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Preparing Young Timpanists

 

It is late in the fall semester and marching season has just concluded. You hang up your whistle and select several pieces for your symphonic band to play – concert season has arrived. When the time comes to assign percussion parts, one of the many decisions you need to make is who will play the timpani. If you had a timpanist in your marching band’s front ensemble, perhaps that student should be given the part. If not, then maybe a tenor drum player – after all, they have been playing multiple drums all fall. The reality is that most young percussionists have not received any instruction on this staple instrument of the percussion section. Teaching your percussionists to play timpani can be easily done with a small amount of time and a sequential approach. The end result will be a better-sounding band, and percussionists who are well rounded, focused, and musically sensitive.

Although there are a handful of good timpani method books available, the goal of this article is to help you as a band director to encourage your percussionists to develop basic timpani technique and an appreciation of the instrument. Even without formal study of timpani, students can learn to confidently play the instrument and achieve a good sound. Here are some basic points that must be addressed by every band director.

 

Set-up

Although there are two different approaches to timpani set-up, most Americans arrange the timpani with the largest drum on the left. Therefore, the lowest possible pitches are on the left and the highest pitches are on the right (like a piano or mallet instrument set-up). Players can either stand or sit on a stool. If they stand, they should stand in place and not have to step to play different drums. Rather, by turning the upper body they should be in position to play any of the drums. The most common mistake that students make when they set-up the timpani is to place the drums too close to their bodies. This results in poor tone quality due to striking the drumheads too close to the center.

 

Playing Area

Since timpani are “melodic” or tuned drums, they should be struck in the most resonant spot on the head. As a rule, this is approximately one-third of the way from the edge of the head to the center. Of course, small modifications can be made depending on the individual sound of each drum. The sound should not be too “thuddy” or “tubby” (too close to the center), or too “thin” or “twangy” (too close to the edge of the head).

 

Grip and Stroke

A timpani mallet should be held much like a snare drum stick (matched grip), only further back toward the butt of the mallet. Although there are several different grips, I would recommend letting your students play with their basic snare drum grip, or German grip, unless you have the time and technical understanding to teach the French or  American approach. The most important thing that needs to be taught to young timpanists is a good stroke. A “full-stroke,” or “down-up” motion, should be used instead of a “down-stroke” motion typically used in snare drum performance. The mallet head, starting from an elevated position above the drumhead, should strike the head in the most resonant spot, and return to its original position above the drumhead. The fingers should be relaxed to allow for maximum resonance. If a player’s grip is too tight, the mallet head will stay on the drumhead a fraction of a second and actually dampen some of the sound. When they play with alternating strokes, make sure your students still lift the mallet heads up immediately after the attack and avoid reverting to a ‘down-stroke’ motion. Have students work on Exercise 1 until they are comfortable with this motion and can get a consistent sound on the drum. Adding a simple exercise like this to your band warm-up would be a very practical and painless way to help percussionists develop good technique on the timpani.

Tuning

Asking a percussionist to try to tune a drum to a specific pitch can be intimidating to both director and student. The student, who has never been asked to tune anything, is expected to tune an instrument that has a somewhat erratic waveform. Further, many timpani lack tuning gauges, or the tuning gauges are not accurately set, so young timpanists have no reference whatsoever to help them find the pitch. To further complicate the process, the student may be playing on a set of timpani whose heads have not been “cleared” or fine-tuned in years, thereby creating a very undefined pitch. What a Herculean task to give to a young percussionist whose ears have not been trained to hear subtle pitch differences. How can we make this less painful for our students?

