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(Download Beginning Timpani Exercises here)
Timpani are possibly the most under appreciated instruments in the high school music room. The La Scala Orchestra’s former timpanist, David Searcy, once vividly described these magnificent drums to me as being the orchestra’s “nerve centre”. Nevertheless, in high schools they are regularly insulted, used more often as tables for whatever happens to be lying around than for creating the spectacular sounds they are capable of. The bowls get scratched and dented, the heads dented and torn, and sadly, they are rarely given the respect they deserve. When was the last time you saw a student actually practising timpani?
The problem with most timpani playing at the high school level is that beginning percussionists play the instruments as if they were snare drums: they hammer into the drum (a method I don’t recommend for good snare drumming either), and produce a “bang” rather than a full, warm tone.
While this article is by no means a comprehensive study of the art of timpani playing, by following the suggestions and practising the exercises in the accompanying Beginning Timpani Exercises your high school percussionists will begin thinking about and addressing the instruments’ unique qualities.
Positioning the body
Timpani in North America are traditionally set up with the lowest drum to the left. Using a set of two or four timpani, the timpanist should stand in the middle of the group of drums, facing the conductor. With both feet planted firmly on the ground, he/she should rotate the upper body as necessary in order to strike the drums.
There are two common grips for the timpani mallet: the German grip, where the wrists are flat with thumbs at the side, and the French grip, where the wrists are turned inward and the thumbs are up. I play French grip, with the thumb on top, and the stick supported by the index and third finger. The fourth and fifth fingers are slightly dropped away.
Each drum should be struck approximately 4” from the edge of the instrument. If the timpani are played too close to the centre, there is not enough tone; too close to the edge and the sound is thin.
As with all percussion, weight and gravity play an important role in the stroke. Tension in the arm must be avoided at all times. Louder notes are played simply by letting the stick and forearm fall into the drum from a higher level. As mentioned earlier, it is very important that your percussionists do not hammer the mallet into the timpani.
Once the head is struck, the mallet must be lifted off immediately. The downstroke and upstroke should be one, fluid motion – with a gentle snap of the wrist leading into the upstroke. Watch too that the mallets move straight up and down.
Rolls on timpani are always single stroked. Generally speaking, the lower the drum, the slower the roll. The timpanist should be trying to create as solid and even a tone as possible with the fewest number of strokes. (Having said that, more experienced timpanists will produce a faster roll if the desire is to create a more nervous atmosphere.)
Dampening/muffling the timpani
Dampening or muffling the timpani – stopping the ringing of the drum after a note is struck – is a technique that must be practised. Depending on the context of the note, the drum may be dampened with either the free hand or the hand that was holding the stick that struck the drum.
In order to dampen the timpani, the third, fourth and fifth fingers must open out from their position under the stick. The top part of the fingers must then be placed – as silently as possible – on the drum head. It is not necessary to press hard to stop most of the ringing.
Avoiding crossover strokes
In order to avoid making crossover strokes, it is important to note that when an odd number of notes immediately precede a note on another drum, the odd number of strokes is begun with the outside hand. When an even number of strokes immediately precede a note on another drum, the even number of strokes is begun on the inside hand. For example, to play a triplet on a “C” leading into a note on a lower “F”, the triplet would begin on the “outside” right hand. To play four 16th notes on that “C” leading to the “F” would demand that the 16th notes begin on the “inside” left hand.
It is often impossible to avoid having the sticks cross over. As a result, this technique should be practised slowly and carefully in order that the sticks do not get in the way of each other and that the notes are consistently stuck in the same spot on the drum with an even amount of force.
As mentioned in the section entitled Taking Stock of Your Mallets in the article Percussion Instruments and Accessories, for timpani your students might ideally have a general purpose pair, a pair with a heavier, softer head for lower notes, and a hard-headed pair for staccato passages and greater definition on high notes and quieter passages.
Much more need be discussed and considered when it comes to timpani playing in the high school music programme – not least of all the importance of ear training. But by considering the above points, and having your students practise the Beginning Timpani Exercises slowly and thoughtfully, they will approach these imposing instruments with less trepidation, and hopefully find a connection to them that will inspire them to further study.