Beginning to Tune

by Sarah Nagell

Your ears are your best resource in fiddle playing and, of course, in tuning. Developing the ears is essential to being a good fiddler. When you begin playing, whether it be at home, or for dancing, in a concert, or in a competition, the first thing that your listeners hear is always your tuning. It is your introduction, your icebreaker. However, the tuning is often the part of playing that makes us, as fiddlers, feel the most exposed and vulnerable.

One phrase I am ashamed to admit I’ve used many times is, "It’s close enough for folk music." Unfortunately, we often hear these words after a fiddler has tried unsuccessfully to tune his or her fiddle, and right before that fiddler begins to play on that same slightly out-of-tune instrument. With the Hardanger fiddle, however, impeccable tuning is mandatory in order to bring out the true sound of the instrument. "Close enough" doesn’t cut it in the Hardanger fiddle world. The tuning must be exact. Fortunately, this is possible to achieve. There are many methods that can aid us in the search for a beautifully tuned fiddle.

You can attune your ears to the Hardanger fiddle’s sound by listening to recordings of master fiddlers, especially if you don’t happen to have a master living in your area, which most of us don’t. Get your ears accustomed to the pure sound of the fiddle and then, when you are tuning your own instrument, ask yourself, "Do I sound like the recording?" and adjust accordingly.

Find videos of past HFAA workshops and watch the fiddlers tuning. Notice the ways in which they hold the fiddle while they tune. This can vary from on the knees, between the knees, sideways, lying on the lap, held against the chest or neck, and a variety of other positions. Each fiddler has a different method of turning the pegs and checking the strings. Usually these methods include the following steps:

1. Bowing the top strings two at a time with a strong and confident bow stroke, listening to the relationship between the tones and adjusting them with the large pegs at the top or fine tuners on the tailpiece, if available.

2. Plucking the understrings and tuning them perfectly.

3. Bowing the playing strings and checking to see that the understrings are ringing and adjusting the various pegs until this happens. This often includes the playing of a short melody called forspill in order to check that all understrings are ringing and that the playing strings are sounding properly.

Sometimes it is easier to hear if an instrument is out of tune when someone else is tuning or playing than when you are tuning it yourself. If this is the case for you, try looking in a mirror as you tune, closing your eyes in order to hear the sound, or even recording yourself tuning and listening back to what you did, noticing if certain intervals still sound incorrect.

The fiddle will adjust to being in a particular tuning. Make sure to tune your fiddle when you take it out of the case, several times through the course of your performance or practice session when necessary, and especially right before you put it in the case, allowing it to settle into that tuning overnight. In a few days to a few weeks, it will have adjusted to being properly in tune and will become much easier and quicker to adjust. However, taking your fiddle up and down into several different tunings in quick succession will make it unstable. This is why most experienced fiddlers who play in many types of tunings keep multiple fiddles – one for each type of tuning. To find more about the different tunings possible for the Hardanger fiddle, please see Karin Code’s chart of fiddle tunings at A Guide to Tunings on the Hardingfele.

Often, difficulties in tuning the fiddle may be structural problems with the fiddle itself. The pegs may be slippery and refusing to hold the string at proper tension. Or, conversely, the pegs may be too tight, causing them to stick in certain positions and not to turn smoothly to the desired pitches. The strings may be worn out or strung in such a way that by tuning one, another is pushed out of tune. If this is the case, get your fiddle to the nearest reputable Hardanger fiddle repairperson as quickly as you can. The easier your fiddle is to tune, the more you will want to play it, so make sure that it is working for you and not against you. If your fiddle is older, it may be time to check its pegs to make sure they are functioning to the best of their capabilities.

Fiddles do react to weather conditions, the wood swelling in humid weather and shrinking in dry weather. In high humidity, the tuning pegs may tend to seize up or stick, making them hard to turn. In cold, dry weather, however, the fiddle wood may shrink, causing all of the pegs to loosen and the strings to go slack. The best way to avoid these problems is keeping the fiddle in a room with controlled temperature and carrying it outside in a well-insulated case. If your fiddle is well made and set up properly, these weather conditions should present minimal problems.

If you are already a proficient musician on another stringed instrument, tuning should be fairly straightforward. If you are a new string player, however, having an electronic tuner in the beginning could be a handy tool to point you in the right direction. Be very careful about the electronic tuner you choose to buy when tuning the Hardanger fiddle. The best one that I have found is the Peterson “Strobo Flip” Virtual Strobe Tuner. Originally made for guitarists, it has a setting for violins allowing for perfect interval tuning rather than the slightly off equal tempered tuning that you will get with the cheaper electronic tuners. The Peterson tuner will tune to the 10th of a cent, while the cheaper tuners will tune to the cent. It is also programmable to adjust to a variety of pitches, allowing you to tune your fiddle perfectly no matter where your preferred A-string pitch happens to lie. Many Hardanger fiddlers tune the A-string up to B, C, C# or somewhere in between these pitches, and adjust the rest of the fiddle relative to that string. Tuners made especially for violinists can be OK, but often they assume that you’re going to want to tune your fiddle strings to G, D, A, and E. Since those exact pitches are rarely used on a Hardanger fiddle, using one of those cheaper tuners to tune your Hardanger fiddle to the standard tuning (B, E, B, and F#) could result in a slightly out of tune fiddle.

On page 158 of Sverre Sandvik’s book, Vi byggjer hardingfele (Tiden, 1983), there is a good illustration of the strings of the Hardanger fiddle and their corresponding pegs. In an article reprinted on the HFAA website, Dave Golber has made a lovely and easily accessible version of this picture with some good explanations for it. When wondering which pegs should go to which strings, please consult the "Strings and Tuning" section of Dave’s article. See: What You Should Know About the Hardanger Fiddle. So, never again should you need to make the joke, "it’s close enough for folk music," or say, "I can’t tune my instrument in this weather," or "It’s an old fiddle and won’t stay in tune." You can take control of these situations.

When tuning your Hardanger fiddle before you play, it is perfectly OK to spend a great deal of time making sure that your instrument is in tune; in fact, it is a necessity. Your audience would rather hear a long session of tuning and a beautiful tune afterwards than a short session of bad tuning followed by an out-of-tune piece that lasts for 3 to 5 minutes. The surest way to turn off an audience to the Hardanger fiddle is to play a long program on a poorly tuned instrument. So, when attempting to spread awareness of this beautiful instrument and its music, make sure that your presentation is, indeed, beautiful and it will be a much more pleasurable experience for all involved. Make it a game. Make it an art form. Make it a dance…