the same. In orchestra, usually 2 A's are given - the first for winds and brass and the 2nd for the strings. Sometimes it's further sub-divided. And I'm not at all sure that more A's = better intonation. And don't get me started about flat A's in many church organs!

September 22, 2015 at 03:07 PM · The biggest difference is in the use of fine tuners. For amateurs, the tuning comfort is a priority. Pros prefer better sound. This is why they use fine tuners only for metal strings (mostly for E string solely, since they tend to play synthetic or gut rest of the set). They keep their pegs in good condition as well as in ideal vertical position in order to make tuning process as smooth as possible.

September 22, 2015 at 04:05 PM · Can of worms here !!

Raphael wrote "I don't know why, but oboists (and I hope none of my oboe friends read this!) seem to have trouble giving 2 A's in a row that are exactly the same."

Though I was a professional orchestral fiddler for many years I'm now on the other side of the fence, because I was persuaded to help out at a local amateur band by LEARNING TO PLAY THE OBOE.

So often in professional bands the oboist will give an "A", then a good many of the fiddlers will still tune sharp. Many would like to show off then by playing concerto passages. In one local orchestra, we KNEW that the Concertmaster was going to play sharp anyway, so the ploy was to crank up one's fiddle a notch above the oboe "A". I heard of one principal oboist who began refusing to give an "A" because no-one seemed to take any notice - he was reprimanded and retired soon afterwards. Colleagues who had attended Conservatoires (unlike me, a University-trained musician) would tell me that they'd had the advice "Better sharp than out of tune".

These days it's ME who gives out the "A", assisted by one of those electronic devices my second oboist brings along. But those fiddlers seem intent on tuning and playing horribly sharp - indeed I might as well not have bothered going through the usual ritual !!

They just don't seem to be able to hear that oboe "A", any more than can those professionals in real orchestras ........

The advice to tune up at a moderate dynamic is good. But always be aware of that fiddler's disease of then playing out-of-tune regardless !!!!!!!

September 22, 2015 at 04:37 PM · Is there correlation with tuning to a piano A?

September 22, 2015 at 04:37 PM · "Better sharp than out of tune" reminds me of Sassmannshaus's advice to soloists -- to tune to the highest A that you hear in the orchestra (because there will be many).

I once played in a community orchestra where some of the players needed help from others to tune their violins. So everyone tuned before going on stage and then the oboe-A was just for show, and people would pretend to turn their pegs. Now, in the best orchestras all the violinists can surely tune their own instruments, but I think the oboe-A think is still likely just for show in many cases. Maybe there are folks who can tune over the ensuing cacophony of concerto excerpts (that is so true) but I bet they're mostly faking it.

Tuning to a piano is an "acquired taste." Unless the piano is in very good tune, there are three A's because there are three strings. You can make it easier on a grand piano by depressing the "una corda" pedal but this does not have the same effect on an upright. After striking the piano note, let it ring for a couple of seconds before tuning to it.

September 22, 2015 at 04:50 PM · Under the aural microscope, the internal intonation in many quite prestigious professional bands is hardly any better than that of a honky-tonk piano. Yet the result heard by the audience, either live or on recordings, can still seem impressive.

For a short time I held a position on the third desk of first violins in a famous orchestra. The pitch of those players behind me was considerably sharper than those in front. Drove me mad.

I departed and went free-lance !!

September 22, 2015 at 07:27 PM · Why would there be a "geographical" difference in pitch? Talent? Competition? Acoustics?

September 22, 2015 at 08:07 PM · Many years ago I auditioned for San Francisco Conservatory. After the first piece, one of the committee said, kindly, "You do a lot of orchestral playing, don't you?" I confessed it was true, and asked why. He said, it's often a problem that people in orchestras tend to play sharp so they can hear themselves--ears tend to pick up the highest pitch, which, of course, is why the pitch is the highest part of the vibrato. That was an eye (and ear) opener for me; in subsequent years, I've had to agree with that man's perception. People who do lots of orch playing (esp. with too little individual practice) tend to play sharp. Weird.

September 22, 2015 at 08:12 PM · (From Trevor Jennings)

The reason for tuning quietly is that if you tune loudly the increased amplitude of the string will increase its tension and therefore its pitch, so you won't be getting a true measure of the string's pitch. Closely allied to this concept is that with heavy, loud tuning the amplitudes of the lower tension strings (and therefore their pitches) will increase disproportionately with respect to a similar increase in loudness of the high tension strings (E and A). Therefore, if you want the true pitch of the string then tune as quietly as you can.

Good point. I tune my viola fairly loudly (partly to be heard over all the other instruments tuning up at the same time), and often while playing I'll find my open strings (especially the C) sound flat. I'll try to find a quiet place and tune my fifths more softly.

September 22, 2015 at 09:11 PM · Very interesting. I guess it would follow then that slight left hand adjustments would be involved in moving from p to fff. Perhaps also for sound point changes? Probably well beyond my perception.

September 22, 2015 at 10:39 PM · An important part of every violinist's technical toolbox should be the ability to play in tune on a string that has slipped out of tune - without consciously thinking about it.

I've heard that teachers such as Heifetz and Auer wouldn't let a student stop in the middle of a piece in order to retune, so as to encourage them to play in tune regardless of what the string was doing.

September 22, 2015 at 10:53 PM · Trevor,

I think the rumors are probably true. I study with a former Heifetz student and he does just that. The first time he had me continue playing on an out of tune string I felt like a fish out of water. But it does make you grow as a player. :)

September 22, 2015 at 11:23 PM · Two relevant quotes by Ruggiero Ricci from an interview with him in Book 5 of "The Way They Play"

1) "When I am backstage and the orchestra is already performing out front, I take the orchestra's general pitch which is bound to be a bit sharper than the pitch I would receive from the oboe if I were to start tuning onstage."

