Is That My “A” You’ve Got?

I’ve been given thousands of “A’s” in my career as a professional cellist. I’ve gotten them from oboists, pianists, violinists, electronic machines and assorted other sources, and as I have responded to these many “A’s” and listened to others respond, I have come to realize that the “A” that is given is not necessarily, or even often, the one that is taken!

As a chamber musician, private cello teacher and competition judge, I do what I can, in written and oral comments, to raise the awareness amongst young musicians and colleagues of the importance of truly taking the “A” being given.

It is all too common, for example, to ask for an “A” from the piano, to start tuning after giving brief attention to whether there is some similarity between the two “A’s,” and then to proceed on to tuning the other strings (another subject in itself). Another frequent occurrence in a chamber group is for the pianist to give the “A” and for everyone to then tune at once! Imagine the result!

One extremely uninformed approach was exemplified by a student performance of a piano quartet: The pianist gave the “A,” which was taken by the cellist, who tuned not his open “A,” but his harmonics only. He then passed on to each subsequent string player his partial “A” harmonic. I gathered that he chose to do this, thinking that this harmonic was closer in range to the violins’ and viola’s open “A.” But the cellist failed to take into account the fact that harmonics are always more or less flat to the real pitch of the strings. The result was that the entire group was clearly flat to the piano for the entire performance, with the cello being flat to the piano, and the remaining instruments flat to the cello.

It has become more and more prevalent in recent years for musicians such as Ann-Sophie Mutter, the Julliard and Vermeer Quartets, and many others, to tune off-stage just before a performance. This provides necessary quiet, plenty of time, and the privacy to focus completely on the task. Also, many groups that I have observed and performed with will tune off-stage and again on stage to check that we are still, in fact, matched with the piano.

So, here you are, beginning a rehearsal with your pianist. You ask for an “A.” After giving it, the pianist usually retreats into his or her own thoughts, not paying any mind to whether or not you have actually tuned to his “A.” Had he listened, he would more likely than not have heard that you were flat! The reason is that the overtones of one note are just not complex enough to communicate a high enough pitch with one note played a single time. However it is far more likely that the “A” will be heard, and tuned to more accurately, if a chord is played by the piano, all notes struck at once. As matter of fact, for the same reason that a d minor or D major chord with the “A” on top is more likely to be heard and tuned to more accurately than a single note, a more complex chord, a G9 for example, will result in an even better matching to the piano’s “A” on the part of any string player. The G9 chord is particularly useful as it provides “harmonic neutrality” in the tuning process. As an example consider that tuning your “A” to an F major chord in the piano is likely to produce a flat result from the “A” as the third of the chord. The G9 chord however carries no such implication for the “A” as the 7th measured against the moderating influence of the 9th.

The involvement of the pianist in this process is, I feel, crucial to the best possible result: two pairs of ears are better than one. If you as pianist hear that your colleague has not taken or heard your “A” or your chord, do give it again. Continue to give it until you think the “A’s” are as well matched as they can be.

Moving on to tuning within a larger chamber group, we will designate the string player taking the “A” from the piano to be the cellist in the group, as again it is more likely that violinists and violists will hear accurately the open “A” of the cello than vice versa. (Lower strings will again tune flat to the open “A” of the violin for the same reasons as stated above—the complexity of the overtones.) I say the open “A” because as we know, the first partial harmonic is flatter than the open string and you would be handing out a flat “A” to the remainder of your group. I am not saying that once you have your “A” string tuned you cannot tune the rest of your own strings to your “A” string using harmonics. In fact you can, and it is a very good and reliable way to do so. Again, you as cellist will assume the role the pianist took in the earlier example, listening intently to the “A” your colleagues take, and you will not cease playing your “A” until you hear that the two match to your satisfaction, and so on down the line of all additional musicians in your group.

The increased likelihood of much improved intonation within your rehearsals and performances following the above process will be so rewarding as to be worth the additional time involved in taking care to begin on an equal “playing” field.

About Barbara Haffner

Barbara Haffner is Associate Principal Cellist of the Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra, and a founding and current member of the Rembrandt Chamber Players.
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