Saul Goodman The Master Tympanist

Saul Goodman
Photo by Rick Mattingly

With every instrument, there are certain players who, through their musicianship, manage to raise everyone’s consciousness about how that instrument can he played. Often, these players also become involved with instrument design, in an effort to reduce the physical limitations of the instrument itself. When these players include teaching among their activities, their ideas quickly spread through the entire musical community, and these ideas and techniques which were once thought to be unique, soon become the model against which all others are compared. Saul Goodman has made such a contribution to tympani.

Born in Brooklyn. Goodman’s first exposure to percussion came at the age of 1, when he joined a Boy Scout drum and bugle corps. Three years later, he began his study of tympani, and at the age of 19, became a member of the New York Philharmonic, where he remained for 46 years. During those years he worked with such conductors as Toscanini, Mengleberg, and Bernstein, and composers including Stravinsky, Bartok, and Hindemith. As a teacher, he taught at the Juilliard school for 41 years, and in addition to teaching many of today’s leading tympanists, he also worked with several of the top jazz drummers.

Saul Goodman recently retired from full-time teaching at Juilliard. We met at his home in Yonkers as he was preparing to sell that house and move to Florida. Seated in his basement studio which contained the tympani he had used with the Philharmonic, and surrounded by photographs of everyone from Pierre Monteux to Gene Krupa, we began discussing his first introduction to tympani.

SG: One Saturday night, when I was about 14 years old. I was taking a walk and I passed Commercial High School in Brooklyn. It was a warm evening in October, and the doors were open. I could hear music coming out of the auditorium, so I went to the box office, asking the cashier if I could get in for 25 cents. “You can just walk in.” she said, and so I did. The New York Philharmonic was in the middle of the last movement of the Tchaikovsky 4th Symphony, which has. of course, an elaborate tympani part. The tympani immediately attracted me. Until then, I had never heard tympani. When the concert was over, I went to the tympanist and asked him if he would give me lessons. He agreed to, and that was the beginning of my study of tympani. He taught me for 2 dollars a lesson.

RM: This was Alfred Friese?

SG: Yes. I took my lessons in the subbasement of Carnegie Hall, and was introduced to what was going on in all of the concerts—not only symphonic music, but chamber music and recitals of all kinds. I became a regular frequenter of Carnegie Hall concerts. This comprised the main part of my education.

Good music always fascinated me. Having learned how to read, I started playing with quite a few amateur groups, among them, the National Orchestra Society, which is still in existence. I also played in movie theaters, substituting for different people. When I was 16, I got into what was known as the City Symphony— not as a tympanist, but as a percussionist. That was the first professional group I played with. Their season lasted 20 weeks. I was in high school at the time, so I left school to go into that orchestra. When the season finished, I had saved up enough money to enable me to go to college. After completing high school, I did just that.

I was fortunate enough to have a job in a movie theater playing drum set, xylophone, tympani, and providing sound effects. You know what drummers for the films had to do in the pit in those days—that was the kind of training that just doesn’t exist today. You had a big, thick book of music, and you would play 8 bars of one piece, 16 bars of another, 32 bars of another one, and you were always going from one instrument to another. That was at the end of the silent-film days. I went back to school and worked at the theaters. I was able to earn my living and pay my school tuition.

When I was 19 years old, I booked a job at Newport. In those days, I played at the Newport Casino, a very luxurious private club for the wealthy. There was a 15-piece orchestra, and strangely enough, we played every morning at 10 o’clock in the open air (when it didn’t rain), to entertain people who were playing tennis nearby. We used to have a concert on Sunday evening for the general public. In addition to that, we played dance jobs in the different wealthy homes.

At this time, I didn’t know what was going on in New York, but my teacher had retired, and tympanists were auditioning for the New York Philharmonic. One of them was a fellow named Roland Wagner, who was tympanist with the San Francisco Symphony. He had come to New York that summer in an attempt to intimidate the San Francisco Symphony into raising his salary. The New York Philharmonic didn’t know this. Because he was a very competent player, he was offered the position. He immediately made this known to the San Francisco orchestra, who then granted him his increase in salary. So he returned to the West Coast.