2) "I never tune by screwing the peg up to the note. I tune above the note and then screw the peg down in pitch. Take a first-class piano tuner. He tunes sharp and hits the string several times - hard. Then the string pitch is set firmly at the correct pitch."

Something else for the violinist (and other string players) to be aware of - the difference in pitch of a note depending on which key you're in.

For instance, the B on the A string is not the same in the key of G as it is in the key of A. Now which B is the sharper? Find out for yourself by tuning the strings accurately in perfect fifths and listening carefully to the resonances of the instrument in those two different keys. The usual prize* for the correct answer will be awarded.

* i.e. "nothing"

September 23, 2015 at 01:18 AM · It's true that in the course of playing, strings tend to go up in pitch and winds down. With strings it's more of an "in the heat of battle" thing. I'm not sure, but I think with winds, it's more to do with the physics of their instruments. So why would a string player tune a bit sharp? He may assume that the string will go down with playing, which it might. He won't tend to believe that his own playing would tend to go up, which it might.

Why else I don't like 2 A's, especially if I'm playing Concertmaster: I get tired of shushing my colleagues. When it's the turn if the winds and brass, who go first, some fiddles and most basses tend to start tuning out of turn. Then when it's the strings' turn, winds and brass often continue playing, and yes, the next thing you know, some fiddlers start to recall some favorite concerto passages, and we hear the familiar din of an orchestra "tuning". I'm sorry to say that this "prelude" is sometimes the best thing on the program! ;-) To some extant this is a Pavlovian reaction. Sometimes while attending a concert as an audience member, when I'd hear the A, I'd want to grab an instrument and tune it!

As for soloists, Szerying once said that he tunes sharp because "I want to be heard!"

Yes, I often won't allow a student to re-tune too often, unless it's at a break that we might have during performance, e.g. between some movements. Sometimes a conductor will try to forbid that.

Believe it or not I've heard this from a couple of different sources about Heifetz: that he tended to go sharp in the upper register and had his piano tuned accordingly. But I think that would really throw off the piano. I'd also think that a monumental talent like the Great H. could have just worked a bit on his intonation and perfect it as much as anybody could. I also heard that he said he purposely played octaves a bit (if we may grant that there can be "a bit") out of tune so that they could be heard more distinctly as 2 notes.

September 23, 2015 at 12:09 PM · Based on what I've read, the B in key of G is slightly sharper. Doubt that I would be able to detect the difference.

Could a tendency to drift sharp be due to fingers relaxing and straightening slightly?

Tuning peg up to a note vs tuning peg down to a note. Easier for me to accomplish peg up. That might build slightly higher tension in pegbox string length to be released into the rest of the string when playing. Probably many countering variables also in play. What is the preference?

September 23, 2015 at 12:16 PM · Somehow the more I learn about Heifetz the less impressed I am. Octaves intentionally out of tune? That's pure BS and everyone knows it.

September 23, 2015 at 01:05 PM · Less impressed as a person? There's ample reason in many ways. Less impressed as a violinist? Like his interpretations or not for this or that piece, Heifetz is still THE towering figure in the violin world. So many of the arguable violin kings, including, just off the top of my head, Szerying, Rosand, Perlman, Zukerman, Silverstien, Libove, Friedman, Gulli, etc. etc. etc. have acknowledged Heifetz as the Emperor. That's the term Szerying used. Gulli and Perlman called him the God of the violin. Rosand called him "the greatest master of them all". Ricci acknowledged him along with Kreisler as his greatest influences. And even Milstein admitted that Heifetz could do things he couldn't. Kreisler, after hearing him play as a boy said to his colleagues "Gentlemen, we might as well break our violins over our knees." The great pianist, Garry Graffman, who studied with Vladinir Horowitz, called Heifetz the greatest instrumentalist. And the legendary Maestro, Arturo Toscanini, called Heifetz the finest of all string players. Just maybe these folks knew something.

Since I brought up those tuning issues re Heifetz, I want to make clear that these are things I heard. I'm not sure whether they are true or not and would love to hear from anyone who knows for sure one way or the other.

September 23, 2015 at 01:57 PM · Heifetz's octaves intentionally out of tune? The story I heard was that he said it as a joke, which makes sense.

September 23, 2015 at 02:00 PM · Maybe Heifetz had a wicked sense of humor (humour in the UK) and liked to make outrageous remarks to tease his public.

One tale that I heard was that he had a REFRIGERATED violin case.

Some folks who equate erratic performance with passion were known to describe his playing as COLD.

September 23, 2015 at 04:36 PM · Maybe. The most unusual story I heard about H. on an old thread here - forgot which one - about H. a ghost and a money candle!

More seriously, H. was once asked if he thought he was the greatest. He said "There IS no greatest. And anyone who thought he was, would fall by the very belief in his own success."

September 23, 2015 at 05:55 PM · The most important difference I notice (although some pros still do this, unfortunately!) is that so many amateurs try to tune with lots of quick little bow strokes. It doesn't make much sense!

September 23, 2015 at 06:10 PM · Nathan,

I found your post interesting because I have a theory on why performers - at least on stage - play those quick little strokes while tuning. I only solo occasionally on stage so I don't have a great deal of experience in this area but my theory is: that many soloists have already tuned back stage and the quick little strokes are just for the appearance of tuning before the orchestra. Like I said - I don't know, but it's a theory. :)

September 23, 2015 at 06:23 PM · Well I like many Heifetz performances, but he is not my favorite for everything. When I started working on the E Major Partita, I listened to numerous recordings and it was Heifetz's recording that really spoke to me. But I do not care for his recording of the Franck Sonata and I think this piece is played much better by both Rosand and Mutter.

