Timpani Tuning and Gauges
by Jonanthan Haas
Timpani tuning is one of the most important issues concerning timpani and at times the most challenging. As we all know timpani must be tuned and unlike any of the melodic percussion instruments that are tuned at the factory, the timpani must be tuned by you. My first conclusion is that the tuning gauges that are fairly standard on timpani can be effectively used and are an important tool for giving us confidence that we are in the right zone when we are tuning a note. Setting the gauges is actually simple compared to actually hearing and understanding how to find the note we want to play and relate to on the gauge. I use a system to tune the timpani that applies some basic concepts of physics. In nature there is a very interesting phenomenon that occurs. The fundamental pitch and the 5th above it, or a 4th below it, are intrinsically tied together in a acoustic bond. When I tune a note it turns into an investigative process that has as its outcome, a true understanding of where and what my pitch is. Step 1) We want to generate a pure wave form into the timpani. We will observe if we generate the fundamental pitch of the note that we want into the timpani, the timpani will sympathetically ring back. The purest wave form is a sine wave and you are going to become the sine wave generator. We first want to use our ear to get as close to the pitch by striking the timpani. Once you think you have the pitch you want, continue as follows. Now put your mouth very close to the timpani, and hum, with your mouth closed, (your skin and bones in your face act as a filter blocking out unwanted frequencies),the fundamental pitch that you want.
The most important aspect of this procedure is that you have to be able to audibly reproduce the pitch you want. For a timpanist this is not always so easy. The issue of having a good ear training regime now comes into play. On timpani, you have to be able to sing it before you can play it. This takes musical skills that are imperative in becoming a accomplished musician and timpanist. If you generate the fundamental pitch into the timpani and indeed the head is tuned to that pitch the phenomenon that occurs is that the head will begin to vibrate. In order to make sure we have accomplished this I do the following. I first hum the pitch that I want into the timpani. I than hum sharp, raise the pitch, than I hum flat, lower the pitch, than I once again hum the note that I want. Here are the following things that I can learn through this investigative procedure. 1) If I hum up, sharp, and I get the drum to vibrate than I know that the head is tuned sharp to the pitch that I want. To make the appropriate adjustment lower the pitch of the timpani head 2) If I lower the pitch, hum flat, and the timpani begins to sympathetically vibrate than I know I am flat to the pitch that I want. Make the necessary adjustments with the tuning mechanism and raise the pitch of the timpani head. 3) If I have hum sharp and flat and nothing happens and I go back to the pitch that I want and the drum sings back than I know that I have the fundamental in tune. Now comes the best part of this procedure. There is a large margin for error in the fundamental because it is the largest part of the overtime series.
In order to fine tune the fundamental we are going to do the same procedure to the interval of a 5th above the fundamental. Because there is less margin for error, the 5th being a smaller pitch above the fundamental.
If the 5th and the fundamental are in tune, then by acoustic definition, you are in tune. You will get to the point that you can go directly to the 5th to do most of your tuning but I recommend that you stick with this fundamental-5th approach until it starts working for you. Can you do this procedure while the orchestra or ensemble is playing? The answer is yes, sometimes. There are times when either the ensemble is playing so loud or tuning is so fast that we don't have time to do all of this, or the tonality is so dissonant to our ear that we cannot identify the note we want at any particular moment. That is when tuning gauges come into play. If you have set your gauges well, before the piece is played, you will have great success. Many times I will go to the oboe player during the time the ensemble is warming up on stage and I ask for my own personal A so that I can pre tune before the ensemble begins to formally tune. Don't be shy, you can do the same with your principal trumpet player as well, if you trust that his or her pitch is good. Gauges have always given me a sense of confidence that I am close to where I want to be. Then my ear can take over, and when possible this investigative process helps insure that I am in tune as often as possible. It is also beneficial to get a good double bass scale book. For my advanced students I have them do arrangements of such master pieces as Bruchs Kol Nidre which has been arranged for timpani and piano. I have also delved into the world of Jazz timpani and rock and roll, all of which help my ear because I am constantly playing melodies on the timpani.