Hints for Tuning

The old cello reclines lazily on its side, awaiting the day when its new owner walks in unawares.  I’ve seen it a hundred times; The unsuspecting victim of love at first sight pushes through the door, the muttered “Just looking,” merely a prelude to the purchase of the instrument they can’t resist.  I thought maybe the battered old veteran of who knows how many practice sessions had found its newest admirer the other day, when the young man sighted it across the room.  He asked to take it down and quickly noted that it needed to be tuned.  The Lovely Lady, not comfortable with tuning some instruments, found a listing of the correct pitches for him and he attempted a tuning.

From the back room, I heard the strings being stretched upward and, knowing the young man to be a competent musician, didn’t move to the sales floor to interfere in the process.  After a few moments of struggling with the tuning pegs, with dubious success, he half-halfheartedly drew the bow across the strings, to be met with a cacophony of improperly tuned intervals.  The poor cello was reluctantly returned to its former resting place and he left, after making the terse announcement that it wouldn’t stay in tune and the strings needed to be replaced. 

I thought about that this afternoon as another young man who helps out in the store asked me an insightful question regarding violins.  I’ll tell you more about Andrew some day, but for now, it should be enough for you to know that more than anything else, Andrew wants to know about and work with musical instruments.  In working in the store and other experiences he’s had, Andrew already knows that the instruments in the string family (violins, violas, and cellos) require a special technique when setting the tuning.  The tuning pegs are simply round, graduated pieces of ebony which require not only the easily recognizable twisting motion to tighten them, but also a pushing motion to set them in place when the pitch is achieved.  Other instruments with strings only require the twisting motion and then they stay relatively well in tune without further positioning.  The pushing to set the peg is not required at all.  This is actually the reason that the young man who attempted to tune the cello was unsuccessful.  He turned the pegs, but didn’t know to set them by pushing on them, so the strings just slipped back down when released, leaving a noisy, useless instrument.

In light of all this, Andrew didn’t need to know how to tune the violin.  He only wanted to know why!  Why don’t they change the tuning method for the violin?  We discussed that the instrument’s tuning mechanism has remained largely unchanged (and unimproved) for the last four centuries.  When you really consider it, the method for tuning these instruments is the same as any of their primitive predecessors going back for many more centuries.  Over the last two hundred years, there have actually been many new methods for tuning developed and attempts made to modernize and improve the instruments, but the answer to Andrew’s question is very simple.  The people who play the instrument refuse to change.  They prefer to struggle with a primitive system, because it’s the tradition.  Oh, they have arguments.  These include weight differences, a protest made invalid by modern materials such as graphite and fiberglass, and loss of tonal quality, a minuscule, nearly imperceptible change which can be discerned by only a tiny percentage of those professionals who play the instrument hours upon hours daily.

The reason that millions of violins, violas, and cellos have been made with these primitive, ineffective wooden pegs, instead of moving into the modern age of efficiency and ease in tuning, boils down to this:  “We’ve never done it that way before!”  Untold thousands of prospective players have given up in frustration because nobody wants to change the way it’s always been!  Closer to home, I lost a sale the other day because of it!

When you get right down to it, all of life is this way.  We have to stay on our guard constantly to avoid just this type of thinking.  Our nature is to continue on, doing the same thing over and over as long as it gets the job done.  I’m not really disturbed over the problem with violins, but it does give a pretty accurate picture of human nature.  Until someone comes along and says, “I’m not doing it this way anymore.  This is stupid!” we just plod along, making do.  For most of my life, I’ve done this, never thinking, “There’s got to be a better way!”  As I get older, I’m finding myself more and more being reminded to look for alternatives and ways to be creative.  That said, it still goes against my nature.

And, even today, the old cello sits there, a not-so-mute witness to the stubbornness of generations of musicians, but a brilliant reminder of our need to innovate and grow.  It may take another four centuries to change the tuning peg, but I’m thinking some other changes had better come sooner than that.

“Innovation is the ability to see change as an opportunity–Not a threat.”


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