I am often surprised to learn that many people and not only non musicians do not know that the timpani are tuned instruments. The four drum set of timpani has a range of almost two octaves from low C on the big 32” up to a high A on the smallest (23”) drum of the set. And, with the ability to change notes quickly with use of the pedal mechanism found on modern timpani complex melodies are possible to be played.
Want to Get Great at Timpani Tuning? Better Start Ear Training
When I was in university my worst subject and least favorite subject in music school was Ear Training. Ear Training is the study of how to recognize intervals, take musical dictation, and to sight sing complex musical passages without any instrumental accompaniment.
I was terrible at it and struggled through my degree program to be able to pass the required courses. But, I recognized later in life as a professional timpanist that these ear training classes that I had so much trouble with ended up being just about the most important thing besides my percussion lessons for me to have studied.
The ability to play in tune on the timpani is extremely important
The timpani play in the lowest register of the ensemble and often the loudest, so the rest of the group of musicians with whom you are playing rely on your pitch to set their own. The sound of the orchestra or band is dramatically affected depending upon the ability of the timpanist to play in tune or not
Timpani Tuning Starts With the Drum on its Lowest Note
Before tuning a drum make sure the pedal is at its lowest point with the heal of the pedal all the way down. This is an important first step because to tune accurately its best to tighten the drum head to the desired pitch rather than to loosen it.
Sing the note that you want to tune on to the drum
To tune timpani the timpanist needs to be able to first get the desired pitch in their ear. For example, if you want to tune your 26” drum to a D you must first be able to know what a D sounds like. Go to the piano or marimba and play a D. Listen carefully and then try to sing the pitch. Listen again to the piano’s D to double check you singing of the note.
Strike the drum one time and raise the pitch quickly so you won’t lose the note
Now, strike the timpano’s playing spot one time and slowly push down on the toe of the pedal. You will hear the pitch rise like a slide whistle and when you hear the pitch that you sang stop the pedal. You can test the pitch by playing the piano again to see if the pitches match.
It’s important when you strike the drum to only strike it one time and more the pedal while you can hear the pitch rise. If you strike the drum more than once you’re liable to forget the pitch that you are intending to tune to.
Want a fun Timpani tuning party trick?
Here is a fun trick for tuning and can be entertaining at swanky cocktail parties where there happen to be a set of timpani around. After you’ve tuned the drum to the desired note, lean over the drum with your face very close to the surface.
Sing the note into the drum head and you’ll hear the pitch resonate back at you from the drum. Don’t really take your drums to parties because you probably won’t get invited back again, but singing into the drum is a good way to check that your pitch is accurate.
In fact if you sing a note other than the one you put on the drum you won’t hear the drum resonate.
Learn to tune as quietly as possible
When you are alone in your practice room you really don’t have to worry about how loudly you tune, but if you don’t practice tuning quietly it will be difficult to do so when you have to tune on stage during a concert. If you tune loudly you’ll disturb the music and other musicians around you.