Keep the Drums in Tune with Themselves: Timpani heads should be cleared at least once a semester to keep them in tune with themselves. The timpani head should reflect the same frequency at each tension rod. To achieve this, tap on the head near each tension rod and adjust the tones to match each other. You can also hold an electronic chromatic tuner above the head near each tension rod to help in this process. The timpani heads can be cleared in any pedal position. In fact, they are often easier to clear when the pedal is in the toe position, or the toe of the pedal is pressed down, setting the head to a higher pitch. Finally, once the tension rods are set so they all reflect the same pitch, put the pedal in the heel position, with the heel of the pedal pressed down, so the drum is set to its lowest pitch. The lowest pitches of each drum from lowest to highest should be D2, F2, BH2, and D3 respectively. If a drum is pitched too high or low, tighten or loosen all of the tension rods the same amount to make the lowest pitch of the drum correct. Having the drums set to the correct range of pitches will allow the drums to ring beautifully and the pedals to work properly. If in the end, you feel that you didn’t make the drum sound much better through this process, don’t worry, the more you practice clearing timpani heads, the better you will get Set the Gauges: If the drums have tuning gauges, set them or allow your students to set them. You wouldn’t expect a trombonist to play correct notes that are perfectly in tune without first teaching the student slide positions. Rather, we teach trombonists positions to help them get close to a note; as they mature as musicians they work to fine-tune their pitch. Similarly, gauges help timpanists get close to the correct pitch and give budding ears more confidence.

Ear Training: You may have your students use a harmonica-style tuner to get their pitches for tuning, or perhaps they strike the bars of a marimba or xylophone to hear the pitch they will tune to. Whatever they use, they should be able to hear a pitch, reproduce (sing) it, and tune their drums to that pitch. There are practical ways you can help them with this. For example, when the band is tuning, have your percussionists sing the tuning note after it is played. You can also have percussionists sing along with brass lip slurs, ensemble scales, and arpeggios during warm-ups. There is no reason your percussionists can’t have good ears, so you must strongly encourage them to work on this skill.

Teach a Systematic Approach to Tuning: Have your students learn this method of tuning – hear, sing, pedal, check. If percussionists have been practicing matching pitch, the first two steps will be easy for them. As for pedaling, the student should always begin lower than the note and tune up to it. This allows the head to be loose and then tightened. If a timpanist tunes down to a note from above, the head will not settle into the pitch as well as it should. This results in a pitch that goes flat when the player strikes the drum. Therefore, the student should start with the pedal in the heel position, or at least lower than the pitch being approached. The student should hear the pitch, sing the pitch, tap the drumhead once in the playing area (either with a finger or with the mallet head), and immediately move the pedal until the drum rings the correct pitch. The student should tap the head one more time to make sure the pitch is correct. If it is flat, the timpanist should adjust up slightly and check it again. If it is sharp, the student should lower the pedal so the note is slightly below the desired pitch and pedal back up to the correct pitch. Encourage your students to practice tuning fourths and fifths as those perfect intervals are commonly used in timpani parts.

Once the basics of achieving a good sound on the timpani and quality tuning are met, the real fun begins. Being able to play with a good sound while hitting multiple drums is the next step. Students must maintain a consistent striking area on the heads. Often, when moving from drum to drum, students will hit too close to the edge with one mallet, and too close to the center with the other. The result, of course, is an inconsistent sound. Students must also be reminded to continue to play with a good lifting stroke. A pair of basic drum-to-drum exercises can be seen in Exercise 2. Note that there are no difficult stickings; the left hand leads to the lower drums and the right hand leads to the higher drums.

Advanced Sticking

Once students are consistent with the playing areas of the different drums using an easy sticking pattern, they need to know that awkward stickings are the rule more than the exception. When confronted with a pattern that does not allow the left hand to lead to lower drums and right hand to lead to higher drums, the student has three sticking options:

Shifting: The student can continue the alternate sticking pattern and quickly shift both hands from one drum to the other when necessary. See Exercise 3a.

Doubling: The student can do a double sticking to allow the right hand to lead up to higher pitched drums and the left hand down to lower pitched drums. The timpanist must be careful to have both notes of the double achieve the same dynamic level (often the second stroke is softer than the first). See Exercise 3b.

Cross-Sticking: The student can employ a cross-sticking technique to avoid doubling. Cross-sticking is achieved when the right hand moves over the left hand momentarily, or vice versa, to strike a lower or higher drum respectively. A downfall of cross-sticking is that the note played with one hand over the other results in striking the drum at a different angle. This creates an attack sound that does not match the others. See Exercise 3c. The “x” on beat three indicates that the note is played with the left hand crossed over the right.

