Q:what does a timpanist do? A:hits a big-ass drum
September 25, 2008 2:01 AM   Subscribe

I've unexpectedly found myself playing timpani for a local open orchestra. Any tips on tuning/technique?

A local open orchestra was in need of someone to play timpani and I agreed to help them out. I've never played timpani before but was assured on the basis of the other instruments I've played that I would be ok. I went along to the first rehearsal last night and played along without much trouble, but I wondered if anyone has any tips on technique? Specifically tuning (I was wondering if my electronic guitar tuner would be any use?), damping, and playing rolls. In case it matters, these are hand-tuned timps with screws round the outside, not pedals.
posted by primer_dimer to Media & Arts (6 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I am a percussionist. Here's how to look like a professional.


First off, you should go to a music store and buy a cheap little timpani tuner, which is like a round harmonica with each hole a different note. When you tune the timpani, get the note from the tuner, but then hum the note to the drum (as opposed to playing the tuner into the head, unless you can't carry a tune at all). Get your face close to the head. As you hum to the drum, ping the head with your finger. You're not really tapping it, more like pushing your finger into the head and then flicking it, and you should get a clear sound--don't use the mallet.

Keep humming and adjusting the drum with a timpani key (unless it has twists on it) first loosening the screws and then tightening them to raise the pitch--never lower to the pitch. When you tighten the nuts, don't go around the drum, but instead go from one nut, to the one across the drum, then one to the side, then across the drum, and so forth. Only tighten a little at a time, and you should "ping" by each nut to make sure they're all tightened the same at the end. When you hit the pitch you're humming, the drum will "sing" back to you. Tried and true technique here, and if you follow all the steps, you should get the hang of it pretty quick.

A couple other tips: if you overadjust very slightly, and don't want to start over tuning, just put your hands in the center of the head and give it one CPR-style pump (not too hard, but be firm). It'll drop the pitch just slightly. You will probably need to retune every rehearsal.

For actually playing the drum, make sure you have timpani mallets, not keyboard mallets. You should play with your thumbs on top (not with your hands flat, like for a snare drum) and have most of the motion of playing in your wrist. Your hands should be around the height where the sticks will be parallel with the ground when the head of the mallet hits the head of the drum. Hit the drum with the mallet head about one-third of the way in from the rim of the drum. Don't play in the center of the head, it will sound very crappy, and for rolls, don't double-bounce the sticks, just do single stroke rolls. If you have dynamic changes while rolling, play closer to the rim as you get softer, and farther in as you get louder.

As far as damping goes, in my opinion it's only really necessary during quiet parts in the music where a ringing timpani note with actually be audible. You shouldn't have to dampen after every note or anything like that, though if you have rests, feel free to, and definitely damp all the drums at the end of the piece. Just put your hand on the drum softly (you don't want to make a hitting sound) but firmly (so there's no buzzing). I usually used the ball of the palm, since hitting fingers first has a tendency to make a noise. You'll get the knack pretty quick.

Also, if you have a timpani stool, raise it until you can barely sit on it. You should be slightly less than standing. Don't sit on it like a chair, and don't let yourself hunch over the drums. And if you have multiple timpani, you don't have to arrange them smallest to largest, I usually have mine 4-2-1-3 left-to-right when I play. Whatever works best with the music should be best for you.

Best of luck to you, and I hope you enjoy your experience as a concert timpanist! Feel free to memail me if you have any more questions or advice you want.
posted by internet!Hannah at 6:07 AM on September 25, 2008 [3 favorites]

As a non-percussionist faced with teaching orchestral percussion, I've found Gary Cook's Teaching Percussion very useful for timpani and aux stuff.

General considerations (again, from a non-timpanist merely repeating received wisdom as I remember it): mallets are typically held thumb-up, i.e. take a typical matched grip for snare drum and supinate each hand by 90 degrees. The thumb and forefinger form a fulcrum while the other fingers are mostly there for guidance. You can really hear when there's too much tension in a timpanist's grip as the sound is pinched. You want the mallet to bounce off the head of the drum as freely as possible -- think of the mallet head as a tennis ball you are trying to bounce.

Rolls are single stroke -- sorry if that's insultingly obvious, just thought I'd mention it. Damping is frequently done with the back three fingers of the hand -- rather than pressing down in one part of the head, drag them with minimal pressure laterally across the head if you need a quick damp.

Tuning on the fly is the real bugbear -- and I'm confused by the "hand tuned with screws round the outside, not pedals" part. Most timps I've seen do have screws all the way around the outside of the head, but those are equalizing the tension ("clearing" or "balancing")all the way around the head (you want to tune opposite ones in order, say the lug at 6 then 12, then 1, then 7, etc moving around the circle) but there's generally one main tension rod that's either controlled by a pedal or a separate crank on a rod -- timpani are frequently asked to re-tune quickly mid-piece and it would be nuts to ask your timpanist to make adjustments to a dozen little cranks in a measure. Does there seem to be one principal, or separate tuning screw?
posted by dr. boludo at 6:16 AM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Thanks, this will be very helpful. I don't think there's a 'master' tuning screw - just six hand screws round the circumference. As far as I can tell we're going to be working on two pieces in D and one in G, so I'm sure I'll be getting plenty of tuning practice!
posted by primer_dimer at 6:27 AM on September 25, 2008

Also, if you've never played percussion at all before -- watch the concertmaster's bow, not the conductor, for where entrances are actually supposed to be. The other players in the orchestra almost inevitably play behind the beat (without knowing it), and you'll be the first kid into the pool every damned time if you actually follow the conductor's ictus. Bows are great cues because when they move, sound actually comes out.

(I'm a trumpet player who wishes someone had mentioned this to me a long time before I figured it out, because in professional-orchestra-land I spend way more time staring at timpani sticks, and the two of us staring at violin bows, than I ever imagined.)
posted by range at 9:44 AM on September 25, 2008

Thanks for that tip, range - being an open orchestra, I noticed that the other player play a loooooong way behind the beat, and I was indeed first kit into the pool on a couple of occasions - I'll try the bow trick next time.
posted by primer_dimer at 2:07 AM on September 26, 2008

ha, no pun intended - first kid.
posted by primer_dimer at 2:08 AM on September 26, 2008

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