Out of tune players

Frontpage Forums Orchestra Out of tune players

Viewing 12 posts - 1 through 12 (of 12 total)
  • Author
  • #6749

    Students playing out of tune was a popular thread on the old orchestra forum. I’ll post some of the suggestions here.

    Let’s keep the conversation going.

    The original thread on the old forums can be found at

    Linda Brown
    NAfME Staff


    jaimecello opened the conversation:

    I teach 4th-12th grade strings in my district. I am a cellist who plays professionally, so intonation is a BIG deal to me. Yet, my high school students are TERRIBLY out of tune. They are executing the correct notes, however everything is extremely pitchy. Many of the students have not had a lot of formal ear training.

    Any suggestions on how to build a string players ear? If I hear again “I’m on the tape”– I’ll loose it! Just because the student is executing a 3rd finger “D” for example, depending on finger placement it can be off. Suggestions?


    Gabriel Villasurda, an orchestra mentor, weighed in:

    Begin at once to teach them scales– one octave to begin and arpeggios. Then 2 octaves, etc. Chord along on a well-tuned keyboard so they have something to “tune into”.

    Get rid of the tapes. If you can’t go cold turkey, remove them one at a time over a period of time. Tapes are useless except for rank beginners. No intermediate or advanced player has time to look at fingers; there are too many other things to do with your eyes: read notes, follow the conductor, etc.

    Teach them to hear octaves then ask them to stop on every note which is an open string note (regardless of octave) and compare the fingered note to the open string.

    Teach them to hear sympathetic vibration. When there is no time to go through a genuine octave check, players have to expect the resonance of the sympathetic ring within their instruments.

    Teach them to hear intervals. Once octaves are right, move to 5ths, 4ths, then 3rds (which will very by key). Teach them about just intonation. There is a mathematical relationship between musical intervals. Google this is if you don’t know about this.

    You might check my website (see below) where I have taken familiar tunes and presented each in at least three different keys. There is a midi accompaniment for each version. Everything is FREE and not on copyright. If they can play a tune in D major, then ask them to play it in a different key.

    No secret. Just MAKE THEM LISTEN, EXPECT THEM TO LISTEN. Make listening part and parcel of everything they do on their instrument.

    Gabe Villasurda


    KStarrWU added

    There are tons of exercises you can do for ear training. I teach beginning students in 6th-8th grade. I tell mine that they should always trust their ears over their eyes. If their finger is on the tape, but the note sounds wrong, IT’S WRONG! I make it clear that the tapes are just a guideline, and try to transition them away from tapes when they get ready to leave me for HS. I usually start kids out with silver tape and then when those start to come off after about a year, I ask if they want more (some don’t). If they do, I have black tape that is less obvious. It is most important for them to know to rely on the sound instead of the sight! They also need to be able to hear the beats in the sound, which is easy to demonstrate.

    My students enjoy the “snake” game – I get one person on one side of the room in tune, then the person beside them plays the same note, adjusting intonation until it sounds like one player. The first player then drops out, leaving player #2 by themselves. The next person joins #2, and the whole process starts over, and it “snakes” around the room. Just make sure they don’t move their finger after they place it correctly!


    merimom suggested another game:

    Another intonation (and shifting prep) game I like to play with my 6th graders is “radar”.

    First they have to know how to “squeal” up the string, in proper form (ie. thumb staying with fingers, etc.)

    Then, I will play a note on the A string with my first finger, anywhere along the string.
    (I generally will stay somewhere in the neighborhood of I, II, III position so that the issue of thumb placement in higher positions doesn’t arise.)

    The class job is to use their first finger and “lock in their radar” on the same note as quickly as possible, by sliding on the string until their sound matches mine.


    Some suggestions from vclorch:

    Great conversation!

    I’m SURE low pitch standards run rampant across many school orchestras. I’d be lying if my orchestras were playing perfectly in tune… that said, I think I have a few suggestions. And by the way, THANK YOU for radar and the snake. Fantastic. I’m also a cellist, and teach grades 4-8 strings, just outside of NYC.

