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Is it a bad habit to use an electronic tuner while practicing an instrument in which the notes are not fixed after tuning (e.g. violin, trombone)?

I'm asking because I've heard a lot of people say that it's a bad idea because you are using visual feedback when instead you should be hearing whether you are in or out of tune. I understand that in the ideal case you would have a good ear and be able to tell whether you are "too high" or "too low" and adjust accordingly, but the reality is that a beginner usually doesn't have that developed ear and won't be able to tell. This results in the student practicing and learning a piece at home incorrectly without knowing all along that it was wrong. Wouldn't it be more harmful to get used to hearing the wrong notes while practicing?

During class the teacher is there to correct this and many other issues that he might notice as he watches the student play, but at home the student doesn't have any feedback as to whether he is practicing correctly or not.

What should be done in this case when the student just can't trust their ear because it's not developed enough? I'm sure there must be a better solution than a tuner since great instrumentalists have been playing "in tune" for centuries without these devices, but I can't help but think that some kind of feedback is useful.

What would you recommend if it was your student?

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I mean a device in which there is a needle, light, letters or some visual indication that tells you the pitch it hears and therefore you know if you are "too high" or "too low" for the pitch you are supposed to be playing/singing. –  Lilitu88 May 3 '11 at 23:56
@Matthew I'm baffled! What kind of tuner are you using with no visual feedback? Isn't that just a pitch pipe? –  NReilingh May 3 '11 at 23:59
OK, maybe I've been kept in a bubble all my life :P Yes, my tuners are essentially electronic pitch pipes. The one does have input for a patch cord, but that's not much use for a violin :P –  Matthew Read May 4 '11 at 0:02
Here you go... en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electronic_tuner –  Lilitu88 May 4 '11 at 0:05

3 Answers 3

I would recommend using a tuner for practicing, but not using the visual feedback. The way to develop better intonation without relying on the visual feedback is to set the toner on a drone tone, and use your ear to keep your pitches in tune relatively with that note.

You can experiment with using the tonic, third, and dominants as drone tones, for example, in whichever passage you're practicing.

The reason this works especially well for orchestral musicians (especially strings) is that it doesn't matter if you're "in tune". It only matters if you're in tune with everyone else, and the drone tone will keep you instinctively listening to others instead of only yourself.

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Short answer: use tuner with exercices and technical work, not with musical pieces.

I would differentiate broadly according to level and type of practice.

  • Beginner pupil versus more advanced

    To avoid the "visual cue hinders ear development" problem, a better intermediary solution for a beginner, is to have a piano and someone who can play with you, as a good approximation of being in tune. (Of course this piano has been recently tuned by a professional: please ask him to use the nominal diapason of your instrument or the one used by your teacher to tune your instrument or the one used by the orchestra you are in. He may advise against if your piano has been previously tuned to a higher diapason than the one you ask or if the gap is too large. If you have an electronic piano, learn how you can adapt the frequency, most of them can but the way to do it may be a little unintuitive). Play together, slowly, accept to start again if it doesn't sound well note by note. The first years, it can be used both for exercices and small pieces but after that, see below. You can come back to that when you encounter difficulties when changing of instrument size.

  • Scales and Etudes versus Piece learning and rehearsing

    • I really recommend using a tuner when practicing scales and intonation studies on the violin, viola, cello. Use a chromatic tuner, with very clear visual cues. When there are chords, routinely check the different notes of the chords individually: this is an important part of studies practice anyway to group notes into chords and separate chords into intervals as well as local order of notes. The tuner I use has a angular line meter display and little red and green lights. It has also a +/-20 cent mark which is really useful for chords and accidentals. I place it in the same direction and height than my sheetmusic, away from the direction of sight of my instrument, to fight against the reflex of looking at my fingers, strings or bow. I always try to learn the scale's or the study's notes and fingering before practicing with a tuner. But I keep the sheet music in front of me very often. It helps with having good habits of sight-reading.

    • I do not recommend using a tuner at all during learning or rehearsing a piece, only when working a specific passage (for instance position change) or to pacify group practice.

  • Combining this with "tuning practice".

    When I started learning the viola, my teacher started each session by tuning my instrument together with me and checking his, by ear. He helped me progressively develop the right bow moves to ease the tuning, several methods to tune, an awareness of beats and various levels of tuning correctness, explanation of tuning choices depending on context (orchestra, solo, chamber music, jazz, folk, contemporary pieces), how to cross-tune with someone. One of the best advices he gave me was to always first try to tune by ear when practicing at home, check it, try again, then check and analyze calmly what I had come with while adjusting with the electronic tuner before practice.

  • When playing in small groups, be candid and hear each other playing slow scales, without then with a tuner, then play slow scales together, two by two, at the start of each session as a quiet warming up. Discuss this as a matter of fact and as a way to know each other and build a common sound, not as a competition of "Who is the most in tune, who has the best ear, who has the better technique, who will lead and call all the bowings?".

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I would absolutely recommend it.

I can say from personal experience (on trombone, close enough) that I developed some very subtle bad habits from not practicing with a tuner for a very long time. It was a minute enough of a detail that most of my teachers just didn't notice, until one teacher pulled out his tuner to check his own ear--something just didn't sound quite right to him. Sure enough, my tuning was the slightest bit sharp on quite a few notes. I had gotten so used to it that they were the "right" notes according to my ear.

I would rather (both for me or for a student) develop good habits without being able to hear them at first than develop bad habits and have to fix them later. In my case, my ear was developed enough that once I started paying attention I was able to start correcting myself. For a student, I would encourage them to decide for themselves if they were playing in tune or not with their own ear, and then check themselves with the tuner.

I really dig the Korg AW-2 clip-on tuner for most brass instruments, and if you put that onto the scroll of a violin, you would get the benefit of it being out of the way until the student wanted to check their ear (many people think the brain will process the visual cue even if your eyes are not focused directly on it).

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