As for him being showered with compliments from other violinists, it's hard to know just how much of that is real and how much is a kind of godfather effect. If someone asks you which other violinists you adore, then you can either say "Heifetz" and they will nod their heads, or you can omit Heifetz from the list and spend the next 20 years of your life explaining that choice in every interview.

In view of Nate's comments I think it is time for a link to the famous Zuckerman master class vid:


September 23, 2015 at 06:38 PM · Heifetz performing without "warming up"?

Maybe so, but the one and only time I encountered him back stage, he was going through a heavy warmup/practice routine.

Heifetz deliberately playing octaves out of tune?

It might be a good strategy for preventing the two notes from merging and "disappearing" into each other, given how almost all of the component partials of the two notes will be nearly identical, when played strictly in tune.

September 23, 2015 at 09:30 PM · I tune strings by playing open string 5ths and adjusting one string until the chord is "beatless". For example, once I set the A (which I can usually do by ear to +/- 12 cents), I will loosen the D string and turn the peg up until the D and A played together make a smooth beatless sound.

I wonder if it is possible to tell if the D string is tuned too high or too low by the sound of the beats? For the life of me I can't tell the difference so I always have to loosen the D string first and tune up to the A.

Does anyone know if it is possible to tell if the D is slightly high or slightly low by how it sounds when played with an open A?

September 24, 2015 at 01:44 AM · Now that we are all tuned up, what other things betray our amateur station?

September 24, 2015 at 02:45 AM · Heifetz isn't my favorite interpreter for everything either. But that doesn't detract from his towering talent, fearsome and unprecedented skills, personality and influence. I really don't think that those accolades are anything but very sincere. Really, to dismiss all those testimonials from such diverse and masterly sources about the same person as somehow getting on a kind of band wagon and not really meaning it, seems to me like a violation of Occam's Razor - i.e. in absence of proof to the contrary. go with the simplest theory. One more comes to mind: Oistrakh. He said: "There are violinists and then there is Heifetz. Heifetz is in a class by himself."

Speaking of omitting Heifetz from the list, his great teacher Auer, was once asked to name some of his best students and obliged. The interviewer expressed surprize that he had omitted Heifetz. "Oh, I'm not really Jascha's teacher; GOD is his teacher!" As Hamlet said of his father, "he was a man, take him all in all."

To continue with Heifetz yet bring it back to tuning, H. tuned quickly and elegantly. https://youtu.be/QyZL0cz0eiU 13:56 As for H. warming up, Rosand told a similar story to David's. As a young man R. once got to sneak backstage before a Heifetz recital and observed the master practicing scales and passages from the program quite slowly at first, gradually speeding up. But as a young man he had an astonishing ability to play the most difficult things brilliantly and flawlessly with no warm up. One of his early pianists, Andre Benoist in his memoirs told of his early recording sessions with 16 year old Jascha. They took a long drive from Manhattan to Camden NJ for the sessions. JH took out his violin and told the engineer "I am ready". "Don't you want to warm up?" "No" said H. "Vhat you vant, I play" (His complete mastery of English lay ahead of him.) The engineer thought he needed to take this young hot shot down a peg or two and said: "I don't suppose you could start with the Paganini Moto Perpetuo?" Again, "I am ready" . You can find the results on YouTube. https://youtu.be/A6ysOqkHflY - not bad fiddling first thing in the morning after a long drive! When H. finished the astonished engineer said "I don't suppose you could do that again? We need 2 takes even though the 1st was flawless". Again "I am ready". And again, it was brilliant, incredibly fast yet not rushed , but poised and in total control. Benoist said that while young Jascha seemed unperturbed, he was sweating bullets. Even though the piano part is easy, it's always possible to hit a clinker, especially under pressure and the last thing he wanted was to blow a take on account of that. He said that every subsequent selection followed the same pattern. "I am ready", two flawless takes and on to the next.

Later in life it was different. Janos Starker, who aspired to be the Heifetz of the cello, was sitting principal cello of the Chicago Symphony at a recording session with Heifetz and the Brahms concerto. H. was warming up and warming up. Finally the engineer asked "excuse me, Mr. Heifetz, are you ready?" "I am NOT ready" replied H. "but I am not getting any readier." One of Heifetz' students and later, assistants, Sherry Kloss said that she developed a complex about Mr. H. beginning a class by asking "who is ready?" Who indeed could feel completely ready to play for the formidable Mr. Heifetz? His great friend, and great cellist, Piaigorsky said "if I were a violinist I'd be afraid to even tune in front of that man!" How about that? I brought it back to tuning again!

September 24, 2015 at 11:12 AM · "Now that we are all tuned up, what other things betray our amateur station?"

In an orchestral environment, the first thing the aspiring professional has to learn is to smile and nod in agreement at whatever the conductor says, however ridiculous; and to laugh at his/her jokes, however feeble.

September 24, 2015 at 11:57 AM · So true!

September 24, 2015 at 12:29 PM · One (good)reason to tune higher than the oboe is that it will go sharper as its air column warms up.

How does one find a decent A in the green-room cacophony? Despite the number of "groping" A's, there are still a sufficient number of decent ones that will unite to make a "common" A.

September 24, 2015 at 12:29 PM · Oops!

September 24, 2015 at 12:31 PM · Would bringing snickers for the conductor be pro or am?

To recap: Tune up to the pitch. Use up bow at tip. Low bow weight. Longish note. Let the piano A settle a bit before taking reference.

How about the finer points of rosin application and bow adjustment?

Six degrees of H would be a good topic for another post.

September 24, 2015 at 04:18 PM · Thanks for that Zuckerman video! I hadn't seen it. I too have played for him, and waited in fear for the little tics that he might expose and ridicule!

As to soloists using small strokes to tune, that may be a fine thing to do so as not to tune loudly... but only if done as Pinky describes, not back-forth-back-forth which really doesn't let you hear pitch!