Then the Philharmonic tried out another tympanist. but he didn’t make good. In September, I had returned to New York after playing in Newport all summer, and one day I got a call from the principal percussionist of the Philharmonic. He said, “How would you like to play tympani with the New York Philharmonic?” I said, “Are you kidding?” He said, “No, I really mean it.” This was on a Saturday. He said, “Come down to the business office on Monday. Mr. Judson, the manager, wants to see you.” So I went down and we had a short conversation, and he handed me a contract. It was a 25-week season, and I got a hundred dollars a week, which I thought was a stupendous amount of money in those days.

RM: And all you had was a conversation?

SG: Don’t think it went as quickly as that—that the audition went by the boards. Actually, what happened was, the personnel manager of the orchestra used to watch me taking lessons in the basement of Carnegie Hall. He had an idea of how I could play the tympani. Several times during the course of the preceding 2 or 3 years, I had been called on to play with the Philharmonic. Usually it was when somebody took sick, and so I had to play without a rehearsal. Once, I had to do Stravinsky’s Petrouchka suite under Toscanini, practically reading the snare and other percussion parts at sight. If I had made any mistakes, he would have exploded. That was another feather in my cap. It impressed the management that I was a very capable player. When it came time to fill the tympani position, they decided to accept me.

My first rehearsal was with Willem Mengelberg, a famous Dutch conductor. The first piece I played with him was the Beethoven 8th Symphony. Evidently, not many tympani players were very proficient in the cross hammering in the last movement, I played it the way i t should he played, and Mengelberg recognized my capabilities. Only then, at the intermission of the rehearsal, did the manager introduce me to Mengelberg, who looked at me, and with his heavy Dutch accent, said, “I think you be all right.” So I was all right for 46 years. They told me it was going to be a steady job!

Saul Goodman and Gene Krupa
Photo courtesy of Professional Percussion Center, NYC.

RM: During the years you were with the Philharmonic, did you have many opportunities to play chamber music?

SG: Yes. For instance, I played the first performance of the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion with Bartok and his wife. The way this came about was. in 1940. the personnel manager of the Philharmonic asked me it I wanted to play a modern music concert for the League of Composers at Town Hall in New York City. I said. “What sort of piece is it?” He replied. “Well. I don’t have the music, but it’s by a composer named Bartok.” Although I had played some Bartok things, in 1940. Bartok wasn’t played that often. I then asked. “What are the instruments involved?” “I really don’t know.” he answered. “Bartok isn’t here yet, so send up two tympani and maybe a suspended cymbal, and the second percussion can send a xylophone and bass drum.” I said. “Okay.” and accepted the engagement.

The rehearsal took place late in the afternoon at Steinway Hall on West 57th St., after two Philharmonic rehearsals that day. I sent up two hand-screw tympani and my colleague brought up a small, two-and-a-half octave xylophone, and a dance-band bass drum with a foot pedal. We still hadn’t received the music, so we didn’t know what was required. Bartok had just come off the boat, and he had the music with him. He walked into the rehearsal and gave out the parts. He had written out the manuscript and the notes looked like little grains of pepper. Everything was congested and concentrated in a small space on the page. It was hard to tell what instrument was required or what we were supposed to be doing. I looked at the music and saw that there were many glissandos and intonation changes. I thought, “Oh my God. Here I am with these two hand-screw drums.” Bartok came over and looked at the hand-screw drums and he shook his head in bewilderment. I said, “I know, I know. Tomorrow, at the next rehearsal, we’ll have the correct instruments.”

We did the best we could with it that day, but the other percussionist couldn’t cut the part. (I won’t mention his name— it wouldn’t be decent.) The manager came to me and said, “Look, we have to get somebody else. This fellow can’t play the part.” So I suggested Henry Deneke. Henry was a fellow about my age and he was very able. He came in and read that percussion part off at sight on the first rehearsal! We had 13 rehearsals altogether for the first performance.

