The Timpani is an exciting percussion instrument because it can influence the rhythmic ideas of a musical piece as well as contribute to the harmonic and melodic development of it. The drum can play a series of different pitches and today we are going to explore how it is used in the performance setting as we learn about the basics of the Timpani.
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First we are going to identify how to set ourselves up behind the Timpani. To start, acquire a 30 inch stool. This stool allows percussionists, of varying heights, to comfortably sit on it and play the drum in an appropriate position. Be sure to sit on the edge of the stool so you can move back and forth freely between the various drums. In addition, make sure that you sit on the stool so that you are not too close to the drum. It should feel like you are not being forced over the drum.
Understanding the Basic Physics of the Timpani
Let’s begin by identifying the best place to strike the drum. This is approximately 1/3rd of the distance to the center of the drum. This allows the drum the greatest amount of resonance. In contrast, if you were to strike the center of the drum you will find that the result is a bit of dull and dead sound.
The actual shape of the timpani is in a “U” shape. This shape allows the drum to reflect the vibrations created by striking the head and produces an ideal and characteristic resonance sound.
The Three Main Parts to the Timpani
There are three main parts to the Timpani that make it unique to the percussion family. To start, the drum has a pedal. The pedal is intended to change the tightness of the drum head. As a result, the pitch created by striking the drum changes instantly. The second unique part of the drum is called the Timpani gauge. This part serves as a reference as to how high tight the head is. This helps percussionists quickly make adjustments to the pitch as the piece is being performed. The final unique part to the drum deals with the assembly of how the head is attached.
Unlike other drums that have heads that are firmly attached to the rim, the timpani head is stretched over the rim. Since this is assembled in this manner it is important not to move a Timpani by grabbing the rim. If this occurs it is possible that the whole tension of the head would shift and would damage the drum. Instead, grab on to the heavy metal structural pieces that are drilled into the shell and move it in this manner.
Timpani music uses a variety of notes notated on the bass clef. When you receive this music it is important to determine which series of notes will be played on a specific timpani drum. You can determine which drum should be used based on its performance range. Typically smaller timpani are able to play higher notes whereas the larger drums are able to play the lower notes.
There are four primary drums in the Timpani family. These include the 32”, 29”, 26”, and a 23” drum. When tuning these drums you need to set it at the bottom of it’s range first then tap it with the end of one of your fingers just to hear where the drum is, pitch-wise. Next, determine what note you need to get the drum up to and slide up the pitch with the pedal quickly.
When tuning the Timpani it is the goal of the percussionist to tune it as quickly and accurately as possible. To accomplish this goal the musician will need to listen to a pitch source. This pitch may come from a pitch pipe, tuning fork or even from the band as they are tuning. If tuning from the band it is helpful for percussionists to learn to hear certain harmonic intervals to make the appropriate adjustments quickly.
To recap, to tune the timpani:
Step 1 – Listen to the pitch source
Step 2 – Have the pedal at the bottom of the range.
Step 3 – Tap the drum twice. First time to hear where the pitch is and second time, after the pedal is slid up quickly, to check if the pitch is correct.
Step 4 – If the pitch was noticeably off, then repeat the process until the pitch was correct.
Matching pitch comes with time and takes a lot of practice. Percussionists should take the time to sing scales and intervals to help improve their abilities and become comfortable with the process.
Troubleshooting the Timpani
The most common problem for percussionists when using a Timpani drum is when a pedal starts to slide. This may occur when you are trying to tune to a low note on the drum. You lower the pedal to get this note but as you lift off of it the pedal slides back up. As a result, you have to hold your foot on the pedal or you just accept you can’t get those particular notes. The most common reason for this is because the drum range is not tuned.
If you raise the pedal all of the way up to the top of the drum’s range and still it isn’t heard, or is slipping, take a timpani drum key and tune the drum all the way up to the proper note. Next, lower the pedal and it should stay still if it is a “balanced action timpani” which most programs use.
If the pedal is STILL sliding use your timpani key and then find the screw right underneath the timpani pedal. Then put the key on the screw and then you can tighten it to the right or the left depending on which direction the pedal is sliding. Be sure not to twist the key more than half a turn. If you feel that you need to turn the key more than half a turn in either direction, then the real problem exists as a result of the head tension.
The next most common problem with the timpani is a buzzing or rattling noise when you strike the drum. This is a slightly more complex problem. Start problem solving by checking every screw on the drum. Most common buzzing problems occur as a result of the screws from the gauge. Fixing the problem from this point is easy. Start by hitting the drum and listen as to whether the rattling or buzzing is coming from this source. Next, twist and tighten all of the little screws that are under the gauge’s letters. This will more than likely going to solve the problem.
If this does not solve the problem check all the lugs and tighten where appropriate. Again, if this is not the source then the problem may be that the head is not resting on the drum correctly. This could be more likely if it is an old drum. Try removing the head and apply a thin layer of Teflon tape. Then reinstall the head and re-evaluate. This should help create a smooth surface that would minimize or eliminate buzzing.
Now that you are playing your timpani, determine if the pitch is pure. If you find that the sound is wobbly or inconsistent, it may be as a result of the head not being perfectly in tune. This is because one or two of the tension rods are not in-tune with the others. To check if this is the issue, tap in front of each lug and listen to see if you hear a pitch variance. The pitch you hear from tapping in front of each lug doesn’t have to be exact; however, it should be close. If you can narrow it down to one lug, make the adjustment to that one lug and strike the head to see if it sounds balanced. If even after that the sound is unclear go ahead and detune the head and start all over to make it as even as possible.
Finally, we are ready to play the instrument. The last thing we need to do is to arrange and set-up the timpani. In most programs across the country timpani are set-up where the low drum is set-up on the left side of the musician. As a result, the arrangement will be set-up like a piano or marimba from low to high.
To start, set-up the center two drums fairly close. Most of the time the gauges of these two drums will touch in the center. If one of these drums does not have a gauge in this location, be sure to remove the gauge and put it in the proper location.
Next bring in the outer two drums into a half circle formation. Then place the stool in the appropriate location, the mallet tray should be between the two highest drums and the music stand between the 2nd and 3rd drums. Remember you shouldn’t set the stool up too close to the drums. Be sure to place this where you can sit on it and play each of the drums comfortably. As a reminder, the playing location on each head should be 1/3rd of the way between the rim and the center of the drum.
The grip used for the timpani is similar to the snare matched grip with the exception that the wrists are turned where the thumbs are up. Now instead of having the pressure of the stick resting in the palm, it is resting in your fingers and doesn’t go into your palm for Timpani playing. This is also called French Grip.
The Basic Stroke
Much like several other percussion instruments the goal of the basic Timpani stroke is to think of pulling the sound out of the drum. Each note gets one wrist turn. In Timpani playing there is a greater emphasis in creating a quality resonance. When musicians perform the basic stroke they should start and end in the same position as a result of pulling the sound out the drum correctly. By pulling the sound out and having the mallets higher it will be easier for the performer to move more easily quickly. In contrast, those that play more into the drum will find that it limits your motion across the whole range of the instrument.
The Timpani is a beautiful and resonant percussion instrument. Coupled with proper equipment set-up, playing technique, and troubleshooting skills any musician can make marvelous music with the Timpani. Challenge your percussionists to see if they understand the basics of Timpani performance. Then build on this to establish a foundation for great future performances.