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Timpani: a contribution by Alberto “Mac” Macchini

By Paolo: “Today I’m honored to publish on my blog an article by my Mentor Alberto “Mac” Macchini, solo timpanist of “Orchestra di Padova e del Veneto” and Professor of Percussion at the Adria Conservatory.

The article was initially born as a comment on my previous post about timpani. But Mac had something more to say about that… maybe thanks to his 25 years – experience spent behind those big sauce pans, playing with various orchestras. So, here’s the result!

Enjoy the reading and once again thanks to Mac, non only for this special contribution, but also for being my Mentor, inside and outside the Conservatory.”

Alberto "Mac" Macchini



I took pleasure in reading Paolo’s passionate post about timpani. I’d like to add some general and non-technical (there would be too much to talk about) contribution based on my experience in the field, which now covers unfortunately already more than a quarter of a century, alas…

Someone said that in order to stay young inside, you should always wonder in life. If this is true …well, every single day I seat on that stool behind my timpani I think how nice is the world when you look at it from that perspective and I wonder how those drums, or big sauce pans, if you prefer, are able to make a well defined and (possibly) tuned note. What a terrific instrument, what a mix!

In the same way, sometimes I keep wondering how I’m still able to shoot some baskets at my age, when we play a basketball match with friends, but this is another story…

However, given that we’ve started talking about sport, if I had to compare the role of the timpanist with that of a football player, I’ve always thought that a timpanist in a orchestral “team” is like a goalkeeper; maybe he stands even ten minutes without doing anything, but when he starts playing, he must be determined and fateful! CHARISMATIC.



The actual role of a timpanist is classified as “solo timpanist”, or “solo pauker” in German. However, beside exceptions in Mahler, Stravinsky, Berlioz, Glinka, where sometimes you find 2 or more timpanists in the score, an orchestra timpanist normally stands by himself and plays all alone or better, he goes hand in hand with his best friends, the trumpet players.

Therefore, the definition of “solo timpanist” is, if you like, a bit of a paradox. Timpani, together with few other instruments of an orchestra (double bassoon, cymbals, triangle etc) aren’t properly a “solo” instrument if you take them off the orchestra, despite the willful attempts of some “timpani player-composers”, who challenged themselves writing pieces, sonatas, concertos for this instrument (J.Beck, E.Carter, W:Taerichen, etc.).

Concertos for Timpani and Orchestra are indeed very few in the history. I can report a concert composed by W. Hertel, a late baroque composer, which is written for 8 small diatonic timpani (at the time, timpani were smaller than the modern ones and they lacked the pedal); the contemporary R.Parris, the famous “Eight pieces for Timpani” by Elliott Carter and the ever green of audition and music competition “Concerto for timpani and orchestra” by Werner Taerichen, historic timpanist at the Berliner Philharmoniker.

To this end, I’d like to cite the background that the great Berliner timpanist told us in live; I had the luck to be able to attend one his masterclasses in Trento and I had the honor of meeting him personally. Taerichen was not only a timpanist (and what a great timpanist!); he had a degree in composition and wrote some pieces for different instruments (violin, cello, etc), which caught the attention of the great Herbert von Karajan, main director of the Philharmonisches for a long time, succeeded by the grate Wilhelm Furtwangler. Well, Taerichen told us that once Karajan got to him and shamelessly asked: “As a composer, have you ever thought about writing a concerto for timpani and orchestra?”

Here I’d like to make a link with Paolo’s citation about David Searcy. It’s something Jonathan Scully, Searcy’s colleague at the La Scala Theatre for many years, said :

if timpani had soloists… David Searcy would be Rostropovich or Maurizio Pollini!



Going back to the profile and the skills of a good timpanist, I think a timpanist should have:

  • personality;
  • determination;
  • good ear;
  • humility.

This no small matter (sense of rhythm is something obvious, I assume).

Alberto MacchiniLook, I am not trying to draw a celebratory portrait of myself; I’m only trying and describe what I found out and understood in 25 years of work. And this is what I always try to pass on to my pupils, who approach this instrument with curiosity, wonder and enthusiasm.

Timpanist ears must be everywhere, listening to all the other instruments without… waiting for them. For this reason, the position of timpani in a concert room it’s also very important; surely next to the trumpets, but not out of the general context. Often, our rooms are inadequate and the organizers incompetent, which gives sad surprises and put us in a difficult position.

What I called “humility” of a timpanist derives from this. A timpanist must be a leader, working for the WHOLE orchestra… an inherent contradiction, if you like.

Let’s think about that famous passage of the second movement of the I of Beethoven, or the famous link between the third and the fourth movement of the V Symphony. Beethoven writes “pp” for timpani but all the orchestra listens and follows us in that point! It’s like playing the orchestra heartbeat itself! Pianissimo solo-players working for all the other players. Determination, ear, leadership and…. much much sense of humility, never protagonism!

My last two notes in this sort of long chat we had, are about repertoire and sound.



Well, linking to Paolo’s ideas, I can confirm that playing Keiko Abe on a marimba or Friedman on the vibraphone is very rewarding and maybe the history of music will give these composers an Excellency in 300 years. But now, in 2015, when I play even only a single triangle hit in Ravel, I’m playing… Ravel! Or when I play my part in one of Beethoven concertos for piano, I’m playing.. Beethoven or the Bach’s Miss in B minor or the Christmas Oratorio! Well, we are about on the Everest mountain of music.

By the way, I wonder why it’s many years that there’s an extraordinary revival and conversion of Bach pieces for our “klavier instrumenten”…!

Talking about the sound, what can I say… I grew up with my mentor David Searcy and with the tone of natural heads in my ears and in my heart. I rarely manage to play them; let’s say that I can get the best pleasure using my baroque timpani, which I work extensively with in important Italian and European orchestras. David used to joke and tell me: “Alberto, you became a… Ba-rock-star!”

Very last thought: that of a timpanist is a rare job. Sometimes I smile thinking that in a rather small city of 300 thousands people like Padua, I am the ONLY one who does this job full time and that in Italy we’ll be about 60, if you look at established orchestras. It’s the 0,0001% of the all Italian citizens!


So, thank you for reading, my cordial greetings and… HAPPY TIMPS EVERYBODY!



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