The concert took place early on a Sunday evening, right after the usual Sunday afternoon Philharmonic concert. I had to rush down to Town Hall from Carnegie Hall, and set up the instruments that I had used at Carnegie Hall. The truckman who picked up my drums had apparently been drinking. I followed him down 6th Avenue and his truck was zig-zagging through traffic. I could envision my drums moving around inside his panel truck, and I told myself, “Goodbye drums!” But we got to Town Hall and the drums were okay.

We started the concert, and after we got into the Allegro of the first movement, Bartok turned two pages, so the music stopped. The audience didn’t know the piece, so Bartok turned to us and whispered, “Back to number 125.” We started over at 125 and everything else went well.

Strangely enough, at that time, there was only one music critic who recognized that as a really great contemporary piece. It was a shame, because Bartok had such a hard struggle getting the recognition that he so well deserved. Of course after he died he became one of the most often-played composers of his period.

RM: How many years did you teach at Juilliard?

SG: I taught at Juilliard for 41 years. I recently resigned because I think I’ve done my duty, and I want to take things a little easier. During those 41 years, I trained many of the outstanding percussionists, not only of this country, but of a good part of the world. These students have really carried my message of technique and musicianship as related to percussion wherever they’ve gone. Among them are some of the really great leading ones; people like Vic Firth in the Boston Symphony, Jerry Carlyss of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Roland Kohloff. who took my place in the New York Philharmonic, Rick Holmes in the St. Louis Symphony, Eugene Espino in the Cincinnati Orchestra, Barry Jekowski in the San Francisco Symphony, Bill Kraft in the Los Angeles Symphony, and many others.

Not many people know this, but I also had the exhilarating experience of teaching some of the great jazz drummers: Gene Krupa, Louie Bellson, and Cozy Cole among them. Gene lived near me in Yonkers. I used to go to his house and teach him. I taught Louie Bellson too. Let me tell you a story about Louie.

I had an association with Benny Goodman. We were good friends and we worked together when we played radio dates, which was before he organized his first band. He called me one day and said, “I’ve got a great drummer!” After Krupa left Goodman’s band, Benny was never satisfied with a drummer. He kept firing one after another. But he was raving about this kid. “I wish you’d come down and hear him,” he said. Benny was playing at the New Yorker hotel on 34th Street, just two blocks from Pennsylvania Station. It so happened that the Philharmonic was giving a concert that night in Philadelphia. So I said to Benny, “Okay. I have to go to Philadelphia and we’re returning to New York about midnight. It will be late, but I’ll be there.” So I went there to see Benny and listen to Louie Bellson. They played a set, and Benny called me over after they finished and said, “What do you think of the kid?” I said. “I think he’s terrific.” Benny said. “You know, what he needs is somebody like you to teach him.” I said. “Okay. Send him up to Juilliard.” So I taught him for about six months, and Benny fired him! Then, of course, Louie went out on his own. Louie became a damn good composer. He’s a wonderful arranger too. To sum it up, he’s really a first-class musician, in addition to being a great percussionist.

I used to see a lot of Louie. He came down to Avery Fisher Hall quite a few times and sat next to me at Philharmonic rehearsals. He wrote a suite, and he wanted me to show it to Leonard Bernstein, with the idea that Bernstein might perform it. But Bernstein, during that period, was besieged with new compositions, and I suppose he just never got around to looking at Louie’s score.

Cozy Cole came to me when he was the first black drummer to get on the staff of a major radio station. This was during World War II. He played with a conductor named Raymond Scott, who conducted the group at CBS. Cozy took a few lessons from me and said. “I’d like to go to Juilliard.” This took courage for a man his age. After all, he was about 38 or 39 years old and he wanted to go to school! I don’t think he’d had too much schooling. But he went to Juilliard and did very well. I taught him there for about three years.

