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Tuning A Timpani
Percussion is a tough section of the orchestra to study. There’s the tambourine, triangle, cabasa, claves, bass drum, snare drum, xylophone, and many more instruments of all shapes and sizes that make up the percussion section. One in particular, the timpani, captures almost everyone’s attention at first sight because of its size. Timpani are made of fiberglass shells, with a head of plastic or calfskin fitted over the shell. There is also a pedal for tuning the drum to various notes. Doing this is particularly hard; the proper technique is not well-known or commonly used. Many people like to slack off and skip steps, saying that some of them are “unnecessary” or time consuming. The fact is that every step for tuning a timpani is important and necessary to get the exact sound and note that is wanted out of it.
The first thing that must happen is gaining possession of these items: a pitch pipe (or another tuning source, such as a piano, chimes, etc.), good-quality timpani mallets, and a good ear. Of course, a set of timpani is needed to tune one, but buying some isn’t mandatory. It is very common for people to use their school’s timpani (or orchestra’s) for their own uses.
Once these items are all on hand, the first thing that must be done is to check the tuning pedal and make sure it has been pushed all the way down to its lowest point. This should be done because if the pedal isn’t pushed all the way down, the tuning experience may be messed up. The note the timpani gets tuned to may be inaccurate due to the pedal moving slightly because it wasn’t reset.
The second step in tuning a timpani is to find out what note the timpani needs to be tuned to. This is very simple; a glance at a sheet of timpani music will tell you which note (remember, all timpani music is in bass clef).
Next, that note must be found on the pitch pipe. There is a tiny hole underneath that note on the pipe, and that is what must be blown into to make a sound. The note that comes out should be the note that the timpani is going to be tuned to.
After that, humming or singing the note out loud is crucial; the note must be in one’s head before the timpani is tuned. This should be done multiple times to ensure an accurate tuning session. It does not matter if anyone observing this process starts to laugh; the only thing that matters is the tuning.
Next, after humming the note numerous times, the tuning pedal must be pushed up to reach the desired note. This should be done while also striking the timpani to be informed of what note it is on. When the pedal is being pushed, it must be done smoothly, not in bursts or with breaks. If the pedal is stopped at a note that is higher than the desired one, it must be pushed down and the tuning process must start all over. This should be done because moving the pedal down or anything other than resetting it can mess up the results.
Once the timpani is tuned it should be struck with a mallet on the correct beating spot. If the sound is pure and matches the note that has been hummed out loud for the past 15 minutes, the tuning process is almost over.
To be absolutely positive that the note is correct and right on, there is a little method that has been established by percussionists over the years that should be used. While leaning in thisclose to the timpani, one should “sing” the note into the correct beating spot. If a sort of echo is heard going on inside the timpani, the note is right on. If it wasn’t heard, then the note could be a little sharp or flat (a half step up or down the note). The pedal should be adjusted a tiny bit.
Once this is done, the tuning process has been completed. But, there are a few more things one should know about the timpani before they are ready to tune one. These things must be known to get as much out of the tuning process as possible and accurate results.
One thing that many nice sets of timpani have are tuning gauges. These will have an arrow that moves as the pedal is pushed up or down and will point at what note the timpani is tuned to. These can be extremely helpful, especially in concert when the timpani must be tuned silently. BUT, I do not recommend tuning with only the gauges; I say this because there are many people who like to muddle with the arrow and the notes that it points at. These can be moved around without difficulty to spell out words, etc. that are supposed to be funny; all that does is mess up another person’s tuning experience and probably make them angry. Also, if the gauges are used all the time, one can become totally dependant on them and not exercise their tuning abilities. Those abilities can be lost; that is not a myth. Tuning the old-fashioned way is best.
One more thing that can be used to keep one’s tuning ear in check is a tuning fork. The best kind to get would be one labeled as A440. If struck, it vibrates and should be held close to the ear. The note that is heard coming from the fork is an A. To “exercise” the ear, the note should be hummed and one should try to get the note right on. This can be very beneficial to a percussionist; it is important that they have a trained ear and brain. If this tuning fork exercise is repeated over the course of even a few days, improvement can be seen in one’s pitch.
Percussion may seem like a breeze to master and not that hard. The actual truth: Percussion is a ton more difficult than people think. This entire paper was written on just tuning the timpani. Now, striking the timpani is a whole other story………….