In recent weeks, a number of folks have asked me to detail my orchestral tuning procedure. So, I will do my best here to describe and explain my routine for tuning a string orchestra. This is sometimes called cross-tuning, but I think I have some ideas that make my procedure particularly effective.
In this routine, students will develop listening skills and particularly listen across the classroom, establish and develop greater eye contact with the conductor, tune their instrument with a general "A," assess their tuning in relation to those around them, settle into the work of the day with a thoughtful tuning, work as part of an effective ensemble, and practice tuning their open strings to an open 5th. In the end, this is a tuning procedure, a warm-up routine, and an ensemble development exercise.
To begin, I think it is important that you know this will take a while the first time you do it. It will take less time each time that you put it into practice, and eventually, it will only take a few minutes at the beginning of class and set you up for much better ensemble intonation throughout all of your rehearsals.
I let students know that the only way it will work is if there is absolutely no talking and that everyone participate fully. Each individual must stay on track or it really will not work.
We begin with a general "A" and everyone tunes their instruments to the best of their ability. I don't usually do this for younger groups, but there is no harm in everyone giving it a try! When tuning to the general "A" encourage all to only tune at a dynamic of piano.
When everyone is satisfied that their instrument is in tune, sound another "A." Ask everyone to sound their A in unison, beginning at the tip of the bow. Allow that they can adjust that A if they need to. When they know that their A is in tune, have them make eye contact with the conductor. (About 1/2 of the musicians will need to make small changes to the A.) When you are satisfied that you have a truly unison A, ask the viola, celli, and bass to move to a "D." The violins continue sounding their A. The viola, celli, and bass will tune that D while listening to the violin unison A. When they are satisfied that they are in tune, they should make eye-contact with the conductor. When you are satisfied that the low D's are in tune, have the violins move to D while the violas, celli, and bass continue to sound their D. When you have eye contact from all violins, the violas, celli, and bass may move to the G. When they are satisfied that they are in tune, they should make eye-contact with the conductor. When you are satisfied that the low G's are in tune, have the violins move to G while the violas, celli, and bass continue to sound their G. Do the same for the viola and celli C string. Basses should stay on the G for this, along with the violins. When finished with the low C, have everyone stop playing for a second or two. Then, go back to a unison A. Invariably, some students will need to adjust. By now, they are really listening. Have the violins move to their E while listening to the viola, celli, and bass A. When I have eye contact from all violins, I have the viola, celli, and bass stop playing and we listening to the E in unison alone. That usually yields some more adjustment. When that E is in tune, I have the basses drop their open E or harmonic E in below the violins. At the end, there may be one or two that need to make a few more adjustments. That is certainly fine.
I think that there are several factors that lead to success with this exercise. 1. Everyone has to be on board. If even one students pulls away from the group, it won't be successful. 2. The eye contact piece is really important. It leads to much better visual communication between the conductor and ensemble throughout the rest of rehearsal. 3. Students need to understand that this is a refining exercise. I have found that my ensembles sound so much more in tune when we use this. If the open strings don't match, there is little likelihood that the fingered notes will sync up. 4. The procedure must be thoughtful. If student adopt that attitude and posture, it will work. 5. After the students understand what to do, it should be a non-verbal exercise. I simply nod to the sections when it is time to move to the next pitch and they know what to do. the less talking, the better! It is also great when a student leads the way!
I hope that this helps and it is something you can try in your own ensemble. Let me know how it works for you. it has been really effective for me!