Personally, I prefer to call this aural skills phenomenon "absolute pitch," (AP) and only make use of the name "perfect pitch" when the level of skill is indeed at that point where it can not be distinguished from perfection.
I was recently told that I should not always rely on my memory because it doesn't show as much "talent" as it would with a tuning fork.
Interesting! Usually we hear it the other way around, because AP is a rare ability, and nearly everyone uses a pitch pipe of some kind in order to tune. But, it's always a good idea to practice things that are difficult for you in order to build your skills, and the skill of matching a pitch to a reference is a very important skill to have!
As far as impressiveness is concerned, AP is really only impressive from a "party trick" perspective. When auditioning for a judge, the judge is concerned with you playing the right notes, and making a minimum amount of fuss in tuning from one pitch to another. Making a show of how you are tuning the timpani is NOT the way to go. Rather, use whatever method will get you to the target pitch as accurately as possible, that can be executed with as little extraneous noise as possible. Now, let's talk method:
How the Pros Do it
Have you ever heard an orchestral timpani player blow a note on a pitch pipe between movements of a symphony? Of course not, and if he ever did during a concert, the conductor would fire him. In a high school band there's obviously a lot more wiggle room, but I bring this up to use as a professional standard of reference. The professional is using either AP or relative pitch to retune a drum whenever a change is required. Which skill he/she is using does not matter, so long as it is accurate. When using relative pitch, the professional does not even need a pitch pipe, since the timpani themselves, as well as every instrument in the orchestra, is providing reference pitches.
In a nutshell, the professional using relative pitch is doing this:
- Tune the timpani before the concert using a pitch pipe or other reference tone.
- When changing tunings during the concert, identify intervals between the timpani's current pitch and the target pitch. Use these intervals to audiate (create an internal aural image) the target pitch.
- In the appropriate moment, retune the timpani by matching its pitch to the target pitch in the timpanist's head, while making as little noise as possible. If the orchestra is silent, this can be accomplished just by actuating the foot pedal and listening to the pitch head as it stretches across the frame.
Now, let's break down each of these steps, and include some alternative methods.
1. Getting a reference pitch
- I haven't mentioned tuning forks at all yet, because most people see them as a bit arcane given the other technology options available, and there's not a single high school or college-level program that I've ever seen that uses them to tune timpani. From pedagogy to professional, the "gold standard" is the Kratt "Master Key" Chromatic Pitch Pipe. Every time I've ever seen a timpani, one of these is close by.
- People with very good absolute pitch can pluck a note out of thin air to use as a reference.
- Large ensembles traditionally tune to an A or Bb before playing, that can be used as a reference pitch.
2. Finding a target pitch by interval
If your reference pitch is different from your target pitch, you will need to use relative pitch to find the target pitch. Interval recognition and recall are the aural skills most relevant to this task. Like any skill, they can be learned and trained. At the college level, one is expected to be able to identify the interval between any two notes within a 10th or so; and to do the same in reverse, singing a note at a particular interval above or below another one.
Perhaps this is why you are hearing that it is more impressive to use a tuning fork and interval recognition. It is an important skill, and one that takes time to develop, but tuning forks are just too old-school to justify using them just to show off some interval recognition (in my opinion)!
3. Tuning methods
Nearly everyone uses foot-pedal tuners on timpani nowadays, though here and there you'll occasionally see timpani with crank tuners. (At least we don't have to prepare drum heads from animal hide anymore...)
- Anything you do to a drum is going to make some noise of the resonant pitch, so as mentioned above, if you are in a silent room, just actuating the foot pedal may give you enough information to tune to your target pitch.
- If you're in a loud environment, the singing method you mentioned is a great trick since you don't really need to hear the timpani before it gets to the target pitch.
- If you're between movements and the audience is making some noise, a slight tap of the head will likely go unnoticed and give you enough information to tune.
- It is common to find timpani with tuning gauges that allow you to tune visually, but you should only trust these if you verify they are accurate (or recalibrate them) earlier that day.
- In most middle school/high school band programs, it's acceptable to use a note or two on a pitch pipe between movements or pieces.
What I would expect to hear at an audition
If I was judging an audition at the high school level, here's what I would want to see.
- Student walks in to audition with timpani provided, carrying own mallets, and pitch pipe (in case one is not provided).
- Student blows one or two different notes on a pitch pipe to tune all four timpani to pitches required for excerpt #1, striking timpani lightly with mallets to tune.
- Student plays excerpt #1.
- Excerpt #2 is from the same piece of music, and only requires two timpani to be retuned at a 4th or 5th of one of the existing pitches.
- Student uses existing pitches to retune timpani for excerpt #2, using a quiet tap if necessary.
- Student plays excerpt #2.
- Excerpt #3 is from a different piece of music, in a completely different key from previous excerpts, all timpani must be retuned at uncommon intervals.
- Student blows two new notes on a pitch pipe to tune all four timpani.
- Student plays excerpt #3.
- Sightreading time! Provided excerpt requires three notes--an octave and a 5th above the root.
- Student blows the root on pitch pipe, tunes all three timpani, plays sightreading excerpt.
Every single one of the steps can and should be practiced in sequence so that the prepared portion especially goes perfectly smoothly. The judge doesn't need to see or hear you tune. You hurt yourself by making a big deal about it. (You also hurt yourself by tuning the wrong notes!) The idea is to emulate a concert situation, so the initial tuning is similar to a concert warmup situation, the retuning between the first two excerpts from the same piece of music happens quickly and silently, and more time is given to tune for the new piece of music.