Dampening

Creating a good sound on the timpani is imperative. However, learning to control the ring or sustain of that sound is the next step. Because the ring of the timpani can interfere with other musical lines and ensemble rests, students must know how to stop the sustain of the drums through dampening. Dampening the sustain of the timpani is typically done by touching the drumhead with the back fingers. The timpanist should let go of the mallet with the back three fingers of the hand, spread the fingers wide, and press the timpani head in the striking area with these three fingers. A sweeping motion of the hand to dampen the head, although commonly taught, is not necessary to cut off the sustain and can actually have negative pitch implications. A common mistake made by students is dampening too close to the rim, which does not sufficiently reduce the ring. The dampening technique described above should be used for both rests and staccato articulations. See Exercise 4 for dampening technique exercises. Note that the “x” indicates cutting the sound off via dampening.

Simultaneous Dampening: Not only is dampening utilized for rests, it can also be used to avoid the muddy sound of drums ringing together, especially at cadence points. This kind of dampening is called “simultaneous dampening.” Through this technique, a player dampens the ring of one drum while playing a note on another drum. This can be difficult as the student might not coordinate the dampening and the stroke, or might dampen with the same strong velocity with which the other drum is struck. With a little practice, however, this coordination can be achieved. See Exercise 5.

Rolls

A roll on any percussion instrument consists of creating the illusion of sustain through a series of repeated strokes. Generally, the more an instrument rings, the slower the roll speed should be. Since timpani ring so long, single stroke rolls are used. A few main points should be remembered by students when playing rolls on timpani:

  • Keep the grip relaxed. Squeezing the mallets too tightly will actually dampen some of the sustain.
  • Separate the mallet heads by several inches. This will create a more fully sustained sound.
  • Roll speed should be adjusted depending on the size of the drum and the tension on its head. For larger drums, slower roll speeds should be used. However, with more tension on a drumhead (the higher notes on a particular drum), a slightly faster roll speed should be used than when the drumhead has less tension. This said, rarely have I told a student they are rolling too slowly. Generally, they need to be reminded to slow down their roll speed, especially on the lower drums.
  • Through rolling, percussionists are trying to achieve an illusion of sustain on an instrument that is technically incapable of sustaining a sound. Therefore, to imply a sustained sound, the student must begin each roll with a slight emphasis, or mini-accent to create an attack. The following sustain is implied through the single stroke roll played at a slightly softer dynamic level than the attack. Students must still remember to lift the mallets off the head and keep their grip relaxed.
  • Consecutive rolls on timpani should be initiated with the hand closest to the drum upon which the new roll will be played. In other words, the left hand should start rolls moving to lower drums, while the right hand begins rolls that move to higher drums. See Exercise 6.

Advanced Motion

Once students can play consistently with a good and even sound, they can work to vary their articulation to fit the music. A general stroke consists of a smooth down-up motion (again, starting with the mallets above the drumhead). A legato articulation can be created through a stroke with more weight and less velocity. The weight can be achieved through the use of a small amount of arm. Students can also attain this sound by playing “into” the head (imagining striking a point an inch below the surface of the drumhead). Students must still keep a very relaxed grip. A staccato articulation can be achieved through a high-velocity stroke where the mallet hits the head and very quickly comes back up. When playing staccato, the grip may be a little tighter; remember that a tighter grip keeps the mallet head on the drumhead momentarily, subtly reducing the ring of the drum. See Exercise 7.

Advanced Tuning

Oftentimes, music will require the timpanist to tune the drums in the middle of a piece. Sometimes rests are given so the timpanist can achieve this. If this is the case, the student can use a note already set on one of the drums as a reference and sing the interval to the note that needs to be tuned. Quite often, however, the timpanist does not have much time to change notes. The student may have to play another drum while changing pitches on a drum that is no longer ringing. See Exercise 8a. There are also times when the timpanist must tune a passage without rests. In this case, the student must very quickly move the pedal up or down a fraction of a second before striking the new note. Not only are tuning gauges very helpful in this instance, so is repetitive practice to perfect the muscle memory in the foot. See Exercise 8b. Note that Exercise 8b should be played on two drums, the higher of which stays on the D.

Interpreting a Timpani Part

Students should be informed that timpani parts are often littered with misinformation, or missing information, that require a mature musician’s interpretation.

