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 Ð sit at the piano, play an A. Then
sing down to F Ð 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.
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
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.