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Timpani: exceptional intruments

Timpani

“Timpani are exceptional instruments”.

I can’t remember where I heard this sentence for the first time. Perhaps it was a maxim by Mac, one of my Mentors and timpanist at “Orchestra di Padova e del Veneto”.

He must have also told me that playing timpani in an orchestra is the world most beautiful job. I’m not a full-time timpanist, as I earn my wages teaching at school; therefore, I can’t really confirm this last opinion of him.

However, I matured enough experience as timpanist in various orchestras and I won a couple of competitions; so I can maybe tell you something interesting about this big “sauce pans”, as I like calling them.

I confess: if someone asked me which percussion instrument I could NEVER stop playing, I would reply: timpani. They are indeed my favorite instruments.

I can’t explain exactly why, as well as I can’t explain why I decided to start playing drums. I guess it’s just instinct. Someone loves the drum set, someone prefers the marimba, someone else the jazz vibraphone. I specifically love timpani.

Here we go, today’s topic, if you didn’t get it, are timpani. From my point of view.

 

THE SOUND

Sound is everything. Something obvious for any musical instrument. Yet, I always have to stress on this when I teach my students how to play timpani, but I have to stress on this also when I play them. Focus on the sound.

Perhaps it would be wise starting studying timpani first, compared to the other percussion instruments, even before the drum set or the basic practice pad technique.

… I might be exaggerated. But it’s a fact that it’s so bloomy difficult getting a decent sound out of timpani, when you play them for the first time after drums, mallet percussion, etc. After all, timpani are exceptional instruments.

I mean, you know how to handle a pair of sticks, you can bounce them on a snare drum, the snare drum plays. And roughly, this also happens with the marimba or the vibraphone.

Instead, you take a felt stick, you bounce it onto the timpani, the timpani make a sound, but it ONLY happens if you know how to make them play. Otherwise they bark. And you also need to make them bark properly.
I can’t recall when I learnt it, when the right sound turned on and finally showed up. It must have been as for everyone else: the teacher shows and explains to the student how it works, the student tries and repeats. Until a decent sound comes out.

With my students I usually do this way:

  1. after teaching them how to tune their timpani, I show and explain the basic movement to obtain a soft and smooth sound;
  2. then, I place the first exercise of the Knauer on the music stand. The first two measures contain two beats, C- G, two-quarters each. No indication regarding the movement; therefore, two legato sounds. I play, then I ask my student to repeat;
  3. if the smooth and soft sound isn’t there, I ask the student to repeat it until I’m happy with it. And I can ask to repeat and practise those two measures even for a whole month.

At the end, usually students learn it.

That’s about it, I’m not sure whether this technique is suggested on music pedagogy books, I don’t think so. Maybe it’s for this reason that it works well.

But the sound isn’t everything.

 

TECHNIQUE AND MUSICALITY

Earlier I said that sometimes I think it would be wise starting studying timpani before the snare drum or mallet percussion. As I said, this is an exaggeration.

Study the technique. Study the snare drum. You can’t play these instruments if you don’t have a great technique in your hands. After all, it’s true that the movements you have to make to obtain the right sounds are different, compared to the snare drum technique. But you can obtain speed, ability, strength and sensitivity in the use of the drumsticks, only by playing the snare drum.

After all, to make a single stroke roll you need to move your hands quickly, more or less. And to learn how to move your hands quickly you need to study the snare drum. This is only an example.

Of course, the intention, the movement, the gesture change completely on the snare drum, compared to the timpani; yet, if you don’t have a good technique to play the snare drum, you can’t even play timpani.

Concerning musicality, having to deal with two to four notes (a part from the pedals) could seem a limiting factor. The five octaves of a marimba can satisfy our will for notes. That’s why it would be wise for all the timpanists to study marimba, as well as all the other percussion instruments.

Joking aside, one day you’ll be able to apply all the “solistic instinct” you practised on mallet percussion, on the “few” notes of your big sauce pans.

By the way, here is another metaphor from my Mentor Mac. Talking about his own great Mentor David Searcy, timpanist at the Scala until some years ago, and with whom I also made a – yet memorable – masterclass, Mac says: “David Searcy was the Rostropovich of timpani”. And I can tell you, whoever met David can confirm this.

David was an exceptional player.

 

Sauce pans as timpani

CHARACTER

You should play timpani with character. Actually, all the percussion instruments (and in general, all the musical instruments) should be played with character. But this aspect, as well as the sound, is even more important with timpani.

You can know the timpani technique perfectly and apply it correctly while you play. But this isn’t enough. As I said in the beginning, timpani are orchestra instruments. In an orchestra, you often play the world most beautiful music in the world, and this isn’t just my opinion.

Now, if you think you can interpret a Beethoven symphony like an exercise on Knauer, Vic Firth, Friese/Lepak (all methods I regularly use at school), better you leave these instruments.

When you play timpani in an orchestra, you need to bring out your character. I can explain it better: you should feel dying when you play the fourth scene from the second act of the Valkyries; you should dance in the first half of Beethoven’s seventh symphony; you should evoke ghosts from hell during the introduction to the “Oh Fortuna” from Carmina Burana; you should feel like a war machine (to play with the right rhythm) in the final of the Rite of Spring.

Therefore, interpreting a music of THAT repertoire isn’t like playing a contemporary japanese music piece for marimba. With respect towards japanese music, japanese composers, marimba, marimba players and whoever felt insulted after what I’ve just wrote.

But you know… Timpani are exceptional instruments.

 

PIECES FOR AUDITIONS

I played many pieces for timpani and I got twice second at the international competition “Days of Percussion” playing songs from the solo repertoire.

Carter, Beck, Shinstine, Vic Firth are all names related to this kind of repertoire. However, knowing how to play the famous Carter March doesn’t help you if you want to work in an orchestra. Knowing the main orchestral excerpts really does help. So: study as many orchestral excerpts as you can, try and play along with the recordings of the world major orchestras, study each score, enjoy the music you are learning before dividing it into rows and study each passage.

That’s the only way you can correctly interpret an excerpt for timpani, because, if you haven’t got it yet, timpani are exceptional instruments.

(Psss! If you want to know what I think about orchestral auditions, read my previous post on how to prepare for a percussion audition!).

 

EXCEPTIONAL INSTRUMENTS

Well, I think I’ve bored you enough with all these cheesy words on my favourite percussion instruments. Sorry about that, this always happens when I talk about timpani. My students know it well.

I only have a central couple of timpani in fiber, of a brand I think doesn’t even exist anymore, Ajax. My dream, once, is having a four-pieces of professional harmonic big sauce pans in copper. I will probably keep them in the living-room, to show myself up in front of my friends…

As I’ve already mentioned, I don’t attend many auditions any more. Once in awhile, between a japanese marimba piece and another (I also study Keiko Abe… “really?!”), I switch the stereo on and I start playing a symphony from the Bigs. Just to have some fun.

 

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