Tuning Exercises for Timpani
by Vic Firth

Tuning your instruments and playing "in tune" are challenges for all instrumentalists. Today, most timpani come equipped with tuning gauges. However, these gauges are only as good as your ears. Since temperature and climatic changes affect the heads, the indicators on the gauges are far from perfect. Listed below are several exercises to help you develop your tuning skills.

First, learn the contents of a major scale. Know the difference between half steps and whole steps. For example, in the key of C major, C-D and D-E are whole steps. E-F is a half step. F-G, G-A and A-B are whole steps and B-C is a half step. Then learn to identify intervals. For instance, G-C is a perfect fourth. F-C is a perfect fifth. C-E is a major third. D-F, E-G and A-C are minor thirds. F-B is an augmented fourth (or diminished fifth). Lastly, C-C is an octave. Once you can recognize these intervals, you have enough information to tune your instruments. Practice by identifying these intervals at the piano (or any keyboard instrument).

Here is a way to practice tuning sit at the piano, play an A. Then sing down to F a major third. Check your pitch by playing the F. Correct if necessary. Then say to yourself, "up a perfect fifth," which is C. Sing it and check it. Then go down a perfect fourth, which is G. Sing it and check it. Continue this procedure until all the intervals are easily recognizable.


Following is one possible method to use with beginners: Take very simple popular melodies and use two or three notes for a given interval. For example, the first two notes of Yankee Doodle Dandy represent a perfect fourth.




The first three notes of The Star Spangled Banner produce a perfect fifth.




The NBC chime gives you a major sixth and major third.


There are any number of simple pieces that can assist the beginning player in learning the basic intervals.

Now apply this concentrated tuning and listening to the timpani. Let's say you want to tune A and D. Release the pedals so that the heads are very loose and well below the desired pitch. Sing the D and fix it in your mind. Then strike the head softly and depress the pedal. This will activate a glissando to the desired pitch. Stop the pedal when the pitch from the drum coincides with the pitch in your head. If you over-shoot the pitch, repeat the process until you attain the correct pitch. Then do the same procedure with the A. Practice different tunings, and your ears and accuracy of tuning will develop very quickly.

Since you will usually have to tune while the band or orchestra is playing, you must practice tuning your drums under "negative" conditions. Put on a CD or cassette and turn up the volume. Then, with all this sound in the air, practice your tunings. This forces you into a two-step process. You must be able to completely isolate and shut out the existing music. When that has been accomplished, you can now focus on the intervals you are trying to hear and tune. By now, you should be very familiar with the sound and correct pitches of the required intervals - that part has become easy. The "shutting out" of the surrounding music is the difficult part. It is a discipline to be mastered, but it is very possible with patience, determination and concentration. Believe me, I know - I've been there.

As with any instrument, the intimacy of practice and playing experience make all problems become easier. Tuning and technical execution become like breathing - second nature. With the other problems solved, turn your thoughts to sound, dynamics, phrasing and color. Now you are becoming a master of your instrument and an interpreter of music in the grand style.