Complete Percussionist

The Beginning Timpanist: Part 2

by George Frock

ROLLS. One of the more difficult techniques to develop is that of producing a sustained sound. Much practice must be done to ensure a feel for the proper roll speed. Experience shows that the roll speed will be slower with the heads in their lower register and faster when the heads are in their higher register.

Since timpani are played with mallets, all rolls are single stroke rolls. No bounces or buzz rolls should ever be used except for some special effect. To develop an even roll technique, the student should first practice slowly, striving for an even sound with each hand. The following exercise may prove beneficial in developing the speed needed for a good roll. Play each measure four times. The exercise should be repeated at different pitch levels.
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TUNING. Helping the student play in tune seems to be one of the most difficult aspects of teaching timpani. I have already pointed out that if a drum is not aligned properly, the student is faced with an impossible task of learning to tune it. Even when a head is tuned well, a number of strong overtones sound, and these often make it hard for new students to distinguish the fundamental sound when they try to tune a note. Much attention must be given at this time to see that the student can match a given pitch, sing a given pitch, then tune to other notes from that pitch.

The importance of this third tuning problem convinces me that the use of a tuning fork is better than the pitch pipe, which has several notes. It requires the student to develop the awareness of intervals necessary for rapid tuning. For the same reason, the student should be encouraged to learn to identify, either by singing or with the drums themselves, the roots of chords. These can be played on the piano or as the band plays chords or chorales in warm-ups at the beginning of rehearsals.

MUFFLING. One skill which will be very valuable in developing clarity in performance is a technique called muffling. It is obvious that the timpanist must shorten or stop tones when rests occur in the music. The student must strive to muffle quietly so that when the hand is placed on the drum no finger buzz or slap is heard. This is best accomplished by feathering the hand across the head, starting at the rim and moving across the playing area.

A second type of muffling, less apparent than at rests, is to muffle one drum while playing on another. Since the tone of a single note on one drum has a rather long decay, a series of overtones builds up as one plays from one drum to another. The problem is similar to the effect one gets when playing piano with the pedal down. The ringing overtones of one interfere with those of another. The result is a mass of noise and no rhythmic or pitch clarity. An exercise to develop this second technique is to practice playing on one drum while muffling the other. Start very slowly and gradually increase speed much like practicing a snare drum rudiment.
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STICKING. The acoustical properties of timpani heads are such that the best tone quality is produced when the mallet strikes the head about three to four inches off the rim. It is the practice of most timpanists to strike directly between the tuning posts. It should also be noted that the arm, body, and stick angle should be the same toward each drum. To ensure this practice, I suggest that a young timpanist first learn to play while standing; more advanced timpanists may play seated to free both feet for rapid tuning. The player should turn to face directly each drum on which he is playing.

Since notes occur on different drums in varying rhythmic passages, the timpanist has to work out sticking patterns with which he can execute the passage with the least amount of effort. When patterns don’t work out evenly, the timpanist must execute the passage either by doubling or by a technique called crosssticking. Since nearly all professional timpanists recommend cross-sticking only as a last resort, I suggest that a rule against cross-sticking be established for the school timpanist. Movement from drum to drum should be done only by alternation or by doubling. Doubling on the same drum rarely produces equal sounds; therefore, doubling should be only from one drum to another. It is suggested the timpanist become familiar with the following patterns:
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INSTRUCTIONAL MATERIALS. Lesson books are, of course, an essential supplement to any teacher’s instructions. Many fine books are available — so many that I can only list a few that I have found both effective and varied in their approach to different facets of performance.
1. Firth, Vic. The Solo Timpanist. Carl Fischer.
2. Goodman, Saul. Modern School for Timpani. Mills Music Corporation.
3. Hinger, Fred. Solos for the Virtuoso Timpanist. Hinger.
4. Lepak, Alexander. 32 Solos for the Advanced Timpanist. Windsor Music Publications.
5. McMillan, Thomas. Basic Timpani Technique. Pro Art.

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