    1) The truth hurts: Try recording your students in ensemble or small groups. I recently purchased a Blue Snowball, a USB mic, to plug into my laptop. I recorded a few rehearsals and played them back for students. Though a recorded sound is obviously much different from the live sound, pitch inconsistencies were very noticeable. They have a chance to hear themselves clearly. Since pitch is hard to work on, several students just say “it’s not THAT bad.” This method says “think again!”

    2) Introduce ringing tones and sympathetic vibration. This is a great way to move beyond and the tape and develop the ear. The visual cue for intonation is also the vibrating open string. I tell my students that tapes are training wheels.

    3) Finger patterns are excellent. Pitck up a copy of Daily Warm-Ups for String Orchestra by Michael Allen for some good basic exercises. I do these in middle school but there are some advanced exercises for high school. Transpose them.

    4) Harmonized scales. Cannot be overstated. Great for tone and pitch. Obviously they are closely related.

    5) Tuning cd/drones. ASTA has a tuning CD out for cellists, but I think you can incorporate droning into the orchestral setting. Maybe isolate a section (violas for example) and divide inside outside so one player is the drone and the next is the scale. They can hear the intervals against the drone pitch, especially the “cool” sounds of the P4, P5, and octave.

    Lastly, and I’m sorry for writing so much, show them videos and play recordings for the students. I do this ALL the time, so they know how much nuance and skill are needed. We also watch YouTube videos of other orchestras and comment on their playing in class — discussing both the good elements and those that need to be improved. Developing a critical ear, but also one that appreciates the challenges of playing well, will do more than just develop good pitch.

    Keep this conversation going. I’m always looking for new suggestions myself. Feel free to get in touch with me to chat more!



    Intonation seems to be one of the most challenging elements to teach in music. I am currently a music education major, so I have not put this to practice but most of the suggestions thus far are great! I like the snake/radar game, but I think I would also adapt it and have individual students try it down the line. One student could play a note while another student matched it. Then the student who just matched the note would play a random note for the next student, and it would go on down the line! I imagine students, as long as they do not get crazy, would greatly enjoy this exercise. This would be a great way to assess your students individually.

    I also like the mention of using piano chords. I think it is important the the teacher have a keyboard or drone of some kind that the students can learn to lock on too. It only takes one out-of-tune kid to throw of the majority of kids around him or her, so the piano will help be a guide that can be heard throughout the ensemble.

    With intonation, I think going back to the basics would be extremely beneficial. By removing difficult fingerings, bowings, and dynamics. teachers can focus on good bow stroke and intonation. Encourage the students to listen and record their efforts, so they can hear themselves. If it is not good, do not tell them that it’s good! While observing orchestras in the area, I often hear teachers saying “good” to the intonation when it had gotten no better!

    And lastly, I think good left hand position and technique is HUGE in finding and hitting the right pitches. For example, if the left hand thumb is constantly moving up/down/sideways, it is going to become even more difficult to have consistency in finger patterns and notes.

    I hope this helps,



    All of these ideas are great suggestions. The snake game sounds like a great exercise and a fun one for the kids. Also the drone idea that kengerer outlined is absolutely vital in my opinion.

    The best advice I got when I was learning about better intonation is to get rid of the strobe tuner as soon as possible. For a young ensemble, a tuner can be very useful for trouble shooting some notes, but should not be used for every single problem note, and should be abandoned as soon as the students start to develop a better ear. I think to develop a better ear, they should play scales over a drone, both major and natural minor scales. Also, playing scales in a round by section can help a lot, as they will work and listen to each other as a group to get the right pitch. This will also make them more comfortable with each other and teach them to listen across the ensemble.

    These exercises will help their ears immensely, but you of course teach proper hand shapes and techniques to build consistency with their tuning, while stressing that even though their fingers may be close, they need to roll their fingers slightly to get in tune with the rest of the group.

