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Think slow, tune fast

I'm in the semi-final round of a principal timpani audition. Big orchestra, good job. The first two things on the round are two excerpts from Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphoses – standard audition excerpts that I've played through hundreds of times, if not more – with the usual instructions: play the first excerpt, then retune in a reasonable amount of time and proceed with the second.

I tap my tuning fork on my knee and bring it to my ear to get an A. I tune a C, and repeat this procedure – hear the fork, tune the drum – for all four drums. I pick up my sticks and give the four drums each a quick, quiet tap to confirm they're set to the correct pitches and...something's not right. The intervals are way off. Uh oh. I put the sticks back down and pick up the tuning fork again. This time, when I listen to the fork, I'm having trouble clearly discerning where the A is. Panic creeps in, and as it does, I'm even less able to understand the information from the tuning fork.

I go back and forth between the drums, making adjustment after adjustment hoping the right pitches will somehow present themselves. In an act of desperation, I dig a second tuning fork that I rarely use, a C, out of my stick case, but that doesn't provide any clarity and just adds to the confusion. In full meltdown mode and aware that I'm taking too long to tune, I finally decide to go with the “C” I've already tuned and tune the other three drums relative to it.

Considering the tuning stress, the first excerpt goes pretty well; the drums are, thankfully, in tune with one another and I feel like I'm back on track. I finish and prepare to retune, grabbing my tuning fork. Perhaps because of the confidence and focus regained from performing the first excerpt well, I'm now relieved to hear the A clearly and precisely but that relief is tempered by the immediate realization that I've just played the first excerpt at least a half-step flat. Not good. After again taking what feels like too long to retune, then double- and triple-checking my pitch, I start the second excerpt and the rest of the round (somehow!) proceeds relatively smoothly.


There are several lessons that can be learned from my experience, including that a single error doesn't usually doom an audition round (I ultimately advanced) and that it's important to build up your resilience as a performer so you can rebound from difficult situations when they inevitably arise.

But I want to focus on the process of tuning timpani because I suspect that many of you either have experienced the same type of temporary intonation insanity, feel like you have reasonably strong intonation skills but struggle with transferring them to your instrument, or haven't given any thought to an approach to tuning at all. The audition experience above exposed a weakness I hadn't yet discovered and prompted me to come up with a tuning strategy that I've found to be much more reliable, especially under pressure.

Where things go wrong

I often see a similar pattern with timpanists who experience tuning issues: A quick check of the tuning fork followed by a long time spent “chasing” pitches around the drums:

The timpanist taps their 29” drum and pedals up toward the intended pitch, then taps again, reconsiders, and brings the pitch down a little bit. Moving on to the 26” drum, they repeat that process. They then return to their 29” and decide it needs further adjustment. They make a change and check both pitches, but now the interval sounds worse. They pedal the larger drum all the way back down and restart the process. By the time they settle on a new pitch for the 29”, the 26” doesn't sound correct anymore...

The above scenario makes it unlikely that our timpanist will end with a perfectly tuned interval and even less likely that they'll have confidence in their pitch (and therefore their playing) when the piece begins. So what's happening here, and how can we reduce its likelihood?

In my experience, a breakdown usually occurs when we don't have a clear sense of our goal: in this case, the pitch we're trying to match. This is a micro version of the sound concept idea I've discussed before: we need to know what we're trying to accomplish in order to have any reasonable chance of accomplishing it.

Compounding the issue, when we don't have our target pitch mentally established and start to struggle with finding it on the drums, our confidence in our ability to tune decreases. This creates a negative self-perpetuating cycle:

We haven't made a decision, so we begin to question our ability to make a good decision, so we don't make a decision because we don't trust ourselves to make a good decision, which makes it even harder to believe we will make a good decision...

When we add the stress of an audition or performance to this, it's easy to see how things can go sideways before we've even played a note.

More speed doesn't always mean greater efficiency

I worked in retail for a number of years, and one of the lessons I learned was that trying to do things faster often slows things down. You may have witnessed an example of this in a busy restaurant where your visibly stressed-out server appears to be making an effort to speed up every single aspect of their job: they're speed walking between tables, frantically scribbling down your order, and even entering orders into their computer more vigorously than they normally would. Instinctually, this seems like the right thing to do - they're saving precious seconds on each of these tasks in the hope of being able to help all of their customers in a timely matter.

Along with the effort to do everything faster, however, comes the increased likelihood of making errors: data gets entered incorrectly, orders come out wrong or missing items, or drinks are spilled, costing the restaurant time, money, and happy customers.

Rushing robs us of time to process, plan for, and reflect on the tasks at hand, often leading to mistakes that can cost us much more than the few seconds we originally sought to save. The woodworking axiom "measure twice, cut once" follows the same principle, and so should our approach to tuning timpani.

Listen Slower, Think Slower, Tune Faster

Many timpanists have heard warnings about how audition committees frown on candidates who take too much time tuning between excerpts, and while this is true, it shouldn't be taken as a demand to tune unreasonably quickly - and certainly not at the expense of accuracy. Many players, prioritizing speed (and perhaps envisioning stopwatch-bearing tyrants behind the audition screen), choose to save time by rushing through hearing their reference pitch skipping to manipulating the drums. Ironically, this often leads to additional time trying to guess at pitches like I did in my audition meltdown.

A much more effective strategy is to take more time to establish and understand your goal, then to act quickly and decisively.