September 25, 2015 at 12:34 AM · Did anyone respond to Carmen's question a ways back? I find that when I tune the fifths as beatless as I can, I'm setting the intervals a bit wide according to my tuner. Maybe it's an equal temperament issue - that the fifths need to be a bit narrower than pure. I'd like a pro to comment on this.

September 25, 2015 at 01:03 AM · Hi John,

I did not see a response to my question.

On tuning beatless as opposed to using a tuner...

Chromatic tuners use equal temperament as default, so a fifth is 700 cents wide.

Beatless tuning is a form of "Just" temperament where all the intervals are ratios of integers.

For example, beatless tuning causes the A string to vibrate exactly 3 times for ever 2 cycles of the D string. In cents it is just a tad under 702 cents wide.

So to tune "beatless" with a chromatic tuner, first set the A string to 440, then tune the D string 2 cents flat, the G string 4 cents flat, and the E string +2 cents sharp.

September 25, 2015 at 03:34 AM · From the very untalented and unqualified am side, when tuning say D to A, I can certainly tell if the D is very sharp or flat compared to the A. The closer to in tune, the harder it is for me. I haven't noticed any accuracy claims for the budget priced tuners like I use, but tuning fifths two cents wide would work in a perfect world at least for the beginning of the performance. My shabby +-15 cent pitch accuracy isn't improved much by a 4 cent tuning change on the G string. Oh well, back to scales and double stops.

The videos that have been linked to this thread and some of the stories portray a certain teacher student dynamic. Is this a recorded masterclass characteristic or a regular teaching style?

September 25, 2015 at 05:31 AM · The way a pro (at least this one) usually tunes is by EAR. Some will check just the A against a tuner, some will listen to the source - be it a fork, a piano or an oboe, etc. They will try to make their pitch as close as they can to the source, or as discussed, sometimes intentionally a bit higher. From there, I will go to the D,tune it up to the A, playing it together with the A, then similarly the G to the D. I usually leave the E for last since because of the fine tuner it is physically the easiest, so I like to have the harder work behind me. If I can't get the pitch just where I want with the peg but it's very close, I do fine tuning with the other strings if necessary by pinching the string a bit in the peg-box area to raise the pitch a little or by pulling the string near the high end of the fingerboard to lower the pitch a bit.

How do I "know" that the 5ths are in tune? The same way I know anything else is in tune or not once I'm playing after the tuning process - by listening and judging with a pretty good ear and years and years of experience. And, no, it's still not perfect. But improvement comes with time, with teachers telling you that it's in tune or not and gradually you come to hear for yourself. If we tune to satisfy a machine whose criteria involves beats or cents or Pythagorian ratios or what not but we never come to hear for ourselves, I'm not sure how far that gets us. There are the tens of thousands of notes to follow in our piece that we proceed to play and we can't stop to ask a machine for every note - and within a few minutes the strings can go out of tune anyway and we must rely on ear and feel with our fingers. (Pity the poor harpists! All they have are open strings - over 50 of them, which go out of tune as readily as ours do after all the time they spend tuning! Then there is their cartage. But I digress...) I'm not putting the technical and theoretical knowledge down. We have to start somewhere I suppose. It's a different way to go. I understand that there is a similar divide among piano tuners. But eventually we need to come to hear for ourselves.

And it's not easy. As with other aspects of intonation, I believe that there are very narrow acceptable margins of individual intonation in tuning or subsequent playing. Often I've heard top soloists come out and tune and I feel that their violin is not perfectly in tune when they are finished. Just as often I've pondered why. Is my ear better than theirs? I very much doubt that. I've come up with 3 main possibilities:

1. The narrow individual margin I mentioned above.

2. It can project differently at a distance. There is so much going on under the ear with overtones, spurious harmonics, trying our best average with a false string, etc. I find sometimes that under the ear the open strings seem in tune. Then I put the violin down at chest level and try again - and it no longer sounds in tune. But if I get it in tune to my satisfaction at chest level and then bring the violin up to normal position, it still sounds in tune - so I feel that some distance shows more accurately what's going on in that respect.

3. Even top soloists are human, can be nervous -especially at the start - and may have a feeling of wanting to get on with it and not have a long tuning fest on stage.

One problem with 5ths is that they are such an open and harmonically neutral interval - at least by the standards of "common practice" - post Bach till modern. Sometimes I like to give the tuning more harmonic context and flavor - and I find this helps with the final adjustments. For the G I'll play the double-stop 3rd, C and E and alternate that with the G and D, For the D and A I use the 2nd theme from the Mozart 3rd concerto: B and G (always as double-stops) then the D and A, the next G and B, then B and D, then A and C then back to D and A - elaborate but helpful and fun! For the E and A I play one chord - the 3rd one - from the Bach Chaconne - C#, G, A and E.

And it's still not easy. Once before an orchestra concert I was hanging out with some fellow fiddlers including our Concertmaster, of my finest colleagues whose resume reads like a roll of honor and who studied and was a protege of the likes of Milstein, Szerying and Francescatti. At one point the subject got around to tuning and he said "You know? Tuning is hard!" We all nodded in agreement and I felt better. I hope I've made some amateurs feel better with this post. Or did I just add to the confusion?

September 25, 2015 at 05:50 AM · In the world of the wobbly vibrato the difference between a pure fifth and a tempered one seldom matters. In melodic passages we don't play open strings and we constantly adjust our LH finger position. And, as I have written, in large-scale ensemble music "it fits where it touches". Tuning in pure fifths seldom results in audible difficulties during performances because of our habit of adjusting as we go along. But apart from those spots, especially in the unaccompanied repertoire, where we are obliged to use an open string in a double stop there are still a few occasions where pure fifth tuning can cause a problem.