    Ryan Critchfield
    Kent State University Student, Music Education


    I filled in for a well-developed fourth and fifth grade strings program yesterday. In their small groups, I had the children finger the notes of the scale while singing the letters, then play. This worked very nicely. My problem was having enough time to tune the cellos for the full-grade rehearsal. I could not ask all the children to be silent for the 10-15 minutes it took to tune all the instruments. I managed to get the violas and violins in reasonable tune, but the cello pegs kept slipping, and forget about the bass! This made for a lopsided rehearsal, where the upper strings sounded relatively good, but the lower strings were just awful. I told the children that the intonation issue was my fault, since I couldn’t spend enough time on tuning. How do strings teachers have time for tuning these low instruments? There were more than 30 children present.


    When classrooms have that many younger students it can definitely be a challenge to get them all to sit still when tuning!! Especially with the winter weather up north where I am, there is just no hope for those cellos to stay in tune from one rehearsal to the next. However, it’s imperative that students play on instruments that are in tune so that they being to build those aural skills with pitch matching and adjusting to the ensemble. It might take a little extra time and a little extra patience, but try tuning by having all students play at once. Students should be seated in their rehearsal seats, and you will indicate to them which string to play (I tend to hold up fingers – 1 for A, 2 for D, etc). All students play, for example A, and you walk around the classroom and fine tune as necessary. This way students get practice with using the bow, back and forth, practicing hitting only one string at a time. In the case of a severely out of tune instrument (it always is the cellos, isn’t it?), go to those students first. Once the A string is in tune, move to D, and repeat the process. You can choose to do E and C separately or together. With this method, no student is sitting idly, and you can have them practice blending their sound into the sound of the ensemble. Also, this gives you a chance to adjust posture, instrument position, and bow hair tightness right at the beginning of the rehearsal.
    For those instruments whose pegs never seem to stay put, try investing in some “peg dope” or “peg compound.” This stuff works wonders in getting the pegs to stick (and also to turn! How strange science is!)!


    I agree with gruberl108- younger students (and, sometimes, also older students) tend to get impatient while tuning, because it takes so long. But without instruments in tune from the beginning, the students won’t be able to play in tune for the rest of rehearsal. Though students can begin with tape fingerings and tuners for every string, try to wean students off of these crutches by middle school.

    Firstly, high school students need to be able to tune their instruments once their “A” string is in tune. If they can’t accomplish this, then asking them to play fingered pitches in tune on their instruments will be quite difficult. Once students are able to tune their strings, this indicates that they have learned how to tune perfect fourth and fifth intervals (depending on which string instrument). Use a string instrument to demonstrate how to tune other intervals, such as octaves using open strings, find where false harmonics are for fourth fingers, find harmonics for higher positions, etc. Encourage students to practice with a piano, keyboard, or a drone from a tuner. Always warm up with something that the students don’t have to read- if students are playing scales, for instance, even with difficult rhythms, their eyes will have less to take in than if they had music in front of them.

    Best of luck! Keeping strings in tune during rehearsals, especially in winter months, is quite a challenge.


    As a flute player who has yet to take any string methods courses, the only experience I have with strings is playing in Kent State’s orchestra the past two years. I absolutely love the idea of the snake and radar game! I know some beginning string programs like to use a loud tuner drone to start class. While this pitch is loud and can cut through to the entire ensemble, I find these to be unrealistic pitches to tune to. Instead, I would try to play a chord on the piano, or just a simple note on a string instrument. This allows the students to tune to a correct pitch with the correct timbre. It’s important for students to play in tune, but also to be able to blend their sound.

    I would also recommend playing a pitch you want your students to tune to, and prior to having them tune their instruments, they should sing or hum the pitch. This allows them to internalize and feel what exactly their instrument should sound like. With advanced students/ensembles, you could have section leaders, or really any single person in a section play a pitch. You could have the students inform you if the student playing is in tune, sharp, or flat. If the student is in tune, have the class sing the pitch prior to tuning. If the student playing was out of tune, help them become in tune either with a different student’s assistance, or with your own. From here, the class may sing the pitch and tune their instruments. I think it is important for this exercise to be done with all of the different sections. This allows students to adjust to hearing different timbres and octaves.

Viewing 12 posts - 1 through 12 (of 12 total)
  • The forum ‘Orchestra’ is closed to new topics and replies.