During the time he went to Juilliard, he was still playing at CBS with Raymond Scott. One day Cozy came in and said, “Raymond wants to know if you’ll write a piece just for you and me.” That’s how I came to write Timpianna, and we played it together on CBS radio.

There seems to have been a reason for every piece I wrote. Most composers create because they are compelled to: it’s what makes the artist. I suppose. But in my case, it was always an occasion that prompted me to write something.

One occasion was the time I taught at Deerwood Music Camp at Saranac Lake. We had quite an extensive modern dance department. The head of the dance department said to me one day, “Why don’t I get my group to dance for you and you can write a piece to their movements.” I said. “Let’s do it the other way—I’ll write the piece and then you can dance to it.” So that’s what we did. It’s called Ballad for the Dance. It became very popular, and I’m very happy about that.

The dance department at Juilliard also asked me to write a piece for them. So I wrote a piece called Proliferation Suite, which was performed at a Juilliard dance recital about three years ago with me conducting. I scored it for the usual percussion: marimba, xylophone, glock, chimes, tympani, several snare drums, and I also used a harp and a string bass. I incorporated Timpianna into the suite, because the choreography seemed to suggest a jazz piece.

Most of the things I’ve written have been to educate my students. For instance I had a student who was having problems with cross-hammering. So I wrote exercises 20 and 21 in my tympani book just to teach this student how to do the cross-hammering. A lot of the exercises in my book were written with the idea of dynamic control in mind. I wanted to make the exercises not only technically instructive, but also musically enlightening, which is very important. The trouble with most percussion people is that they don’t think of what they’re doing in a musical sense, whereas if you played piano or violin or cello or whatever, you would be required to continually keep this in mind. Another thing that is often neglected is the tone quality that you can produce: not only from tympani but also from the snare drum and from many of the other percussion instruments. And then there’s an important element of balance. How do you balance with different ensembles? Do you just go in there and knock the devil out of something or do you listen for the acoustical background of what you’re playing and try to adjust your balance so you have the proper sound and you’re well coordinated with the group you’re playing with? Those are the important elements. I think, of adjusting yourself to percussion instruments.

RM: Did someone ask you to put together a tympani book, or was it your own idea?

SG: My wife. I had been hand-writing all these exercises for my students, and finally my wife said. “You know, you should get all of these things together in the form of a book.” She kept after me and really impelled me to get the book out.

RM: How did you get in the stick business?

SG: From the very beginning of my career. I made my own sticks because I didn’t like the commercial sticks that were available. Of course, there weren’t too many good sticks available then as there are today. You were practically forced to make your own sticks in those days if you had a prestige position like I had. So I used to have three or four pair at a time turned by a local wood turner.

When I started teaching heavily, my students liked my sticks, and I saw the opportunity for making a little extra money. You see. the symphony seasons in those days were very short—28 weeks, or 30 at the most, and maybe 6 or 8 weeks in the summer. So I welcomed the additional income. Eventually I went into snare drum sticks, and I built up a very lucrative business. I think I was one of the first players to market his own sticks. Others followed: Vic Firth, Fred Hinger, to name a few and now there are several. It’s a good idea because everybody has his own idea about sticks. I don’t say that my stick is the only stick to use—not by any means. But I think it has proven itself.

I designed it with a definite purpose in mind: mainly for the different pieces in the repertoire that I play. For the opening of the Brahms 1st, I use the Cartwheel stick on the C-natural to get a big beautiful tone without any real impact sound. I designed my little green sticks for the Scherzo of the Midsummer Night’s Dream, of Mendelssohn.

RM: Aren’t the Calato sticks a little bit lighter than the ones you made?

SG: Not really. Don’t forget, the density of wood varies. The sticks are made with an automatic lathe. In any automatic lathe there might be some very slight variation in the turning. The reason for that is the different quality of the same species of wood, in this case, rock maple. The knife may cut a little deeper into a softer piece of maple than it would into a tougher piece. That accounts for the very slight variations in the thickness of the sticks. But I think Calato is doing a beautiful job. The thread is beautiful and the sewing is done by the same person that did my work. I don’t think any mass-produced article has any better accuracy than Calato’s work.

