I played a concert this season with a professional orchestra with very fine players in all of the sections. Even though my musician colleagues were very experienced musicians on their own instruments I wasn’t too surprised when a ‘cello player that I know came up to me when I was practicing before the rehearsal started and he marveled at the fact that my timpani had pedals. He’d played with countless orchestras but he’d never bothered to look behind the drums on the floor to see the tuning pedals. I was nice and gave him a quick timpani tuning lesson.
How does the timpani pedal work?
The timpani pedal is attached to a mechanism under the drum that pulls and pushes a series of rods that are attached to the timpani counter hoop that sits on top of the edge of the timpani head. When the pedal toe is pushed down the rods pull the counter hoop down on the rim of the head and making the head tighter the pitch of the drum rises. Conversely by pushing the heal of the pedal down the rods are pushed up so that the counter hoop rises from the head’s rim thereby loosening the head and making the pitch go down.
Take a look at this video to see what I’m talking about
Different Types of Pedals
The drums that I am demonstrating on in the video are Yamaha 6000 Series instruments and like a lot of drums used by professional timpanists and schools they have what is known as a balanced action pedal system.
On a balanced action drum the tension on the head is balanced by a powerful spring which is attached to the pedal. The spring keeps the pedal in place and keeps the drum in tune as you play.
Take a look at this diagram that shows all the parts of a drum that is similar to mine in the video.
Dresden Style Pedal
Pictured below is a picture of a Dresden Style Timpani pedal. This timpani pedal works in the same manner as the balanced action pedal described before but instead of a spring that keeps the pedal in place and to counter the tension of the timpani head the Dresden style pedal has a locking system. To move this pedal you must unlock the pedal with a clutch, move the pedal and change the pitch then let the clutch back into the locked position.
The Tuning Gage
On most modern timpani there is what is called a tuning gage. The tuning gage does not determine the pitch of the drum but only marks where the note is in relation to where the pedal is.
In the video on the timpani pedal you can see the timpani gage needle moving and you can also see the note indication letters on the gage itself. These note indication letters are moveable so when you establish that the drum is tuned to the pitch you want you then move the note indicator letter in front of the tuning gage needle. When you tune to a different note you can then return to the note you previously found by lining up the needle with the note indication marker.
The tuning gage needs to be adjusted regularly because by playing on or moving the timpani the drum can change and the tuning gage will be no longer accurate. Usually the gages on my drums stay pretty accurate but I always have to make slight adjustments each time after I’ve moved the drums or have played on them for a while. Things slip and need to be put back into place.