I had a completely different article written about digital tuners and my thoughts on them that was going to post today. Last weekend was a Moody family get-together, where we all (including my spry 93 year old grandmother) met at my Aunt’s house for food and merriment. Grandma was cleaning out the desk in her living room, found one of Grandpa’s old chromatic pitch pipes, and brought it to the get-together for me. I gladly took it, opened the box, and pulled it out and see if it still held a good pitch. It does; remarkably well too, given its age. And from there, my previous article fell apart.
The original article dealt with the inconsistencies of relying upon digital tuners, and using them as “the” definitive source when it came to tuning. Grandpa’s pitch pipe reminded me that my issue isn’t so much with the tuners, but with the musicians using them. The fact is that we seem to rely on tuners more heavily than we do our ears.
Back a number of years ago, these chromatic pitch pipes were the Cadillac of tuning. People would pull a note from one, tune their instrument or voice, and then play. And here’s the interesting part. If, during the performance, someone thought something sounded out of place, they’d adjust on the spot and fix the problem. They wouldn’t wait until the song was over to pull out the pipe and check it. They’d just adjust and keep moving.
Especially with a fixed pitch instrument like a piano, this was of critical importance. It’s an expensive endeavor to have a piano tuned; some places can have them tuned regularly, some can’t. Back in the day, musicians would pull a tuning note from the piano (whether a digital tuner said it was a solid 440 or not) and play, adjusting if/when necessary. Nowadays, you have musicians tune to their tuner when playing with a piano that may be just a bit sharp. And, instead of adjusting to the fixed pitch instrument, they claim that the piano is out of tune, pointing to their tuner as proof.
In that argument, the piano IS out of tune – TO YOUR TUNER. But, when you are the one capable of adapting to a fixed pitch instrument and you don’t, YOU become the one out of tune, not the other way around. It’s at this point that you need to realize the tuner is but a guide, and your ears are going to be the most accurate piece of tuning equipment that you have, allowing you to make changes and adapt much more quickly than turning a tuner on and figuring out what is wrong.
That’s what the pitch pipe reminded me. While digital tuners are fantastic for setting intonation and general tuning (as an endorsing artist for Peterson Tuners, you will always see me with a StroboClip on the headstock, or the StroboFlip attached to my music stand), they are still a reference point, no matter how accurate they are. Because once you start playing with someone, you need to rely upon your ears to be your definitive tuner to ensure that you’re in tune with the group, and not just the tuner.
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