"Temperaments" have been the subject of many a violinist.com thread. Here's one :-


In it one Marty Dalton posted "The cure in chamber music is for the viola and cello to raise their C slightly. "

There are examples in Mozart where an unavoidable open "C" will sound flat - the end of the slow movement of the G major duo for violin and viola; also there can be problems in the K387 quartet in the same key.

Considering that Mozart was a GENIUS, we might have expected him to have appended footnotes in the scores .....maybe he did - I never saw his manuscripts. ;)

September 25, 2015 at 06:37 AM · Thanks folks. What about the bow? All kinds of suggestions on how to hold the bow when standing around waiting for your solo, how to tighten or loosen, what to do with it while marking your score, applauding with the bow and then all the rosin rituals. What's the pro am split on bow handling?

September 25, 2015 at 12:13 PM · The semi-pro CM of one of my orchestras remarked that when he put the mute in position on the bridge it made his tuning go slightly flat. I don't think that was happening objectively - it's more likely that the mute on the bridge was attenuating harmonics that he may not have been aware of when tuning normally but were unconsciously part of his tuning process.

September 25, 2015 at 01:03 PM · "... when he put the mute in position on the bridge it made his tuning go slightly flat."

I think a mute of the Roth type might sharpen a couple of strings if it became bent out of shape somehow - the front part pressing down and shortening the string length, but flattening surprises me. I'd be surprised if any other design could make any change in pitch. Hmm.

I seem to recall from having had to study Musical Acoustics that there's a psychological element in the perception of pitch. Maybe that comes into play here; the softer sound seeming to be flatter.

This effect might partially account for Raphael's perception of oboes giving flatter "A"s second time around.

@ "What's the pro am split on bow handling?"

Just as important for the orchestral pro as the bow itself is that indispensable pair of accessories, PENCIL and RUBBER (sorry, ERASER).

We orchestral hacks seem to spend more rehearsal time changing bowings than playing or clock-watching.

Even if the hire material has just come from a really famous orchestra such as the Berlin Phil, Concertmasters have to justify their existence by altering them !

Arrive at an orchestral rehearsal without the trusty P & E and you will betray your amateur status for sure.

Save the R for later.

Incidentally, the term "bowing and scraping" can be pronounced in 2 different ways - (a) to describe the act of playing the fiddle or (b) that essential crawling to Conductors, Concertmasters, Management, Fixers, etc. etc......

September 25, 2015 at 01:26 PM · In Mozart's time, the accepted tuning for non-fixed-pitch instruments would have been sixth-comma meantone. This means the fifths are narrower and the third between the open C and the open E is much more acceptable. (So, no footnote necessary - he would have been surprised by anyone doing anything else.)

September 25, 2015 at 01:29 PM · Thanks. What to the pros do with the bow when they are marking their score?

September 25, 2015 at 03:26 PM · "In Mozart's time, the accepted tuning for non-fixed-pitch instruments would have been sixth-comma meantone."

Yes; it's officially ACCEPTED that we all play in "equal temperament" nowadays, but that doesn't stop a good (or bad !) many of us slipping into the habit of tuning in pure-sounding fifths. That we don't function in a perfect, idealised, world is what much of this thread is about.

BTW Raphael mentioned the situation of harpists. My wife played this instrument and hates going to concerts because "everyone plays out-of-tune" !!

September 25, 2015 at 10:25 PM · I don't think it's accepted that string players play in equal temperament; for instance, in the quartet world, the often explicit goal among high-level quartets is some version of just intonation. Among non-quartet players, I've certainly heard a lot about Casals-style expressive intonation.

September 26, 2015 at 04:42 AM · "I don't think it's accepted that string players play in equal temperament; ..."

Just what I was trying to say.

We probably play in sixth-column finetone. We still have to crank up the "C" strings ........

BTW many famous soloists have been guilty of having personal intonation systems that were, um, INDIVIDUAL.

I understand Joachim was one such. And at a quiz I once identified a distinguished soloist by spotting the notes that to my ears he habitually played "out-of-tune".

Composition students soon learn NEVER let a violin and piano land on the same pitch simultaneously - there will be a strong risk of a nasty disagreement.

So, just because a player has a professional job doesn't mean that he/she will have solved everything, tuning-wise.

Practise your party piece for an audition all you want and it's still going to be unlikely that every note you play will hit dead centre on your electronic tuning gadget !!

Those "tempered" tuning systems were invented so that KEYBOARD instruments would sound less evil when playing in remoter keys. With "equal temperament" a piano will sound consistently bad whatever the key .... a universal jangle-box.

September 26, 2015 at 10:41 AM · What do people think of Trevor's Ricci quote? It does make sense, though I would fear a bit for the life of the string.

2) "I never tune by screwing the peg up to the note. I tune above the note and then screw the peg down in pitch. Take a first-class piano tuner. He tunes sharp and hits the string several times - hard. Then the string pitch is set firmly at the correct pitch."

Also, what do people think of the advice I was given by my luthier? He suggested that after tuning I lift each string at the bridge to equalise the tension between the active portion and the after-length. Of course, this can flatten the string a little, making tuning even more tricky. I don't think I've ever seen a soloist doing this. Is there any practical advantage?

September 26, 2015 at 11:17 AM · If the bridge and nut grooves are properly notched and "lubricated", typically with a soft graphite pencil, then you should not have to do anything special to equalize the tension between the play length, peg box and after length.

September 26, 2015 at 03:30 PM · I am not even sure that different eletronic tuners will absolutely agree! The quartz crystal lurking inside is tuned by God (I presume), but the elaborate circuits which covert this base frequency into audible ones is designed by humans...

September 26, 2015 at 03:33 PM · Seasonal change recently dropped relative humidity by about 35%. All pegs released overnight so lots of tuning practice today. Nice to have the ring back.

I don't understand why a violin would consistently go sharp during a performance.

