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Topic: Tuning Timpani

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  1. #1

    Tuning Timpani

    Here's the situation: I am polishing the orchestration for my score for a musical. I am using two timpani. I have avoided requiring them to be retuned within any given song -- but there is one big production number that has a key change at the end of each verse, with the last two chords in each measure emphasized (dominent, then tonic). I need to punch this up a bit for the last verse.

    If I use the timpani on the penultimate measure, the final one seems weak. If I save the timpani for the last measure, the lead up to it seems lacking. If I score for four timpani it sounds right. But it's hard to justify going from two timpani to four just to get those two notes . . . to say nothing of the fact that four timpani in a theater pit orchestra is a bit much.

    I am wondering how much time timpani players need to retune (assuming that both instruments have pedals.) I realize that this is of course relative to a lot of things (tempo, the dexterity of the player, and how fast he is able to tune). But it would help me to know something of the tuning process. Specifically: can the position of the pedal be determined by sight (and possibly marked) or does the player have to listen to the instrument when he is tuning it. I've seen some players do the latter in community theatre shows where they don't have a pit. I don't know what the pros do when they're in a long running production with 8 shows a week.

    My musician friends tell me that virtually anything I imagine can be done. And I have nothing but admiration for B'way pit orchestras. But I am trying not to give in to the temptation to take them literally and possibly orchestrate something that is unplayable by stock or community theater companies or will be done badly. If compromises have to be made, I'd rather know about it now and make the changes myself. Thanks.

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  2. #2

    Re: Tuning Timpani

    Most timps have a device like this



    The pointer moves with the pedal, and the markers along the top of the device can be moved to indicate where the pointer needs to be for various notes.

    The change can be done very rapidly, although, after playing the instruments for some time, I don't know whether players really rely on the pointer thing, or whether they'd prefer to check by ear.
    David

  3. #3

    Re: Tuning Timpani

    Yes, what Pingu said is right. The only issue with the pointers is they're infamous for being inaccurate. When they are accurate (and they can be accurate), a timpanist is more likely to rely on his own ear. I've certainly used them to at least get a drum into the ball-park of the right pitch, then fine-tune it by ear, but the reason they tend to be a little off is the same reason wind instruments get out of tune. Temperature differences can cause the exact foot-pedal positions to vary slightly.

    There are some other things to consider when tuning timpani. Like you said, the dexterity of the player (and perhaps the willingness to actually get an accurate pitch ) But some other factors can play into this as well. For example, if you plan on making the timpanist tune a drum up from its current pitch, it will be easier than making the same adjustment down. This is because in order to accurately tune a timpani, it is better to start below the note and tune up to it, rather than down. When a timpanist starts above a note to tune down to it, the mechanism (can't remember the name to save my life) inside the timpani will loosen and it will end up being slightly lower than intended. Therefore, if a timpani needs to be tuned down to a note, it first needs to be lowered to a pitch well below the target pitch, then tuned up.

    Another thing to consider is the volume of the rest of the orchestra. Some timpanists may disagree with me, but I find it's actually easier to tune a drum while the orchestra is playing loudly because I can safely tap the drum without fearing being heard. This is opposed to having to hunch over the drum with my ear right above the surface to try to pick out the note

    When it's all said and done, and when I usually write for timpani, I try to avoid making a timpanist re-tune a drum in less than 5-10 seconds, depending on the difficulty I am aiming for. If difficulty isn't a worry, then 5 seconds is probably reasonable. If you're aiming for something a little easier, 10 seconds isn't too bad.

    Also, have you considered using 3 drums? I'm not sure how it would work with what you have, but just a thought
    Michael Obermeyer, Jr.
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  4. #4

    Re: Tuning Timpani

    Hi ejr,

    It depends. For me, the main impediment to rapid pitch changes, especially when two or more drums require new pitches, is whether the timpanist is seated or not. When seated, there's no need to shift balance from one leg to the other to take pedal action, which eats up time. I normally prefer to stand, but will always bring in a throne if there is lots of pedaling to be done. Also, most timpanists on a familiar set know each drum's pedal tone, i.e., it's lowest pitch, and those tones are always easy to set (just push the heel plate all the way to the floor). In fact before some concerts, I will adjust the pedal tone as much as a whole step one way or the other if I know I'll need to get to one of these pitches quickly.

    If there are no rests between pitch changes, some timpanists will attempt to scoop from pitch to pitch by ear (some few parts are only playable this way, even on an extended set), but this is not always entirely satisfactory. Yet, if the section is really noisy, it may be less noticeable. In this case, it would be better to add drums, if feasible. But as you say, two drums in the pit is about all there is room for, plus timpanists hate bringing in extra drums just for the odd phrase.

    If there are rests between the changes, then a few seconds are required at minimum (without gauges). The previous pitch needs to be damped, the ear has to move down to the head, the pitch set, and then the timpanist then has to regain his place in the music and coordinate that with the conductor. This sounds complicated, but timpanists do it all the time.

    Also, double check your harmony. The timps can play almost anything on a really dissonant or even a dim7 chord and will sound passable on any member of a dominant chord or triad, especially if the note is very short (in this case, it's more a percussive effect than tonal). But of course it is always desirable to play the fundamental or fifth on any long notes/rolls and the tonic pitch on the final cadence.

  5. #5

    Re: Tuning Timpani

    Thanks for all the input. This is exactly the sort of info I was hoping for.

    It doesn't make sense to add the 3rd and 4th timpani just to have them play one note each in one number. And I doubt that there would be room in the pit for them.

    The timing is quite tight, though. I am experimenting with trying to find notes that are common to the pairs of chords in question, rather than using the I and V. I am also toying with the idea of having another bass instrument play the notes and having the drummer double them on the kick drum or tom tom with the option to substitute timpani written into the score.

    (I have two percussionists in my orchestra: one plays a standard drum kit and the other primarily plays timpani, triangle and orchestra bells -- with the two of them sharing assorted specialty percussion. This is pretty much the norm for most Broadway pit orchestras these days unless they are also using electronic percussion.)

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  6. #6
    Senior Member Styxx's Avatar
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    Re: Tuning Timpani

    I am wondering how much time timpani players need to retune (assuming that both instruments have pedals.) I realize that this is of course relative to a lot of things (tempo, the dexterity of the player, and how fast he is able to tune). But it would help me to know something of the tuning process. Specifically: can the position of the pedal be determined by sight (and possibly marked) or does the player have to listen to the instrument when he is tuning it. I've seen some players do the latter in community theatre shows where they don't have a pit. I don't know what the pros do when they're in a long running production with 8 shows a week.
    I'll be snob here and forgive me. Hire a professional schooled seasoned timpanist and there should be no worry. He or she should know all the known techniques as well as having a fine tuned EAR that he or she will use as his or her greatest tool when tuning. A professional timpanist uses an A 440 tuning fork as his or her reference point or starting pitch and can tune a timp to any not in its rang on any of the sizes by "singing" in the note and moving the pedal to match with head resonance. Sounds off, yes? It works but it takes a hell of a long time to master. My professors were very skilled at these techniques and used and taught them religiously.
    But what do I know .... I'm only a percussionist.
    Relax, find yourself a professional.
    Styxx

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