I’ll tell you something about him. He has his own mill where he cuts his wood. In other words, he doesn’t buy his wood in dowel form—he’ll buy a whole plank of hickory or a whole plank of maple. He cuts it himself, discarding everything that doesn’t measure up to the quality that he wants.

RM: The number 7 stick was added after Calato took over. Did he design that or did you?

SG: That’s my design. I call the number 7’s the “ultra-stacatto stick.” It’s just my wood stick covered first with green felt and then with white felt over that.

RM: Do you remember the first time you played on a plastic head?

SG: I sure do! I’ll tell you the experience I had. I first saw the plastic head in 1959 when the New York Philharmonic was making a grand tour of Europe that included Russia. The orchestra had just played in Kiev, and was travelling to Moscow. My tympani were transported in an open truck, and it started to rain heavily. We got to the hotel and I thought to myself, “I better get to that hall and look at my drums.” The trunk for the 25″ kettle wasn’t exactly watertight, and the rain had leaked in and soaked the hell out of the calf head. It was useless for the concert that night. I said, “Here’s where I try the plastic head.” I had plastic heads in one of my tympani trunks, but up to that point, I had never used them. It proved to be just wonderful! I’ll never forget; that night we played the Shostakovich 5th Symphony. I made a recording of that piece with Bernstein, using the plastic head. So from that time on, I was convinced that the plastic head was here to stay.

The plastic head has made the tympanist’s life much more comfortable. I used calfskin heads through my whole playing life. In the last 8 years or so of my playing, I had two sets of drums; one with plastic heads and one with calfskin. I used the plastic heads, of course, for outdoor playing. But prior to 1959, I used calfskin exclusively. I had an electrical device called a Dampchaser, which was mounted inside the drum. It’s a circular tube with an electrical element on the inside, and it generates about 100 watts of heat. That enabled me to play on calfskin heads under extremely damp conditions. It wasn’t always successful because if you put too much heat on, it destroyed the tone quality of the head. With about 50% humidity, it worked very well and you could get a reasonably good sound. For 28 years, I played outdoors on calfskin heads. In fact, sometimes when I played opera or ballet, I would have to set up on the bare ground, at night! All of the dampness came up from the earth. The only way I surmounted that problem was by using small-diameter drums, so that I wouldn’t have to stretch the heads so much for the higher notes. I once played the Brahms 1st on a very humid night with a 23″ and 25″ drum. It was the only way I could do it.

You know, there are no decent calfskin heads in this country anymore. American Rawhide was the last company that made good calfskin heads. I found a place in Ireland that makes wonderful heads. One 36″ head costs about $125! Many years ago, I used to get excellent heads for 10 or 12 dollars apiece.

They’re perishable. With the stuff that’s being written for tympani today, they wouldn’t last 2 days. You have to be very careful with them. But if you could listen off to a distance to a plastic head and a fine calfskin head, and listen to them being played by a good player who is using the proper sticks, there would be no comparison whatsoever. The good calfskin would obviously sound warmer. But it’s always a hazardous practice to use calfskin, because you never know what conditions to expect.

RM: You also make your own tympani. How did you get involved in that?

Saul Goodman
Photo by Rick Mattingly

SG: My building these drums goes back to the summer of ’42, when the Philharmonic was playing at the Lewisohn stadium. The stagehands were supposed to remove the drums from the stage after the rehearsal and put them in a storeroom, but they left the drums on the stage, unprotected. About 6 o’clock that evening, there was a tremendous thunder storm, and the stage was struck by lightning. The two steel girders that held up the roof of the stage collapsed, and these girders, which weighed about 5 tons each, folded up over my tympani and flattened them out like pancakes.