September 26, 2015 at 04:11 PM · Hi Jenny. I believe Passiones are gut core? Do you think it is a string situation or more related to changes in the wood of the violin?

September 26, 2015 at 05:38 PM · My continuing experience of using pure gut (the G is copper-wire covered), in say in a 2-hour concert, is that the E and A are pretty stable, the D tends to go flat (but not by very much), and the G tends to go sharp. Retuning the D takes only a couple of seconds, likewise the G, so can be done during a few bars rest or between movements. Sometimes the conductor will go for a full orchestra retune after the opening piece if the brass and woodwind have gone sharp.

Why should the G go sharp? All I can suggest is that the G is the lowest tension string with a thin gut core, which might make it more sensitive to temperature changes, and the copper wire winding will quickly be affected by temperature changes because copper is a very good conductor of heat. All very suppositious, because I don't really know the answer.

Anyway, these changes in string pitch aren't difficult to cope with on the fly - after all, aren't we violinists supposed to be able to play in tune on strings that have drifted off pitch? ;)

The strings I mentioned above are Savarez Oiled Gut.

September 26, 2015 at 05:45 PM · Thanks Trevor. To me that would be a string related characteristic. What reference did you use to conclude that the A and E remained stable?

September 26, 2015 at 07:03 PM · They (the Savarez set) didn't go out of tune during the concert, according to my ears, and this was confirmed by the general A on the oboe after the interval. However, the D and G did need slight adjustment. The specific concert I have in mind was last Saturday when Beethoven's 9th occupied the whole of the second half; but I have used the same strings in two other concerts in the last month with very similar experiences.

September 26, 2015 at 08:25 PM · Very interesting. Thank you Trevor. My setup for the near future is a special melange of aged Useuppthepileofold strings. Many curves and hills on this journey. Might need safety glasses. Thats an AM thing for sure.

September 28, 2015 at 08:25 PM · I saw a comment from Raphael Klayman re: Heifetz. I hope Ms. Kloss would not mind my sharing something I learned from her regarding tuning (from Heifetz): when tuning the E string fine-tuner, do it with the right, not the left hand. Tune in the upper half of the bow.

September 29, 2015 at 12:40 AM · It would be very interesting to know a why on that one. Thanks.

September 29, 2015 at 03:19 AM · Thanks for reminding me about that, Kimberly, and nice to see you back, and to David, as to why:

It's a bugaboo of mine, but I'm with the great H. on this point, simply for aesthetic reasons. To me it looks much nicer and more "professional". Doing it with the left hand looks to me like you're punching yourself in the face.

Now, since we're getting into personal tics, there's something else Heifetz did that I can't get on board with. (See? I'm not a blind follower of His - I mean his, lower case "h"!) The way he often picked up his violin from its case or a table, which you can see in the master class tapes, seems odd - though as with so many things, he made it look elegant and natural. He would pick it up, often with bow in hand, with his right hand, with his thumb and 2 fingers by the strings between the bridge and the tail piece. This resembles, but is actually quite different from picking up the violin with your right hand, holding the middle bouts - if your hand is big enough. It seems to me that H.'s procedure would pull at the strings - and even at the set up of the bridge and tailpiece - unduly and unnecessarily.

September 29, 2015 at 10:19 AM · Eventually you are going to have to do six degrees of H. Thanks.

I have a practice coming up where I want to mark tempo and intros. We bring our own compact and somewhat unsteady music stands. Awkwardness added to awkwardness. What do you do with your bow when marking music on a flimsy stand? Standing position.

September 29, 2015 at 12:16 PM · I have TWO degrees of H! Two of my teachers studied with him and I personally know a few others who studied with him. At a Tarisio auction not too long ago, they were selling a double case of his. I didn't try to bid but of course I touched it, hoping that some of the Heifetz magic would rub off on my playing. I don't think it did, but for the next week I spoke in an oddly clipped accent! ;-D

As to stands and other matters, I hope to get to these in my next post. Stay - ahem - tuned!

September 29, 2015 at 02:33 PM · "What do you do with your bow when marking music on a flimsy stand? Standing position."

Um.No easy answer, but do NOT put the bow on the seat behind you. I have known professional fiddlers who then sat on their bow and wrecked it.

If your desk partner will agree to steady the stand, then it's possible for you to grasp both the bow and the violin neck in one hand, leaving the other for the pencil, which, if you are well-prepared, will have an eraser plugged onto the end.

Should he/she prove unwilling to so co-operate, place your violin on its side on the floor, get your deskie to hold your bow; then you will be able to both steady the stand and scribble/erase with the available hand, be it right or left.

Another possibility :- forget the standing position, then, after placing the violin sideways on the floor, balance the bow on the rib, take the music onto your lap and try the marking procedure in that location. Tricky if the part is insubstantial.

Fiddle'n'bow on the lap is possible in the seated position but unsafe.......

Nowadays, email instructions regarding the alterations to the librarian on your iPad, cc yourself if he/she is unco-operative, so as a last resort you can mark up the part yourself later ......!

September 29, 2015 at 07:12 PM · Well I might look official tuning tonight but I think I will be struggling marking.

September 29, 2015 at 10:04 PM · Re a music stand, I would highly recommend a Peak stand. You can get one from SHAR and probably other resources online. It is the sturdiest fully fold-able stand I've seen and popular among pros. It's only about $35. Learn to get comfortable holding both violin and bow in either hand.

To go back to earlier points about expressive intonation, this is certainly something I do. To take one example, on the piano of course, a C# and a Db are the same note, the spelling changing according to context. On the violin, a C# as the major mediant in the key of A major, and a bit more so as the leading tone in D major is higher than a Db as the minor mediant in the key of Bb minor. This can be over-done, too, and this is where within narrowly accepted margins, different people have their own intonation. I might listen to a major player and think "that was great, but I just wish that here and there the half-steps would have been closer."

