Complete Percussionist

The Beginning Timpanist: Part 1

by George Frock

Because the timpani are among the “musical” percussion instruments they present special problems for both the beginner and his teacher. The intent of this article is to offer some practical suggestions which will render the teaching of this instrument less formidable.

REPLACING AND TUNING HEADS: The first, both in time and importance, is to start the student on drums that have been properly set up. It may seem odd to begin an article on teaching with a note on maintenance, but a carelessly aligned head can make it almost impossible for a student to learn tuning. Timpani heads go through frequent and various tension changes through tunings. If a head is more than two years old, it has probably lost its elasticity, and hence its tone, because the constant change of tension has worn it out. I think it is better to replace the heads each year than wait for this to happen.

To change a head the following steps may prove helpful: 1) Remove the old head and wipe clean the counter hoop, bowl and tension rods. 2) Lightly sand the lip of the bowl with a piece of emery cloth. Again wipe clean with a towel or cloth. 3) Spread a thin layer of wax or paraffin across the rim. 4) Carefully seat the head on the bowl, being careful to see that the head is centered and is even around the drum. 5) Put the counter hoop over the head, being careful to center the tension rings directly over their receptacles. Dip each tension screw in Vaseline and screw down until it starts to put pressure on the counter hoop. 6) Turning each tension screw no more than 1/4 turn, slowly put pressure on the counter hoop. A caliper to measure each tension screw will help you see that each has the same degree of tension.

A second method is to place a yardstick across the head and observe that the counter hoop is pulled the same distance around the drum. Since the counter hoop will be below the surface of the rim, it is easy to sight the distance between the yardstick and the counter hoop. Place the pedal in the middle of its arc. 7) If you are fortunate enough to own timpani with master tuners, you may now pull the head to its proper range. If your timpani lacks this feature, it is necessary to continue pulling the head into its range by using the tension screws. The notes and range of the drums are as follows:

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8) The final step is to carefully fine tune each post, being sure that each one is ringing true and holding the overtones. If a series of beats occurs, more fine tuning is needed.

SELECTING THE PROPER MALLETS: Timpani mallets come in many sizes and in varying degrees of hardness. Each is designed for playing a specific style of music. The quality (and price) of mallets varies with the type of felt which covers the ball.

For a beginning student, a set of mallets from the manufacturer is sufficient. However, as the student advances, he or she should move to a higher quality mallet such as the custom-designed mallets of a professional timpanist. These are usually available at percussion specialty shops, or possibly from a symphony orchestra timpanist who makes his own.

A student timpanist should have at least three pairs of mallets (hard, medium, soft). The more advanced player’s set usually includes the following assortment: 1) General Purpose — most playing 2) Custom general — for loud tutti playing 3) Staccato — for more rhythmic definition 4) Ultra Staccato — for very articulate or rapid notes 5) Wood — for specially indicated parts.

DEVELOPING THE STROKE: It is most important for the teacher to be familiar with the two most common grips used to hold the mallets. For the beginning student, I suggest the mallets be held with the back of the hands up, since this grip has the most carry-over from the other percussion instruments. More advanced timpanists usually use a thumbs-up grip. This probably facilitates lateral movement across the drums, and also gives the touch and stroke more finesse and control.

There are several philosophies on playing techniques, varying from use of the fingers to the wrist or the arm. I recommend a wrist and finger combination for most playing. To avoid a heavy or pounding sound, much practice must be directed toward pulling the sound out of the drum. Careful attention should be given to avoid lifting the sticks too high. The mallets should never be allowed to rise above 12 to 15 inches off the head surface. Students who lift their mallets higher than the suggested limits usually produce a pounding, non-musical sound. This is especially true on loud rolls. The following exercise can be employed to teach the basic stroke:

Hold the mallet about three inches off the head surface.
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2) With the wrist, lift the mallet to the stroke preparation height. The height will vary depending on the volume desired.
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3) With a relaxed motion, drop the stick to the head surface and in one motion return the stick to the starting position. Note that the shaft of the mallet is parallel to the head surface.
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4) A second exercise designed for developing articulation is to practice alternating 16th notes and 32nd notes. To execute articulated passages, grip the mallet very firmly and keep the mallet shaft parallel to the head surface, even on the lift.
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Perfection of this technique is extremely valuable because it avoids the temptation common to beginning timpanists to use mallets harder than necessary in order to produce rhythmic precision. This results in a poorer tone quality, thus a lack of musicality. The second part of this article will deal with the techniques of timpani rolls, tuning, muffling and sticking.

Reprinted from the Selmer Bandwagon, No. 83, copyright 1977, by permission of the Selmer Company, Elkhart, Indiana.