Orchestral Etiquette and the Professional Environment: Tuning

Mike Lawson • String Section • October 7, 2016

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Tuning a violin/viola/cello/bass — is difficult! Most beginners have fine tuners to help them as they learn the art of tuning their strings. As one advances, usually the upper strings do away with fine tuners with the exception of the top string and you have to learn to deal with problems that arise that make tuning with the pegs frustrating, to say the least. There are instances where I find myself grumbling and in general complaining to my instrument as it does not respond as I need it to. To follow protocol for professional experiences is to assume that the musician has control over their instrument.

Tuning: How an Orchestra Tunes:

You definitely want to have your instrument in approximate tuned condition before taking your seat for rehearsal or concert. Use a personal tuner. Depending on personal preference or perhaps the decade in which one was born… one might use anything from pitch pipes and tuning forks to cell phone “apps”. In noisy environments with many players creating pitches, it is a good idea to use either a tuner that clips on to the instrument or a standard “Korg” unit which one would gently contact to the body of the instrument while playing the open string in question. The electrical tuners work on vibrational input to determine exact pitch. If possible, step out into a quieter place from which you can get accurate tuning accomplished.

Apps can be useful in the quiet of one’s personal rehearsal space (tuning equipment will be elaborated upon later in the article). However, they tend to be difficult to use when there are other sounds competing for attention.

In all instances, be aware that it doesn’t take much jostling for a tuner’s calibration button to be pushed, which changes the fundamental of A-440. Be sure to always make sure that you are not tuning to an A-442 or otherwise inaccurate tonal center.

A full symphony orchestra typically takes 3 individual “A”s

1. brass

2. woodwinds

3. strings

Sometimes, (most often in a strings-only ensemble), the strings will be divided; tuning the lower strings and then upper strings separately.

In nearly all orchestral situations, the concertmaster walks onto the stage as the audience quiets down before the conductor takes the stage. She/he will bow courteously to the audience, then turn to face the orchestra to give the tuning indication(s). The concertmaster communicates by holding up two (indicating one A for the winds and brass, and one A for the strings) or three fingers. In some cases, such as: tuning midway through the concert, before or after a piece, more musicians joining the ensemble, the conductor or his/ her assistant indicates to the concertmaster from backstage that a tuning note needs to be given, if there were obvious intonation issues occurring etc. … the concertmaster will stand and hold up one finger to indicate a single “A” tuning check.

The pitch for symphonic tuning is provided by the principle oboist, who consults their own tuner. All musicians should take note that it takes a beat or two for this pitch to settle into a clear and precise tone. In the situation of a performance piece using an instrument with fixed tuning (such as a piano concerto or harpsichord), the concertmaster will get the “A” from that instrument instead of from the oboist.

Behavioral Aspects of Orchestral Tuning for String Players:

I have found that symphonic ensembles employing musicians who display the most educated and disciplined musicianship tend to set precedents of overall professionalism in which the younger or inexperienced musicians may take cues from. The astute musician will hopefully not need verbal interaction, but can imitate what they observe around them. That is, in its own right, a fantastic reason to not allow the overall standards to become haphazard in any performing group; it results in confusing signals of what is expected. The behaviors I have seen popping up in paid ensembles seem to be coming from a genuine lack of awareness as opposed to an intentional lack of form. A possible cause is a lack of attention given to addressing and emphasizing the importance of the expectations and standards in a professional ensemble. Our orchestras (semi-pro or otherwise) are undermined not only by a badly executed tuning process, but from disregarded orchestral etiquettes. Some regions are happy to have any string players at all, so if a violinist comes into the area, they are treated with “kid gloves”, or given such attention that the (necessary) rigid ways in which an orchestra is run does not get enforced — or reinforced as a priority. This does the students no favors if they have ambitions of taking their playing to higher levels.

We need to give students more emphasis and awareness of the expected standards (tuning etiquette being one of them). Let us allow them a better chance when it comes time to present themselves professionally.

Our local symphonies will benefit as new faces bring higher levels of professionalism with them. When everyone is playing at a high level both musically and technically to create stylistic sensitivity, there is no comparison to give that can express such complete joy and musical energy.

Tuning Etiquette: Getting Specific:

For now, I’d like to move on to what NOT to do during the very public and visible tuning an orchestra does on stage (whether a rehearsal or concert, the etiquette is the same). In professional orchestras, the rehearsals are just as strict as the performances in terms of how one conducts themselves from beginning to end.

Plucking one’s string(s) while another section is tuning is not only distracting and rude, but it is unnecessary. There may be a few exceptions to this rule if your instrument has a peg that has popped or lost all tension and you need a reference point in which to get it closer to the accurate pitch. It would be best to quietly ask your neighbor if they can pluck their open string once and internalize the pitch so you can gently check the pitch as you tune it up. Use the fleshy part of your finger for this and put your ear as close as you can to the instrument. In any case, try to be subtle about it!

Strings tune last. When it is our turn to tune, wait (at least) five seconds while the concertmaster’s “A” settles. Some wait a bit longer, until the concertmaster sits down before checking the tuning their instrument. Either way, allow some time before beginning your own tuning. Your leader needs to be sure their strings are checked and they need to be able to hear themselves while doing so.

When it does become your turn to do your own string checking and adjusting, it is something best done quietly and with a non-aggressive bow stroke. I cannot stress enough the importance of gently bowing and softly tuning. If everyone is tuning with power strokes and at their loudest volume, not only does it make for a cacophony of sound in which no one can accurately hear their own instrument, but it is a faulty way of tuning your strings. Hard pressure on a string actually stretches it and moves the pitch. You want to use (in general) moderation in order to acutely hear your string respond. Some tune with the tip of the bow and some use more of a “flautando” stroke (flautando means a “floating bow”, roughly translated).


Tuning forks are probably the least used, though they can be effective and quite cool. They are a specific pitch (typically an “A” or a “C”. They work via authentic vibrations. Simply bang the metal fork on your knee and then either touch it to the top or your instrument, touch it to the bone by your ear (bone conducts the vibration well), or attach it to the bridge, which makes your instrument ring beautifully and frees up your hands to tune the instrument.

Pitch pipes are not as common, but they are so very convenient and useful. You simply blow into the pipe corresponding with the open string being tuned.

I indicated that I would return to the issue of using “apps” for tuning, and so I will briefly give my findings regarding one for each major platform that held up best to testing. I put each of the various phones on the stand along with a standard Korg tuner and watched for accuracy. I want to stress that using phone apps to tune is not ideal. They pick up so much external noise, are interrupted by incoming messages and advertisements, and most students are easily distracted by a phone. However, if one must use a phone app, the free ones I recommend are:

Both of these apps have both the function of feedback tuning and that of providing a specified pitch in which to match. It is helpful if the student can hum the pitch and tune to match their own voice simultaneously with the drone of the device.

Of course, using a keyboard of any kind is just as useful, if not more so than a phone app. If you draw a simple keyboard on a piece of paper or show a student where on the piano their violin/viola/ cello/bass pitches are to be found and they memorize or write it down in a way that they can remember which keys to use, that is just as valid.

Jennifer began studying violin at age three with her father in Alberta, Canada. After receiving a B.M. in violin performance and a M.A. from Middle Tennessee State University, she returned to university to properly study the viola. Currently, Jennifer performs with the Jackson Symphony Orchestra, the Murfreesboro Symphony, the Nashville Philharmonic Orchestra, the Parthenon Chamber Orchestra, Wire Cabal, and with her quartet the Tulsianni Ensemble.


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