Exercises for Tuning 1st Position by matching 4th Finger + Open String Octaves
Match 4th Finger in 1st Position to the sound of the open string below it. When tuned properly, they should sound like the same note, but an Octave (8 steps, 8va) apart. Always start with the open string, as this is your “reference pitch”. Keep adjusting your 4th finger until it is In-Tune with the open string reference pitch. Do not move on to the next pair of strings until your Octaves are tuned.
We’ll start with an exercise for tuning octaves from one of my all time favorite cellists, Jean-Louis Duport (1749-1819). Duport was a French cellist who’s cello method, playing and teaching laid the ground work for the modern fingering techniques with we use today. This exercise comes from his exhaustive cello treatise published in 1806, “Essai sur le doigté du violoncelle et sur la conduite de l’archet” (“Essay on the fingering of the violoncello and on the conduct of the bow”) – which is in my opinion, the best cello method book of all time.
Start by playing 4th on A + open D on a down bow, and lift your fingers to play only 1st finger on A. Then you repeat this pattern by “bumping it down a string”, doing it on all sets of strings. This example ends with the ever popular IV V I Cadence in G Major (chords: C D G). This cadence has been widely used roughly 500 years, in Early music, Baroque, Classical, Jazz, Folk and Pop music! The neat thing about it, is that it uses the 3 Major Chords naturally found (diatonic) in the Major Key. It’s kinda sweet like candy, no dissonance to be found here.
I have made 2 more variations to Duport’s exercise, each introducing a new ending cadence.
Excercise [2.B] Variation 1
This is my first variation on Duport’s exercise, here we will play the lower open string as a double-stop for both the 4th and the 1st finger! The ending cadence is another classic harmonic progression, the utilitarian ii V I Progression! In this example we are in the Key of G Major. We have a minor ii chord (a-) leading down a 5th to the Major V chord (D) which leads down another 5th to the Major I chord (G). You can see, that it is a waterfall of Perfect 5ths. Hmmm, “perfect fifth”, where have I heard that sound before… Remind me, what interval do we tune our open strings to?
That’s right, our instrument is tuned in perfect 5ths! So you can always start on a higher string and “waterfall” down the strings to find your ii V I progression’s Roots. (1) Go ahead and pluck your open A string, that’s the root of the minor ii chord. (2) Now go down a 5th aka down a string and pluck your open D string. That’s the root of the dominant chord, the Major V chord. (3) Finally go down another 5th, down to your open G string. That’s the root of our home chord, the Major I chord! See, that makes it easy to figure out any ii- V I progression you may be facing!
Eventually you can keep stacking 5ths, until you have a big “chain” of 5ths water-falling down. example:
I IV viio iii vi ii V I
G C f#o b- e- a- D G
….but don’t get too caught up on that now…
Exercise [2.C] Variation 2
Here is a 2nd variation I made on Duport’s exercise, in which we slur the half notes on 4th and 1st finger together over the open string. This really gives you a chance to tune 1st finger a little better. The new cadence is really an enhancement of the last cadence. Now it’s the ever famous ii V7 I progression! We only have to make one change to one chord to create this sound. Can you identify which chord has been changed? That’s right, the V chord now has the number 7 attached to it, what’s up with that? Well, a normal triad (three note chord) has the Root (1st chord tone), the 3rd (major or minor, and a 5th (perfect 5th for major and minor chords). Notice something about those numbers? That’s right, they’re all ODD numbers. Remember “Steps (2nds) build Scales and Skips (3rds) build Chords“!
So, when we are dealing with Chord tones, it will be all odd numbers, because we are skipping thirds. So why is there a 7 attached to the V chord? Well, it means that we’ve skipped up a third and added another chord tone! We now have a 4 note chord instead of a 3 note chord. And what a chord it is! It’s the “dominant-seven” chord, or the “five-seven” chord or the … well this is confusing to talk about isn’t it… The “five” &/or “dominant” here is referring to the Roman numeral V chord, meaning the ‘fifth chord of the key’. The “seven” in this case is referring to the Arabic numeral 7, meaning that we’ve added a 4th chord tone, a minor seventh (over the root). So if we stack it up from bottom, our V7 chord is this: Root (1st chord tone), Major 3rd, Perfect 5th, minor 7th. The V7 chord will always be a Major triad with a minor 7th on top. This chord gets a little crunchy with the dissonance of a tri-tone between the Major 3rd and the minor 7th… don’t worry too much about what all that means… but just know that we have 2 leading tones (I call it a double leading tone) in this chord that want us to resolve very strongly back home to the I chord. The major 3rd of the V chord resolves up (ti do) to the root of the I chord and the minor 7th of the V chord resolves down (fa mi) to the major 3rd of the I chord.
This is important to think about and learn because V7 to I traditionally has been the crux of all harmonic music. Whether that is Classical, ii V7 I or Jazz ii-7 V7 I^7. In Jazz, outside of the blue progression (which is nearly ALL V7 chords), the ii-7 V7 I^7 progression is the most important chord progression. It shows up everywhere!
Woah… that was a lot of Music Theory…. If that was too much to process all at once, don’t worry. Focus on playing these tuning exercises. Tune your fingers constantly to match the open strings. Enjoy the sound you are making, keep tweaking things like your body position, elbow height, thumb placement, and how you contact the instrument with your fingers and bow. Memorize how these intervals sound and how they feel together. Then when you really know the sound of these cadences and intervals, come back and reread and study the music theory I have written down here in this lesson. It’s a constant back and forth until the two become one. Remember, all of the Music Theory that I am teaching you is practical, playable on your instrument, “applied music theory” (as I call it). It is meant to be helpful to your all around musicianship.
Good luck tuning these intervals and for Exercise  on this page, you can refer to this other lesson instead. Stay well and happy practicing! ~ Brian
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