Tuning Day

Today is tuning day. About once a week I tune my dulcimer; lately that’s been Thursdays because The Hanshaw Trio is recording on Thursday evenings.

Tuning is my least favorite thing about the hammered dulcimer. That’s putting it mildly. My screensaver says “Tuning is evil.” I’ve called it my nemesis. It’s sometimes had me in tears, and once almost ready to quit dulcimer altogether. It’s been a while since I’ve felt that bad about it, and in fact lately I’ve been feeling, if not enthusiastic, at least less frustrated.

A little background on what it’s like to tune a dulcimer. Mine has ninety strings, all of which are tuned by turning little squared off pins with a T-shaped, star-bit wrench. Thirty-eight of these strings are on the treble bridge, which is the only bridge that divides the strings into two playable notes. So for these thirty-eight strings, I have to pay attention to both sides, making sure both notes are in tune.

Most dulcimer players can tune in twenty minutes, maybe forty, rarely an hour. I, on the other hand, have a history of tuning times averaging two hours, sometimes taking as much as twice as long. Now the first thing to remember is that I take a lot of time to do everything, and another thing is that I’m a hypersensitive perfectionist. These two things probably explain my longer tuning times. I’ll also note that it’s worse when I’m recording, because I’m even more perfectionistic and sensitive about something as permanent as a recording than I am about live performances.

Here are some of the issues that hinder tuning quickly:

Wrench / tuning pin issues: Sometimes the wrench seems to be turning the pin, but when you let go the note slips back to where it was. Sometimes the pin is really stiff and difficult to turn; then you might finally get it to move and it goes too far. Other pins are a bit loose and turn too far even when you’re very careful. These issues just have to be endured.

String issues: Each of my strings is doubled; that is, it starts at one tuning pin, goes across the dulcimer, around a hitch pin, and back across to a second tuning pin. Sometimes tuning one half of the string affects the other half a little; it helps to go back and forth between them. The treble strings sometimes have trouble because of tension and friction. One side may be in tune, and if the string sticks a little on the main bridge or the side saddles, the other side may not be in tune. Lifting the strings gently off the bridge and setting them down again helps; sometimes pushing on the sharp side of the string or the top of the bridge also helps. Occasionally the treble bridge itself is not in exactly the right position, so that it doesn’t have the necessary perfect fifth interval from one side to the other. I have a tool for adjusting the bridge position, but it’s a last resort.

Tuner issues: I used to use a digital tuner with an LED display of lights and a “needle.” Then I switched to a tuner with a mechanical needle. Both would sometimes have a delayed response, or would respond differently to the same input, or waver. The mechanical one was a little more steady. I suppose there are three issues here. One is that these tuners are not that precise; I think it’s maybe +/-3 cents. Another is that these tuners use sampling, rather than continuous real-time reading. The other issue is with the dulcimer: so many strings means some are going to resonate sympathetically, which could interfere with the tuner’s reading.

I tackled the first two issues by getting a strobe tuner, a Conn Strobotuner ST-11 from the 70s. Strobe tuners are precise to I think +/-1/100th cents, maybe 1/10th. They also read continuously in real-time. I also really like the display. It’s a wheel with a black and white pattern on it, spinning at the frequency of the desired pitch. Behind it are lights flashing at the frequency of the input. When they match, the pattern appears stationary. It seems to rotate left if it’s flat, and right if it’s sharp. Sometimes I get good strong clear readings. Sometimes sympathetic vibrations — the third issue — cause a little wavering. I can usually help that by hand damping the other strings that have the same pitch.

Ear issues: The more I concentrate on what I’m doing, and the longer I’m at it, the more sensitive my ear gets, so that I hear, or think I hear, awful dissonances even when the tuner thinks the strings are in tune. Taking breaks helps, by allowing my ear to relax. (You might think that my more precise tuner would make this worse, but it actually makes it better. “Really close” on a digital tuner rarely sounded good enough to me, but the lack of precision meant I couldn’t really do anything about it other than trust my ear, which, getting too sensitive, would not be very trustworthy. “Really close” on my Conn is so precise I can relax and know it’ll sound great even if my ear doesn’t think so at the moment.)

Will issues: All of the above issues are real and need to be dealt with. But the one issue that has made me dread and hate tuning, that has made me cry over it, is the issue of Will. Coming up against one of the above issues, I might will myself to overcome it; but you can’t overcome these things by will. Just because I want the tuning pin to move a certain way doesn’t mean it’s going to. Just because I want the tuner to give a clear reading doesn’t mean it has to. And, most of all, just because my ear insists that a) the note is off and b) I should keep at it until my ear likes it doesn’t mean that I’ll succeed. My ear is ready to hear dissonance, and the more I try to please it the more it’ll resist. I’ve learned that I need to practice caring less about precision, trusting my tuner. And I need to treat the strings like problems on a math test. If I have trouble with one, I should move on to the next and come back to it later. Most of the time, when I come back to it, my ear has relaxed and likes it just fine.

I have often thought that it would be nice if I could approach tuning the dulcimer the way I approach changing my guitar strings. I love changing guitar strings. I get to sit down with my guitar and take good care of it, removing the strings, polishing the body, putting a treatment on the fretboard. And I know how great it’ll sound with new strings. In the same way I know tuning my dulcimer is taking good care of it. I also dust the thing and clean / polish the strings whenever I tune. I think, as I’m making progress with this issue of Will, that I’m getting closer to the time when I can enjoy tuning like I enjoy changing guitar strings.