Let's break that down:

1. Take enough time listening to your tuning fork to be sure you clearly hear the pitch. Do not rush this step! I've often seen students listen to their tuning fork for less than a second before moving toward the drums, when even one or two additional seconds could be extremely beneficial. An error in perception at this point will make it impossible to tune correctly. If you can't immediately “understand” the pitch, I've found it helpful to imagine a perfect fourth or fifth from the fork's pitch and then come back to it, or to imagine completing a triad above it to stabilize my perception. Don't move on from the tuning fork until you can "hear" the pitch in your head. This is sometimes called “audiation,” and it's the sonic equivalent of visualization.

2. Audiate the desired pitch in your head. If the target pitch is something other than the pitch of the tuning fork, you'll need to call upon your knowledge of intervals. Again, don't be in a hurry to get do this – accuracy is paramount. If you're finding this step challenging, it may be worth exploring ways to improve your intonation skills.

3. Audiate the sound of the desired pitch as it will sound on the timpani. If you're like most people, before you get to this step, you'll probably be imagining the pitch with the timbre of the tuning fork or in your singing voice. Imagine the sound precisely as you're going to hear it on the timpani: correct timbre, range, dynamic, etc. You're establishing an internal reference which your brain will use to judge the accuracy of the external sound you hear.

This may seem like an extra, unnecessary step, but you likely already include some subconscious version of it in your tuning process - if not, it would be more difficult to make an apples-to-apples evaluation of your pitch. Giving yourself time to acknowledge and deliberately complete this step will bring more awareness and accuracy.

4. With your goal in mind, tune the drum: Quietly tap the drum to be tuned and pedal smoothly and relatively quickly up to the pitch you're already mentally hearing. If you've completed the first three steps successfully, this should simply be a matter of matching the sound from the drum to the sound in your head. Again, don't rush, but a bit of speed can be your friend here: you want to match the pitch while it's fresh in your mind. (Note: if you overshoot the target pitch with your pedal, it's important to first tune the drum back below the pitch you're aiming for, then tune up to it to eliminate any slack in the head.)

This step provides the biggest opportunity for greater efficiency, since it is usually the most time consuming portion of the tuning process (especially if you often end up "chasing"). The reduction in time on this step will eclipse the few seconds you may have added in the first three steps.

5. Repeat steps 2-4 as necessary for the remaining drums to be tuned, this time using the drum(s) already tuned as your reference pitch(es).

6. Once all drums are tuned, double check all pitches. Make small adjustments if necessary.


If you've done this correctly, you may notice that while you're devoting more time to the beginning of the process, the overall time it takes to tune the drums is decreasing because you're spending so much less time physically tuning and because you spend less time correcting errors. By slowing down where it counts the most, you will see big efficiency gains.

Mastering the transitions between steps 1, 2, and 3 is critical, and you may need to return to step 1 if you're finding it challenging to clearly imagine the pitch in your head by step 3. Like anything else you practice, you'll begin to move through steps 1-3 more efficiently and further reduce the time spent tuning through repetition. You may find that steps 1-3 start to "flow" together and feel like a single automatic and intuitive step, like they do for many timpanists. In the meantime, breaking it down will both lay a solid tuning foundation and give you a reliable process to draw on if you ever find yourself temporarily struggling.

As an added benefit, tuning more accurately will lead to more confidence in your intonation instincts which should lead to better performance, creating a positive self-perpetuating cycle.

Additional Thoughts

• It's important to remember that we always have to be listening to our pitch when performing; even when we feel completely confident that our initial tuning is accurate, we must be ready to make adjustments according to what we hear. And, the more comfortable we are with making on-the-fly adjustments, the less pressure rests on our initial tuning - we know we'll be able to easily fix any small errors later.

• Singing can be a valuable tool in honing ear-training skills and as a starting point for developing step 2, but ultimately we should be striving to tune without having to vocalize in any way since, in most circumstances, we want to tune as quietly as possible. (I also don't recommend using tuning techniques that involve singing into timpani – in addition to being too loud for quiet situations and difficult to hear in loud situations, I've found this method can sometimes give false-positive resonance and lead to poor intonation.)

• Where possible, I've found it helpful to start by tuning the tonic of the key I'm in followed by the dominant, then completing the triad, etc. I move from the intervals that are the “strongest” to those that may be harder to find. You may experiment and find other sequences which are more reliable for you. For auditions, I create a tuning plan for each excerpt – part of my preparation is to know the order in which I'm going to tune the drums. It's one more thing that can be rehearsed beforehand.

• There are a number of ways timpanists choose to check intonation: some tap the head with fingers, others insist on using a stick; some listen to the pitch immediately when the drum is struck, others focus on the resonance afterward. Personally, I prefer to tap the head lightly with a finger; I find I can discern the pitch more clearly at a softer volume this way. I also find that I can hear the fundamental pitch of the drum through its overtones more clearly if I listen to the sound immediately after tapping rather than waiting for the ring, but I know others successfully use different approaches (theoretically, if the head is clear, there should be no difference between the pitch at attack and its resonance).


By investing more time in preparing to tune well, establishing clear goals utilizing the process of audiating our desired outcome, and avoiding aimlessly searching for the correct pitches, we can drastically improve how effectively and efficiently we tune the timpani. When we take advantage of our minds' ability to imagine how we want to sound, we increase our chances of success. Taking more time to listen to both our reference pitch and our self-created audiation enables us to use that information to confidently make faster tuning decisions with greater accuracy. •

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