Your tuner is a crutch.
Don’t get me wrong, tuners are wonderful inventions.
-You can get your instrument in tune.
-You can practice holding a note perfectly steady, which will help build the consistent airflow or bow speed that leads to better tone.
-You can learn which notes are naturally out of tune on your instrument, and by how much.
But they don’t require a lot from you. And that’s a problem.
Drones do something different. They don’t show you anything.
A drone requires you to listen.
A drone helps you to practice your perceptual skills. You can use a tuner for years and never improve your aural perception, but if you tune against a drone for thirty seconds you’re likely to notice immediate improvement. Over weeks, months, and years, you can make massive improvement.
Perceptual skills are immediate and internalized.
Immediate, in that you can hear within fractions of a second whether or not you are in tune. And internalized, in that it’s a skill that you carry within you.
A tuner, by contrast, is externalized—if you don’t have it with you, you won’t know whether or not you’re in tune.
Here are some tips for starting with drones:
- Start by holding one note at a time—listen for waves and wobbles in the sound.
- First speed up the waves by playing slightly more out of tune, then reduce and eliminate them. Do this until the waves become painfully obvious.
- Play your scales and music slowly at first, and get each note in tune individually.
- String notes together and tune each in turn.
- Repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition. (repetition, repetition)
- Pace yourself—drones can be a little crazy-making, and too much too soon will make you less likely to use them at all.
- Try to use drones daily; the payoffs will accumulate over time.
Remember, all of this depends on active listening—you can ignore a drone almost as easily as you can turn off a tuner.
Which brings us to another benefit of drones: they require you to focus your awareness. Which means that when you practice with a drone, you’re also practicing one of the most important forms of self-management: sustained attention. This is exactly why so many musicians fall back on tuners: they take less effort.
But you know the reality:
The deliberate application of effort is the only path to lasting improvement.