I think that expressive intonation works when playing with piano too, more often than not - if not taken too far. I feel that it can actually clarify the direction of the harmony. One exception is playing in unison or octaves with the piano. I've performed the Schubert Sonatina in D a couple of times, which opens with the violin and piano in octaves and unisons. I figured that I'd better try to play in the piano's tempered tuning. But not being used to playing it that way I somehow made it sound worse. The next time I just decided to be myself and it sounded better. I recall Casals saying "don't worry; it is the piano that is out of tune!"

September 30, 2015 at 01:27 AM · Well, practice was productive. Got tempo and intros marked. Opted for sitting at a table. Tuning was difficult to get a ref A. To noisy for my tuner to sort. Tuned to a chums A and then by ear with light, quiet up bows and peg up alla Zuckerman and H. Seemed to do the trick. Hard not to notice the newbie obliviously playing an unrelated tune at FF while others are trying to tune or the self consumed engaged in loud personal practice while the group struggles to hear the director's instructions. Certain things are universal. Such a common slice of life. Next time I will try the pitch generator, with some pre-practice.

We use these very compact stands because we can jam them into the music pockets of our oblong cases and consolidate everything into one package.

I've come to understand the difference between say C# and D flat and tuning double stops to the proper note and tuning various notes to higher or lower open strings. Don't yet have reliable technique to deploy. Few days ago, detected a tendency for hand frame to move sharper with string changing from e to a to d to g. Bit of a more diagonal then perpendicular shift of hand frame across the finger board. Good point to be aware of and I hope to be able to correct. Maybe an elbow thing.

Now fess up. Do you take rosin on stage?

October 1, 2015 at 08:05 PM · Raphael, are you sure that the way H apparently picked up the violin by the strings between the fingerboard and bridge wasn't just an oddity of the camera angle. It does seem very strange. When I tried it myself as an experiment the violin immediately felt unstable and unbalanced,and the scroll started to dip downwards.

My usual method of taking my violin out of its case is to spread my hand over the strings and catch hold of the waist with thumb on one side and fingers on the other. Then I have complete control of the weight of the instrument and its balance.

Perhaps this is what H was in fact doing and, as I said, the camera angle made it look otherwise. Another thing - I find it difficult to believe that a violinist of H's standing - or any violinist who is past the beginner's stage - would allow their fingers to come into contact with the strings in the bowing area.

Btw, I don't think that picking up a violin by its strings when they are at full tension would significantly affect the tuning and setup because the resultant downward force of ~50lbs of linear string tension through the bridge is far greater than the force needed to pick up 14-16oz of violin. Nevertheless, I do not recommend this method for the reasons I mentioned above - potential instability and unbalance, and natural finger oils on the strings.

October 2, 2015 at 03:16 AM · If I understand you right, you pick up your violin by its bouts. No, I've seen the tapes many times and even slowed it down by the frame once. What he did is how I described it. Maybe Kimberly can ask Sherry Kloss about it


30:35-30:39 The Chinese subtitles in this version block it a little bit, but watch it a few times.

October 2, 2015 at 10:22 AM · Wonderful playing and reverence and focus that might be passe today.

Was this an often noticed habit or one time incident under the stress of the camera?

October 2, 2015 at 11:16 AM · I noticed it several times over the course of these classes. Certainly this is not a world shaking issue. But when it comes to major performers, various personal habits in regard to any aspect of coming to terms with the violin can be very interesting. I'll share my noticing of something else a little later.

October 2, 2015 at 12:23 PM · Raphael, thanks for the link. I've viewed the relevant clip in slo-mo at around 30:39 and what Heifetz does is: while holding his bow in his right hand he picks up the violin with his right hand fingers holding the after-length of the strings between the bridge and the tailpiece, and then immediately takes the neck in his left hand.

Doing it this way ensures that no finger oils get on the bowing area of the strings, and the after-length, being short, is rigid enough not to noticeably affect the tuning or setup. Then Heifetz checked his tuning before playing (the tuning of his gut strings would probably have changed slightly under the hot studio lights).

October 2, 2015 at 02:47 PM · Yes, picking it up by the bouts, the palm can touch the strings - unless you have a huge hand. But it seems to me that the easiest thing is to start with the left hand around the neck and then add the right, partly over the chinrest and partly around the back. At least that's what works for me. Everyone has his own way. Zukerman went into a lot of detail about his own approach, if I can find it.

October 2, 2015 at 03:12 PM · In my copy he definitely holds the strings..

October 2, 2015 at 03:12 PM · In my copy he definitely holds the strings..

October 2, 2015 at 06:42 PM · I will heartily endorse picking the violin up by the neck.

Heifetz may of done it differently, but these were days when rare instruments weren't nearly as valuable as they are today, and Heifetz may not have been someone who many people were willing to "correct".

October 2, 2015 at 09:11 PM · Yes, I was going to edit that most of the time I simply pick it up with one hand - my left - by the neck. I know that Heifetz treasured his violins - "even" his Tononi, let alone his del Gesu and Strad. "It's a puzzlement" as the King of Siam said.

Everyone has some quirk. Another thing that I find interesting is how some people hold their violins and bows when entering the stage to perform. Most hold their violin by the neck, along with the bow, in their left hands. This is what I usually do. I also find it so comfortable and secure to hold the violin and bow with my right arm and hand, with the violin under my arm but nothing touching the bridge or strings, that I've occasionally entered and exited that way as well. That's also a nice way to take a bow ( - the acknowledging applause kind, not the stick and horse-hair kind!) Anne Sophie Mutter holds the violin and bow in her right hand - but only holds it by the scroll. If memory serves, maybe Milstein did that, too. That doesn't seem too secure to me.