Tuning: Some timpani parts suggest a tuning scheme to use, while other do not. Some composers actually notate tuning changes in their timpani parts, while other composers do not, allowing the player to figure out a tuning plan on their own. In the end, some timpani parts require a lot of advanced planning. Depending on where your students are in their musical development, you may need to create a ‘tuning map’ for them. For example, in the timpani part, you might write something like, “Tune F up to G on measure 223.”

Note Duration: Because timpani are drums, some composers are not clear as to how long the notes should be allowed to ring. For example, the timpani part might be doubling a trumpet fanfare that ends with a whole note for the trumpets, while the timpani part ends with a quarter note followed by rests. The timpanist, therefore, should actually let the last note ring for four beats instead of dampening on beat two. Being aware of these idiosyncrasies, you can help your timpanist make wise musical decisions.

Mallet Choice: It is a good idea to have several gradations of timpani mallets available and encourage your timpanists to try different mallets for various passages. Remember that you want the sound of the timpani to highlight the mood of the piece or specific musical passage.

Drum Choice: Most notes playable on timpani can be played on more than one of the drums. Often, the timpanist does not have an option and therefore uses the drum that the part necessitates. However, when possible, help the student choose the drum that places the note in the higher part of its range. The very lowest notes on any drum tend to sound a little less defined than the notes in the middle to upper range of the drum.

 

Care and Maintenance

Much could be said about care and maintenance of timpani drums and timpani mallets. A few of the main things to consider are:

Drums: After a rehearsal, have your timpanist put the pedals of the timpani in the ‘heel’ position to relax the tension on the drumhead. This will enhance the longevity of the drumheads.

Have your students wipe down the heads with a dry cloth or rag to get the finger grease off the heads. Not only will this improve the sound of the drums, it will help keep the mallet heads clean.

Require your students to cover the timpani at the end of rehearsals. This keeps dust off of them and discourages non-percussionists from playing on them.

Don’t allow students to place things on the drums, even if they are covered. This could damage the drumheads, or affect tuning. When your students move equipment, make sure the timpani are not lifted by the counter hoops, but rather by the struts, which are the metal supports holding the bowl to the frame. Lifting them by the counter hoop, or rim can negatively affect the tuning of the head.

Mallets: When new mallets are purchased, keep them in the plastic sleeve when they are not being used. Have students put them in the sleeve head first, so when they take them out, they grab the handle and not the felt head.

Inform your students that they should not touch the felt heads of the mallets. The felts are very sensitive, and when touched they can start to ball up. They should not be touched with hands, or used to drum on legs, etc. Being a stickler with your students regarding mallets will ensure better longevity for the mallets and more professionalism from your percussionists.

Many older pieces in the band and orchestra literature call for timpani mallets to be used on suspended cymbals. This is very hard on the felts. Instead of ruining timpani mallets in this way, use either suspended cymbal mallets, or medium vibraphone mallets for this purpose. Not only will this protect the timpani mallets, but also cord-wound mallets sound far superior to felt mallets when played on a cymbal.

Although the timpani may be a daunting instrument for band director and student alike, basic playing technique can be taught to percussionists at an early age. By introducing ear training in warm-ups and teaching basic playing technique, students will feel much more comfortable when assigned a timpani part in band. As high school students begin to show a higher comfort level, advanced techniques can be introduced one at a time to challenge the students. When faced with a challenging part, student timpanists may need a little assistance creating a tuning scheme for the piece, as well as making musical decisions about articulation, note length, and mallet selection. The end result, however, will be a better-sounding band, a proud director, and percussionists who are excited about approaching timpani as sensitive musicians instead of “drummers.”

Brett Jones is associate professor of Percussion at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.  He has formerly served on the music faculty of Blinn College, Northland College, and Texas Tech University. As a respected pedagogue, Jones has presented at the National Conference on Percussion Pedagogy and published articles in numerous music education publications. Compositions and arrangements of his have been published by C. Alan Publications, HoneyRock Publications, and HaMaR Percussion Publications. Holding degrees in music from University of Colorado and Texas Tech University, Jones has performed with symphony orchestras and chamber groups, and is active as a performing percussionist and clinician in Northern Wisconsin and Minnesota. He endorses Encore mallets, Silverfox Percussion drumsticks, and Grover Pro Percussion products.



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