I attended a symphony concert and noticed something that I thought was a bit peculiar. After a section where he played the instrument and was inactive, the tympani player would lean down and put his ear next to the surface of the drum. He did this not just once but after every passage in which he played. Why would he do this?
Perhaps he was tuning it? I’m not familiar enough with the drums to know if they frequently retune in the middle of a song, but it’s possible.
I didn’t see him tweaking anything as if tuning. After he finished his part, he would put his hand on the playing surface, presumably to damp out any remaining vibration, and a few seconds later put his ear down next to the drum.
I believe he was likely either re-tuning the drum or verifying it was still in tune. Tympani are tuned via foot pedals, so you might not have been able to see that he was adjusting the tuning.
Or, of course, he may have just been eccentric… percussionists are like that.
He’s tuning it. you use a foot pedal which moves the floating rim on the tympani head up and down, changing the tightness of the head, thereby changing the pitch. You usually have markers on your pedal to indicate where the pitch/note is but you always check. Nothing pisses off a conductor like a tympani out of tune. Most tympani players have very good pitch and do this by ear. Others will use a small pitch pipe, but never at an orchestral level.
I would have to say that he is somehow tuning it. It may look a bit strange, but this is common practice in orchestra. A tympani can really make a big difference if it is not in tune.
Are there digital tuners for percussion like there are for guitars?
Yes, but the tuners will try to read the pitch of whatever note they ‘hear’ loudest - in the midst of a concert, it would be very hard to get a reading on the tuning of the tympani without hitting the drum hard enough to be disruptive. Tympanists are extevsively trained in tuning their instruments on the fly.