This seems like the most complex aspect of beginning the cello but it’s really quite easy once you know what to do!
First things first: purchase a digital tuner. Learning to tune ‘by ear’ takes many, many years of practice and still requires a reference pitch to tune to initially. A digital tuner will make your life easier and take a lot of the guess work out of tuning the instrument. At the end, I have a list of recommended tuners.
There are a few things you need to know first about the cello before learning how to tune it.
The four strings on the cello from highest to lowest are: A, D, G & C. This is helpful information so you know what to tune the strings to when using the tuner!
ONLY use the fine tuners located on the tailpiece. The instrument should not go dramatically out of tune in between lessons and you will only need to make minor changes to the strings. Please do not try to use the pegs. Without knowing how to properly turn the pegs, the end result is usually a broken string and an unusable cello! Please avoid turning the pegs if the string is wildly out of tune unless you’ve been shown how to correctly.
No need to worry about holding the bow correctly. I often just hold the bow in a fist in my hand. The most important aspect is quality of sound - you want a solid, sustained tone that is free from any distortion or scratching. The tuner likes this sound and you will get the most accurate reading on the tuner with this good tone.
Play the A string first with a long, sustained bow. Use the whole length of the bow and back and forth, if needed. After the tuner registers the pitch, you’re ready to adjust the string based on what the tuner tells you. Every tuner is slightly different: on my tuner, if the note is too high, the screen lights up on the upper portion of my phone. The opposite is true if it’s too low. If the string is perfectly in tune, I get a green smiley face. :) Some tuners have a sharp (#) or flat (b) sign to indicate if the pitch is too high or low. The sharp sign means too high, the flat sign means too low. Typically, when the note is in tune, the tuner will light up green no matter which you choose to go wtih. Then you are good to go! On to the next string!
Now your question is, which way do I turn the fine tuner when the string is registering out of tune? Here’s how I think about it: to make the string higher (if the pitch is too low), move the fine tuner towards the higher string. There is no string higher than the A string, but imagine there is one. That’s the direction you will turn the fine tuner. The opposite is true if the string is too high and you need to make the pitch lower: turn the tuner in the direction of the lower strings.
For example, if the tuner says the A string is too low (flat), turn the A string fine tuner towards the D string until the string registers as in tune on the digital tuner.
We always tune from the highest string, the A string, to the lowest, the C string. After tuning the A string, repeat the same process on the other three strings.
Tuner Apps - your smartphone is probably the best resource for a tuner app. I use Tonal Energy Tuner (http://tonalenergy.com/products/te-tuner/) which is priced at $3.99 on the Apple App Store. There are many different types of digital tuning apps and you may need to try a number of them before finding one that you are comfortable with. I like the Tonal Energy Tuning app because it has many different functions outside of being solely a digital tuner. Unfortunately, it is only available for Apple products. However, there are many tuning apps for both the iPhone and Android phones and most are free! Plus they won’t be quite as complicated as the Tonal Energy Tuner. If you find one and want guidance on how to use it to tune your child’s instrument, let me know and I can guide you through it at the beginning of a lesson.
Tonal Energy Tuner
Easy Cello - Cello Tuner