So there I was, with a war in progress and Dresden drums unavailable. I begged some materials from a few friends who had a metal business (I practically bootlegged the stuff), and we built a set of tympani to replace the set that had been destroyed. I had to use bronze because aluminum was impossible to obtain. The bronze castings were terribly heavy, and it wasn’t until after the war was over that the main castings could be made of a much lighter metal. I experimented with several alloys of aluminum, but none of them seemed to work. Finally, I hit on an alloy that really did the job and could take the tremendous tension of those drums. Of course, that alloy remains my secret.

Then the idea of the chain drum came to me accidentally. In the early ’30s, I had brought some cable drums over from Germany and used them in addition to the pedal drums. Dick Horowitz, tympanist with the Metropolitan Opera, and a former student of mine, asked me if I would build some cable drums for him. I looked at the cable drums and thought, “How can I duplicate this?” So then I thought, “Why don’t we use a chain?” A chain would be superior because the cable was connected by turnbuckles and could only travel between the two pulleys that actually received the cable ends, thus restricting the distance between the pulleys. With a chain, you would have endless tensioning possibilities. My chain drum was patented in 1952; the first application of a chain to a musical instrument.

RM: Didn’t you also build a few snare drums?

SG: I made about a dozen of them. It’s a suspended-shell snare drum, based on the design of the Dresden suspended-shell tympani. The vibration is really sustained and the ease of playing is enhanced by the fact that the vibration is not stifled, because nothing is screwed into the shell.

RM: What are your thoughts on the practice of altering tympani parts?

SG: I’ve done that very often. I will shortly publish a revision of the tympani parts of the four symphonies of Robert Schumann. There are many wrong notes in the parts. Of course, the reason composers of that period didn’t bother changing the pitch was that the mechanical type tympani necessary for those changes didn’t exist. If they started a piece in F and B-flat, it remained in F and B-flat, unless there was a long period of time to change to another pitch.

Let me tell you something about revising a part. Don’t forget that during the 19th century when these pieces were written, people got used to listening to the wrong notes. I remember once playing the overture from the Midsummer Night’s Dream with Toscanini. In the transitional section the key goes to F-sharp major, but the tympani part is still using B-natural and E-natural, which are wrong notes. So I changed the note once and Toscanini stopped and said, “Don’t change the note. I want it to sound as Mendelssohn heard it, with the wrong note.”

Saul Goodman
Photo by Rick Mattingly

Another aspect of this changing business: It doesn’t always follow that if you change a note to what is harmonically correct in the chord, that it’s necessarily going to sound good. By using the “right” note, you might alter the orchestral color by changing the inversion of the chord that the composer was trying to produce at that time. Even though you do play the “right” note, in many cases it doesn’t work.

There was another instance regarding historical accuracy. I remember once playing Symphony 39 by Mozart with Bruno Walter, one of the greatest Mozart conductors of this century. The work starts with what I always thought should be a full, resonant sounding B-flat and E-flat. But Walter said, “I want it to sound like the old tympani.” The drums he heard when he was young did not have the resonance of modern drums. I had to muffle the drums to get the sound he wanted.

RM: Could you suggest any guidelines for writing an effective tympani part?

SG: Study Stravinsky, Mahler, or Richard Strauss, who have composed exemplary parts for the instrument.

RM: For many years, you ran the percussion ensemble at Juilliard. Could you tell me about that?

SG: I don’t know the history of percussion ensemble, but I started an ensemble at Juilliard in 1944, so I think I was one of the first. Then I offered a prize for the best percussion composition, because there was very little music for percussion ensemble then. Varese asked me to perform Ionization at the school, but I had to say “no” because we weren’t ready for it. In later years I did perform it and it always proved a huge success. RM: Do you get to do much playing these days? SG: Since I retired 9 years ago, I haven’t, but I played a concert recently, and I really enjoyed it. As I said, I have just retired from Juilliard (although I will still be giving master classes from time to time), and I’m going to move to Florida, where I expect to do quite a lot of playing.

At present, I am involved in writing a book about my experiences during my 46 years with the New York Philharmonic, and my 41 years of teaching at Juilliard. The title will be View From the Rear.