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Suggested Reading

1. Rehearsal Rooms

Struggling to improve the acoustics in your band room? Check out how the Medan Band did it.

2. Concerned about playing swing music properly?

Check out my guidelines

3. Ear training exercises for bands

Unlike piano players, ear training is essential for wind band performers. But how many band directors bother to give their bands suitable exercises?

4. Intonation problems

While tuning is simple act of adjusting a length of tubing on a wind instrument (often by reference to a single note), intonation is an ongoing process in which a player strives to match the pitch of others in the ensemble during performance. 

5. “Blowing” a wind instrument

A common misconception among wind players is to believe that the air moves through the instrument in order to produce the sound. This is simply not true. 

6. Conducting – suggestions for home practice

The best way for a conductor to improve is in front of a live ensemble. The unfortunate reality, however, is that this is not always possible. Aspiring conductors therefore have little choice but to find other ways of honing their skills.

 

The Timpani

Introduction
Positioning
Holding the Mallets
The Basic Stroke
The Cross Beat
Beating Area
Tuning
Timpani Heads
Using Different Mallets


Introduction

Often considered the most difficult of all the percussion instruments to play well, the timpani makes many more demands on the musicianship of the player than is readily apparent to the casual observer.  Not only must the performer consider rhythm and tone production, for example, he must also concern himself with pitch.  Tuning, even with the aid of a pedal, is not easy, and a student must have a well-developed ear in order to do a satisfactory job.


Positioning

Before timpani are played, they must be positioned correctly.  The 28-inch and 25 inch drums should be placed with the pedals almost parallel to each other and facing the timpanist.  This is also where the music stand should be located.  Should there be any additional drums, they should not be placed too close to the player’s body.  Instead, the drums should be positioned in a wide arc rather than a half circle, with the heads approximately eight inches below the waist. The largest drum should be on the left, the smallest on the right.  For performances requiring the use of the pedal to change pitches, it is probably better that the timpanist sits rather than stands. 


Holding the Mallets

The French grip produces a lighter tone.
Two basic grips are used for playing the timpani.  They are the matched grip (sometimes called the German grip) and the “thumbs up” or French grip. [A third grip, called the American grip, is actually a mixture of the French and German styles.] The two grips produce slightly different tonal characteristics.  The German grip results in a darker tone because the hand (positioned on top of the mallet with thumb at the side) produces more resistance.  The French grip involves placing the thumb on top of the stick and cupping the other four fingers directly underneath. The French grip produces a lighter tone, partly because the mallet is permitted to pivot more freely over the thumb.  Whatever grip is employed, however, the mallet should be held nearer to the end of the shaft than in the case of the snare drum.  The correct angle of the shaft when striking the drumhead is as nearly parallel with the drumhead as possible.


The Basic Stroke

The technique of playing a stroke on the timpani is similar to that on a snare drum.  The most important difference is in the rebound.  Since the head of a timpani mallet is softer and the tension head of a timpani is less than that of a snare drum, there is much less recoil.  As a result, the player himself must provide some of the lightening rebound required by flicking the mallet upwards.  The action is in the wrist and fingers rather than in the arm. 

Place the thumb on top of the stick for more forceful playing.
As Andrew Shivas points out, “one should never have the sensation of playing ‘through” the drum, as if driving nails into it, but rather a feeling of 'picking' the notes off it". [The Art of the Tympanist and Drummer, Edinburg University Press, 1988]. That said, more forceful playing generally works best when the thumb is placed on top of the stick.

It is important that the beginner first learn to play single strokes with absolute evenness between the left and the right hands.  In some ways this is more difficult on a timpani than a snare drum because minor differences in the quality of the sticks can complicate matters, leading to more obvious tonal discrepancies. 

A roll is approached in a similar way to a snare drum, i.e. with a firm attack regardless of the general dynamic level required by the composer.  Rolls are usually played faster on higher pitched drums and slower on lower pitched ones.  In the case of forte-piano rolls it is generally best to wait briefly after the forte note has been struck before beginning the piano roll so that the forte will have time to fade.


The Cross Beat

Timpanists are taught to play different beats by using alternate sticks whenever possible. Inevitably, this means that some passages require a performer to play one of the drums by using the hand that is actually furthest from it.  For example, a timpanist may have to use his left hand to play a drum on his right.  In such cases, the rule is that the moving hand passes over rather than under the stationary hand.  The action, known as the “cross beat”, is not easy.  In fact, considerable practice is required to ensure that the drum is played at the desired spot.


Beating Area

All that has been said about the different sounds produced by beating a snare drum at different places on the head broadly apply also to the timpani.  Played at the very edge, a timpani produces a very bright sound that lacks body or depth.  It may nevertheless be suitable for softer passages.  As the sticks move further inward, the brightness diminishes and a fuller and deeper tone is produced.  This area -- about four to six inches from the rim -- produces the most characteristic timpani sound with the best pitch definition.  Thus, it is also the most commonly used beating area in performance.  Played closer to the center of the head, the tone becomes duller and sounds more like a thump.  Even this, however, may be appropriate for certain kinds of music.  Much depends here on the player’s discretion and the preferences of the conductor.

Crescendo passages should begin close to the rim.
Crescendo passages should begin closer to the rim before moving inwards towards the more usual playing area.  This is because soft playing sounds better near the rim.  For diminuendo passages, this procedure is reversed.


Tuning

Tuning is done either by a foot pedal or by means of tension handles around the head. When pedal timpani are used, the drum is tuned to the lowest note of its range rather than the first note of the piece. This is accomplished by pushing the heel of the pedal down to the off position.  The tension screws are then adjusted to achieve the desired pitch in much the same manner as on a snare drum.  Pitch is tested by tapping with the fingers in the desired playing spot and then around the head near each lug.  It is often easier to hear the pitch at any individual rod by reducing the vibration of the head.  This can be done by placing a wallet or small book on its centre.


Timpani Heads

Most timpani heads these days are made of plastic and thus require little maintenance.  Even so, they will probably need to be replaced every two or three years.  In order to prevent the sort of scratches or dents that are likely to affect tone quality, specially made covers should be used to protect the heads when the drums are not in use.  Except when tuning, nothing should be placed on the timpani head, including books, instrument cases or sharp objects of any kind.


Using Different Mallets

Mallet selection is beyond the scope of this website.  Suffice it to say that many players use sticks whose heads are too large, too fluffy or too hard for the job at hand.  Students should be encouraged to experiment with different mallets rather than use the same ones throughout an entire concert.  Heavier mallets, for example, are generally more appropriate for higher pitched drums.  They also tend to produce a more resonant legato, but may fail to perform well in staccato passages.

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