A few months ago, during a symphony rehearsal break, one of the young players in the percussion section asked me if he could ask me a question (did he realize that he just did?)
“Of course,” I replied as I was adjusting the tuning pedals on the timpani. My assignment on this concert was to play timpani, as there were other players to cover all of the percussion parts. I looked up from the drums, and heard him ask me how did I know what pitches to tune on each timpani.
Instantly, I realized that this was a perfect ‘teaching moment’ and that I needed to be careful, truthful, and gentle with my response to him. Potentially, this was an ‘aha’ moment for both of us.
“Step one,” I said, was to understand that the pitches for timpani are written in bass clef, and that a player must be able to read the notes in that clef. He said that he could read bass clef ‘sort of’, and if he had time to figure out the pitches, he would write them in over the notes.
“Step two,” I said, is to figure out which pitches belong on which drum since there are usually 4 choices. Then, set the pitches as best you can, but be ready to adjust (fine tune) as you play the music since it’s possible that the orchestra as a whole might go a little flat or a little sharp depending on performance venue temperatures.
He replied again, that he know this, but he still didn’t understand how I knew what pitches to tune on each drum. Was I not being clear? Did I not understand his question? Evidently, yes! So, I started my explanation from the beginning again only to have him repeat that he knew this information, but how did I know what pitch to put on the drums.
Clearly, I thought, I am in some type of virtual reality loop……my words are not making the answer understandable. Am I still speaking English? I took a moment to think about my next response……..be careful, be in the teaching moment! It was at this point that I realized that the problem wasn’t his, but was mine by not really understanding his question! About face……
So I asked him if he meant how do I find the ‘sounding’ pitch to actually tune the drum to. If I know the pitch is supposed to be an ‘a’ or ‘c’ or something, how do I find it (the pitch).
Image coming from my mind………dancing pitch letters swirling around my head. I just had to reach out, grab one, and throw it down onto the drum. Voila!
I confessed to him that I am confused and must not understand his question. Again, he asked how I knew what pitches to tune the drums to (what’s wrong with me!) Then, he made one more statement…..and there it is! The ‘Aha’ moment!
He said to me, “‘you are not using your phone!”
Well, no, I thought. I’m in rehearsal and phones are off! Why would I be using my phone? So, I asked him if he could explain a bit more. Sure enough, he wanted to know why I was not using my phone…..because the phone has a tuner on it so you can hear the pitch! You can choose the note on the phone tuner, push play, and then play the timpani head until the pitch matches. Usually, the tuner will light up green if you have matched the pitch.
Since my vintage is of the age of no cell phones, and, actually, no tuners either, I learned the ‘old’ way to listen to the pitch fork ‘A’ or the orchestra tuning note ‘A’ and then pitch the interval between the ‘A’ and the note I needed on the drum. It was called “Ear Training”. The intervals all have helpful hint songs, like a ‘Perfect Fourth’ sounds like ‘Here Comes the Bride”. A ‘Perfect Fifth’ sounds like ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.’ Etc.
I began to explain about how to listen; Listen to the low brass or the basses and hear the pitch – also, then recognize the intervals between what notes are needed. Just because you get the drums tuned to the right pitches, you still have to listen and make sure your ‘fine-tuning’ ears are perked up to stay in tune with the other instruments in the group. If you have to change pitches during a song, you must use your ears and be quick about recognizing what pitch you need. You can’t break out the phone, blast the tuner note and bang, bang, bang on the drum till it turns green on the phone screen! You need to learn to hear internally, and/or sing the intervals in order to find the pitches you need.
So – yes, I’m not using my phone…….I listen to the tuning note at the beginning of rehearsal and set pitches accordingly. Good ears (and good ear-training) are necessary tools to make a good timpanist. Phones are unreliable. Even the tuning gauges on some timpani are unreliable. You must learn to rely on your ears!
I am not sure that the student understood completely what I was talking about, but, hopefully, he will put the phone away and start listening to the tuning note ‘A’, or investigating ear training. Don’t be afraid to put the phone down and off!
After all of this explanation, I only have one more thing to say:
Thank you Dr. James Salmon and Dr. William D. Revelli from University of Michigan for teaching me how to listen – and not to just timpani pitches – I’m forever grateful!
Just a thought …