Exploring the Mystery of Playing Timpani

Mike Lawson • Percussion • July 31, 2020

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Whether you’re a music educator, band or orchestral student, conductor or composer, timpani have been one of the most mystical and misunderstood percussion instruments ever encountered by most players. Yet, it can be heard professionally performed in every type of music, from 300-year old classical standard repertoire, to marches, Broadway, pops, Latin and even big band jazz.

So why is it that everyone is so afraid of these big, heavy shiny bowl-like drums, always placed at the back of the ensemble? It is essential that all percussion students and each music educator know and understand the basic concepts in how these instruments work (how to perform on them) and that Timpani are not just another drum. In this abbreviated overview, we will explore and discuss the essentials of this new understanding.

Proper Instrument Setup: Most schools use either a pair (29’ & 26”) or set-of-four drums (32”, 29”, 26”, 23”). The traditional American setup is the most common: largest drum on the players left, going to smallest drum on player’s right. The German setup is found and used by most European orchestras, setting up the drums in the reverse sequence. I recommend teaching and learning timpani set up in American sequence, like a piano (the lowest notes are always on the left of the keyboard).

Player Standing or Sitting: Much has been said about the pros and cons of the timpanist sitting or standing while playing. In either case, a suitable adjustable height timpani stood should be a regular part of the percussion section, reserved exclusively for the timpanist. Personally, I prefer and almost always perform standing, as I can get a more controlled stick-impact placement, adjust the tuning pedals faster, see the music on the music stand better and have better eye-to-eye contact with the conductor. During long sections of counting measures of rest, the timpanist can “perch” on the timpani stool in an almost-ready position.

Pedal Tuning: Each kettle has its own range, generally a major 5th or 6th interval. When making adjustments in pitch, it is always best to “slide up” (depressing the toe of the pedal) to the note, rather than descending down to a desired pitch. The kettle needs to “be in tune with itself.” What does this mean? Balanced action pedal tuning, refers to a balanced-equal tension between the head tension and the pedal spring tension in the silver adjustment knob located on the timpani base assembly. Pedal-tuned timpani make all pitch adjustments by moving the pedal up or down. This has become a standard design, rather than the traditional-original pitch adjustments to the timpani head tension made with multiple “T”-handles around the top of each drum. Each drum size (manufacturer & model) has a predetermined range that sounds best for each size kettle.

The most common ranges should be memorized by the educator and player to help facilitate the fastest and most resonant pitches.

32” Heel down D…up to Toe down G

29” Heel down E… up to Toe down B

26” Heel down A… up to Toe down E

23” Heel down D….up to Toe down A

Most common band and orchestra published music places the pitches of the individual timpani on the timpani part, but most will not specify which drum the pitch is supposed to be played on. By immediately knowing the ranges of the drums, and recognizing that the best resonance is in the middle of the range, the educator will be able to assist the student player in selecting what pitch sounds best on what kettle size.

If the balanced action pedal will not hold in place in either the heel down or toe down position, the timpani head is not in balance with the correct range of that specific size kettle. This requires an adjustment to the timpani head tension around the perimeter and “big silver knob” at the bottom of the kettle, in front of the pedal toe. This is a fairly simple process, but requires considerably more space than we have in this overview. I will be happy to e-mail you a PDF file, Care and Tuning of Your Ludwig Timpani, by sending an e-mail to kbdustman@aol.com. This two-page instruction prepared by the Ludwig Drum Company helps with many of the common timpani functions and adjustments.

Tuning Gauges: Most professional timpani are equipped with some form of tuning gauges attached to the drum. These gauges can be a tremendous assist to the timpanist, providing the gauges are properly calibrated to the correct range of each drum, and the gauges work smoothly and properly. Music educators must make certain that every student has a basic knowledge of ear training to establish the essentials in recognizing most common intervals and making adjustments to the tuning in each key-change tuning transition. This intonation requirement is important for everyone playing timpani, as this instrument is considered a “pitched percussion instrument.” Playing out-of-tune is unacceptable and can be eliminated with proper ear training from the very beginning.

Best Timpani Sound Production: Each kettle has a “sweet spot” which provides for maximum resonance, pitch clarity and projection. This is generally three inches from the edge of the drum. This is where the timpanist will strike the head 90 percent of the time, with the “beating spot” placed in-between the two closest tuning tension posts.

Timpani sound and resonance is the result of many factors: sizes of the drum, fiberglass or copper kettles, extended head collar or non-extended collar, type of head material and thickness, acoustics of the hall, type of timpani sticks used, and the ability of the player to match the technique, volume, definition, and sound to the music being performed.

However, the most common sound production problem is attributed to not changing the plastic timpani heads often enough. Plastic heads can go “dead” after a duration of stretching, vibrating, and moving from one note to the other over time. The rule of thumb would be changing your timpani heads in a school setting at least every-other school year. Professional orchestras change their timpani heads every year. Locate a knowledgeable, experienced person that can change timpani heads, calibrate the tuning gauges and refurbish internal mechanisms. I do this personally for many schools, colleges, and universities throughout Northeast Ohio.

