Our New Horizons band has been given a pair of timpani. The drums have pedals that work well. I don't hear a single tone, however, and I suspect the drums need tuning with the screws around the edge of the heads. Can you recommend a book to help me with this?

Dan Wilson

Hello Dan Thanks for your question

I suspect that what you suspect is absolutely correct. There might be other problems, but most likely the multiple pitches you hear are the result of the head not being in tune with itself, or what is often referred to as the head not being "clear." "Clearing" heads is a vital but often overlooked part of playing timpani (assuming one wants to get rid of those multiple pitches). It is the way we get the timpani to produce their best sound and most focused fundamental pitches. It is also sometimes a mysterious process with players always looking for the "best" way with the resultant methods and tricks as numerous as the players. The basic idea with all the methods, though, is that we are trying to get the pitch of the head at each tension rod (the screws around the edge of the head) to be the same. Assuming that the pitch range of the drum is also set to a proper range for the size of the drum, this is going to give you the best sound you are going to get out of that drum and head (we aren't talking about your playing technique at this point, which of course will affect the sounds you are getting).

So assuming we aren't changing the heads you have, you will need to clear them.

The short--and very generic (and the one found in many books) --answer as to how to do this is to go around the head and make sure the pitch is the same at each tension rod. You adjust the tension rods with a key, or if they have "T" handles, you use those. Pick one tension rod to use as your starting point and reference pitch and then adjust the other rods to that. Listen only to the fundamental pitch (the strongest, lowest, and first pitch you hear) at each point. Sometimes a finger or a mute in the center of the head will make the pitch at each tension rod easier to hear. Make small adjustments until you've made the adjustments you need. Work in a quiet environment and not for too long--the ears become fatigued quickly.

A much more detailed method (and the one I use myself) is to be found described within a larger article by Tom Freer, a percussionist and timpanist with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. Much of his knowledge was passed on from Cloyd Duff, long-time timpanist with the CSO. I've provided a link to this article (it is in .pdf format) which is on the Adams Percussion website. The section on clearing heads is part 5.

If you have any problems, or you become frustrated, join a pretty popular club. But don't worry. With practice you can make your drums sound much better. The more you clear, the better you get at it.

Let me know how it goes and don't hesitate to ask follow-up questions! This thing that is simple in concept is often not so simple in reality. Thanks again for your question.

Part 5. Clearing the Heads Step by Step. Click on the link below to get the article.

Timpani Head Article by Tom Freer--http://www.adams-music.be/international/pdf/PRL-Freer-Changing%20and%20Clear%20Timp%20Heads%20article.pdf
(opens in a new window not part of this site--this site will remain in the background)