October 2, 2015 at 10:05 PM · I stand corrected, but sometimes I will pick the violin up by the sides of the bridge, using the thumb and third finger, resting the palm on the tail piece. Picking the violin up like this eases up on the pressure of the strings on to the table.

Most of the times however I do pick it up by the neck reverently.

October 3, 2015 at 11:54 AM · Its such a questionable act, do you think he could have been baiting his students to ask why?

October 3, 2015 at 07:21 PM · Had I been a student of the Great H, I wouldn't have dared to bring something like that up to him. One of my wonderful former teachers is Glenn Dicterow, whose many teachers included Heifetz. Once while attending a master class of his (just as an audience member) I saw him do the same thing at one point. Glenn is much more approachable. Maybe if I see him again at another master class one day I'll ask him afterwards - if I have nothing more important to ask him or share with him.

But maybe I shouldn't have brought this up. Maybe it's going to start an odd trend - like the episode on Seinfeld where more and more people started eating Snickers candy bars with a knife and fork! ;-)

October 3, 2015 at 07:40 PM · And now we've come full circle back to snickers. Thanks everyone for your indulgence. Very enjoyable and I think that I am better able to tune now. Perhaps a final question on pegs. How often do you shift your E string peg, assuming you use a fine adjuster. Do you keep it as smoothly operating as the other 3 or allow it to be somewhat more solidly in place (sticky)?

I don't change strings often so, when I finally get the thumb piece of the peg in my preferred alignment, I only shift the E peg a jiggle for humidity change.

October 3, 2015 at 09:51 PM · I'm glad to have the E peg solidly in place and use the fine tuner. When it gets to the point that I need to raise the E pitch and the tuner is pretty tight with almost nowhere to go, I'll then loosen the tuner quite a bit, move the peg as necessary and make sure that I remain with a good amount of play in the fine tuner. The tuner should move easily yet be comfortably snug, especially in the lower wing nut - if that's the right term. If I play and hear a buzz, that spot heads the list of the usual suspects.

October 3, 2015 at 09:57 PM · Indeed a good question.

If a violin is not tuned from time to time, variation in humidity tends to make the E string peg fitting tightly or loosely.

In extreme situations this can cause a peg box crack. It hasn't happened to me, but I would think it's a possibility.

October 4, 2015 at 12:00 AM · Raphael - I understand what you mean about snugging the locking ring nut that holds the fine adjuster on the tailpiece and having the pitch adjustment screw well engaged and loaded so that neither buzzes. Good point. As is lubing the adjustment screw.

Kypros - I've never heard of a pegbox cracking due only to humidity but I would guess it would be possible in extreme circumstances. I have heard of pegs being very stuck and no adjustment left in fine tuners. Also thumb pieces breaking off. What is the term for that portion of the peg? Peg head? I imagine most of us have had pegs release by themselves. Happens to me during fall season when the humidity drops. Usually overnight before I reintroduce case humidifier.

October 4, 2015 at 07:19 AM · David,

If you want to protect the violin even further during humidity changes while in the case, wrap the violin in a silk scarf or put it in a silk bag.

I do this every time I put the violin away in its case for the night and the following morning it's even in tune. (I use gut covered strings). Silk is a great insulator.

October 4, 2015 at 10:44 AM · Yes I understand it is quite a barrier. I think I saw video of Messrs H and Z unwrapping the very like.

October 6, 2015 at 10:58 PM · Interesting topic. I am sorry I couldn't read all but here are my 2-+ cents:

Most things are already said, so I will try to add some ideas.

1. Know the pitch you are going to play in.

That means, if you are going to play with a piano at 445 hz, set your a to 445 BEFORE going on stage. Same for orchestra playing, know the A excactly and tune before. When everybody tunes u can just ensure and check. In amateur orchestras tuning is the worst part: noone tunes in advance and if then the a spreads all over from 438 hz to 446 hz and when the a is given by the concert master, everybody actually tries to tune and the symphony of tritoni and other intervals starts, noone can tune in that hell. So tune before and tune one by one if you arent 100 percent sure you are gonna make it in time on stage. There is nothing worse tham being the one with a stuck peg and the g string out of tune and a whole audience AND the orchestra is listening you fighting it. I have been there :D

2. I got that from Carl Flesch and its common knowledge, so maybe I am doubling here:

To prevent the g string from being too low due to the pythagorean comma (-like effect), compared to a tempered piano, tune the a a little sharp, or just in tune and the fifth a little narrow. Whats worst is tuning the a too low or the fifths AD and DG too big, the nuances end up adding and open strings sound totally wrong with a good tuned piano.

Btw. If someone has a band with some fixed tuned instruments, lika a Bandoneon or Accordeon, then you have to tell the concert promoter what A you need for the piano and the piano has to get tuned vefore the concert to the a of the other fixed instrument. (Given the venue cares about quality and invests in such things)

So thats about it. Actually I tend to care a lot about what actual pitch I play in and I know fairly exactly most A's in my city, where I use to play. I know some organums are on around 336, the pianos in the Conservatory can be around 445 or even 446. Most Orchestras are on 442, some on 443 and old people tend to use 440 :D

So if I make music somewhere I know in advance wich A I need and I dont have to tune much in rehearsal or concert, because I will have it already on my violin and ear in advance.

I could give more tips on tuning, but the question was about professional tips, I think its about it in that direction.

Generally, tune quietly and smart and take your time to tune in advance, so you can be faster on stage. Get your setup sharp and train your ears to different A's roughly from 335-446 hz. But keep an good A on your violin always if possible. I like 442.

October 7, 2015 at 11:32 AM · Here's a hoot. Last night I tuned my A to a chum's

who had used an electronic tuner. Remaining tuning by ear. Played one hour concert. Checked violin this morning. Low and behold the tuning elves have perfectly tuned my violin overnight. Wonder of wonders! Now if I could just get them working during playing.

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