A Conductor’s Guide to Percussion: Timpani Methods

2011Symposium_1_2When it comes to directing instrumental music ensembles, the teacher is expected to have at least a working knowledge of every instrument that is being played. In schools, instrumental music teachers generally have taken instrument methods classes as part of their teacher preparation program, and there have learned how each instrument is played, and gained limited playing experience. Perhaps because of the diversity of instruments, percussion methods classes sometimes do not adequately prepare future music teachers for teaching and guiding student percussionists in bands, orchestras and wind ensembles. As a result, directors can be at a loss as to what to tell students to do in order to obtain the desired sound or effect. Over the next several days, I will write about methods for playing some of the major percussion instruments. Today, I will begin with timpani.

Before describing playing techniques, I will describe how to prepare the timpani for use. As with all instruments, the timpani must be in good working order and properly tuned before good playing technique will have the desired result. Before the start of each school year, remove the timpani head and clean the instrument. Push the tuning pedal to its highest position, and then loosen the tension rods with a drum key. Remove the hoop and drum head, and then return the pedal to the lowest position. Clean the edge of the timpani bowl with steel wool, and wipe clean with a damp cloth. Be sure the rim is clean and smooth so that the head will not be damaged when it is stretched and dragged over. Lay a new head over the bowl, place the hoop over the head and reinstall the tension rods. Tighten by hand each rod equally to a comfortable fingertip tension. Using the drum key, turn each tension rod a half rotation. Select rods so that after the first rod, the one across from it is tightened next, followed by the one next, one across, one next, one across, and so forth until all have been turned one-half rotation. Repeat until the head is firm but not fully tightened.

Using a pitch pipe, tuning fork, tuner or other accurate device, tune the lowest note on each drum. Remember, the timpanipedal is still in the lowest position. The note you will tune to depends on the size of the drum you are tuning. Tune a 32-inch drum to D, 29-inch to F, 26-inch to A, and 23-inch to C. Once this tuning is completed, go around the drum head, tapping with a timpani mallet next to each tuning rod. Select the rod next to which the tone is the most desired, and fine tune each rod until the identical pitch is obtained at each rod. Use the same pattern for this fine-tuning as you used for tightening the rods. Once this is completed, the head will be evenly stretched. Now retune the drum to the lowest pitch as before.

For playing, I recommend teaching the German grip, sometimes called matched grip. Mallets are held palms down with thumbs at the side. This grip is the same as the one used for playing xylophone/marimba/vibraphone, and concert snare drum. When striking the drum, the mallet should contact the head about 4 inches from the rim. Optimal playing point can be determined by listening to the tone produced. If the drum is struck too close to the rim, the tone will be thin; if too close to the center, the tone will be a dead thud. Arms must remain relaxed. Arm weight is used in combination with the wrists to produce the best tone and volume. Louder notes are achieved by letting the mallet and forearm fall into the drum from a higher distance. The player should avoid a hammering motion, and instead think of producing the note by drawing it out of the drum. To this end, the mallet must be removed from the head instantly after contact, so that the head is free to vibrate and the drum is free to resonate. The mallet should approach, strike, and leave the head in one continuous motion, and perpendicular to the head. Rolls are done with single strokes, never bounced. As a rule, lower pitches require slower rolls, and vice versa. Roles at any pitch can be accelerated if more musical tension is sought.

When the sound of the timpani must be ended, dampening is necessary. The mallet is held between the thumb and index finger while the other three fingers are straightened. The tips of the protruding fingers are pressed lightly into the drumhead at the points on the head where the mallets struck. The dampening must be done silently, and normally requires dedicated practice.

In terms of mallet selection, three pairs of mallets are sufficient for most school applications. A general-purpose pair will be used most frequently, especially in the mid-range of the drums, and for music where rhythms are not overly fast or at the extreme ranges of the drum. Because general-purpose mallets are used most often, it is a good idea to have spares on-hand. A softer pair is desirable for lower notes. They help sustain the lower pitches and generate a full tone that adds to the richness of the ensemble’s sound. Softer mallets are useful when less definition of attack is desired. Thirdly, a hard-headed pair should be used for staccato passages and improved definition on high notes and quieter passages. The hard mallets will produce a clear attack at soft dynamic levels. Softer mallets must be played louder to achieve the same clarity, so for soft, clearly defined playing, hard mallets are best.

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