Much of the unwanted, persistent and annoying buzzing, squeaking and frustrating vibrations sounds are attributed to the lack of head lubricant on the underside of the head. The plastic head must move effortlessly and quietly over the timpani kettle-edge lip. Otherwise, the plastic movement-friction will create a distracting sound whenever the pedal is moved up or down. Most rattles are created by loose tuning gauge letters or various nuts, bolts and washers that are part of the frame assembly that all loosen with time and continuous playing vibration. Again, a qualified professional timpani service expert is needed to resolve many of these issues common in all older well-played timpani.

I also recommend for educators and timpanists the Mark Yancich DVD, Changing and Tuning Plastic Timpani Heads. This is an excellent reference guide for everyone needing to know the basics of timpani sound production and how the mechanics of timpani really work. The entire series, The Art of Timpani by Mark Yancich, can be easily ordered through www.professionalpercussionproducts.com/markyancich.html

Timpani Stick Selection: Much has been said, written, and explained about all the differences in timpani sticks. There are different handle materials, (bamboo, carbon fiber, cherry-wood, maple-wood), as well as all the different stick head covering materials, cores and related, (American felt, German felt, cork, flannel). This is why timpani stick selection remains a personal preference of the timpanist and the sound the music conductor wants from the timpani. Different sticks provide different resonance, clarity, articulation and definition, which can change from one hall to another, differences in music composition, volume sensitivity, and instrument placement on-stage. I recommend most students start with a three-pair essential of soft, medium, and hard. This can be selected from standard roller ball (right) or cart-wheel models, (left). I find that the Clevelander brand of timpani sticks with bamboo handles is an excellent choice, affordable and hand sewn in Cleveland, Ohio. These are easily available at www.professionalpercussionproducts.com.

Proper Timpani Stick Grip and Stroke: American, German, French – what’s the difference? Again, this is a personal preference of the timpanist and what force or accent articulation is needed for the timpani part. Educators should be able to demonstrate the differences: French means thumbs-up, German means thumbs sideways (traditional matched grip), and American mean somewhere in between the vertical French and the horizontal German. The stroke is very smooth, targeted and relying upon a rebound coming off the head. I refer to this as a wrist motion similar to casting a fishing line, but only with the wrist moving. The timpani stick must be moved up from the timpani head immediately in a backwards “snap wrist action,” allowing the head to fully vibrate and resonate.

How to Practice Timpani…without having timpani: There is a solution for this problem through the creation of the Timpani Warm-up Practice Pad, designed by Chicago Symphony principle timpanist David Herbert. A special pad material perfectly duplicates the timpani head feel and rebound, allowing professionals and students to practice timpani, anywhere at anytime. This is perfect for developing even rolls, best sticking patterns between drums and practicing complicated musical passages with volume nuances.

A logical solution to every timpani practice need would be to create two simple cardboard circles, 29” and 26” in diameter to simulate a full-size timpani head and playing surface. By placing two of the D. Herbert Timpani Practice Pads at exactly the “sweet spot” playing location, the student has the visual connection to full size timpani heads, with the feel and rebound of a real plastic timpani head. Placement of both cardboard disks equipped with Herbert Timpani Pads on a standard 36” high kitchen counter or table, there is an immediate solution to practicing timpani at home or in a studio application. This brings immediate improvement to creating and practicing sticking patterns, cross-sticking needs and moving from kettle-to-kettle. These are perfect solutions for back-stage pre-performance wrist warm-up and audition waiting sequences before performance. These Herbert Timpani Practice & Warm-up Timpani Pads are available at www.professionalpercussionproducts.com/davidherberttimpanipracticepad.html

Recognizing these basic principles and challenges will equip the professional music educator, conductor, composer and percussion student with essential insights on how to set-up, tune, perform, and maintain timpani as an integral instrument of the band, orchestra or any-size ensemble.

Karl Dustman is a recognized professional timpanist and percussionist based in Cleveland, Ohio. He performs regularly with many regional orchestras and ensembles in the area and tours internationally as principle timpani-percussionist with the world famous Mantovani Orchestra. He has been a featured guest performer with the Vienna Residence Orchestra and the Hour of Power Orchestra televised performances from the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California.

He has been co-executive director of the Percussion Marketing Council for the past 19 years. He has served on the Advisory Board and Symphonic Committee of the Percussive Arts Society. He is the founder and president of Dustman & Associates Marketing Communications, his 29-year marketing consulting firm and Professional Percussion Products, the nation’s first by-appointment-only orchestral percussion showroom resource serving all the major symphony orchestras, conservatories and professional percussionists around the globe.

He makes in-school educational percussion presentations for the Cleveland Federation of Musicians throughout the Cleveland area and serves on the American Federation of Musicians Local 4 Music Fund Board of Directors. He can be reached at kbdustman@aol.com.

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