PAS Hall of Fame

Saul Goodman

by Frederick D. Fairchild


Saul GoodmanTimpanist, teacher, composer, author, conductor, and inventor Saul Goodman served as timpanist with the New York Philharmonic for nearly two generations, having succeeded his own teacher, Alfred Friese. He was on the Juilliard School of Music faculty and is one of the most renown teachers in percussion history, sending many students into important positions in percussion. Author of the widely used Modern Method for Tympani, he has had a major influence on contemporary timpani technic through his teaching, writings, and clinics. His inventions and innovations enjoy widespread use, among them his replacable-ball timpani stick and his chain-tuned timpani. His broadcasting and recording career included the first broadcast of a timpani concerto, a featured appearance on TV’s Omnibus, two record albums - Mallets, Melody and Mayhem and Bell, Drum and Cymbal - and a vast number of recordings with the New York Philharmonic.


by Rick Mattingly

Copyright © 1981 by Modern Drummer Publications. Used by Permission.

With every instrument, certain players become the model to which all others are compared. Saul Goodman set that standard for timpani performance.

Born in Brooklyn, Goodman's first exposure to percussion came at the age of 11 when he joined a Boy Scout drum-and-bugle corps. Three years later, he began his study of timpani, and at the age of 19, became a member of the New York Philharmonic, where he remained for 46 years. He also taught at the Juilliard School of Music for 41 years, and in addition to teaching many of today's leading timpanists, he also worked with several of the top jazz drummers.

The following interview was conducted in the summer of 1981, after Goodman retired from full-time teaching at Juilliard. We met at his home in Yonkers, New York, as he was preparing to sell that house and move to Florida. Seated in his basement studio, which contained the timpani he had used with the New York Philharmonic, and surrounded by photographs of everyone from symphony conductor Pierre Monteux to jazz drummer Gene Krupa, we began discussing his first introduction to timpani.

Saul Goodman: One Saturday night, when I was about 14 years old, I was taking a walk and I passed Commercial High School in Brooklyn. It was a warm evening in October, and the doors were open. I could hear music coming out of the auditorium, so I went to the box office, asking the cashier if I could get in for 25 cents. "You can just walk in," she said, and so I did. The New York Philharmonic was in the middle of the last movement of the Tchaikovsky 4th Symphony, which has, of course, an elaborate timpani part. The timpani immediately attracted me. Until then, I had never heard timpani. When the concert was over, I went to the timpanist and asked him if he would give me lessons. He agreed to, and that was the beginning of my study of timpani. He taught me for two dollars a lesson.

Rick Mattingly: This was Alfred Friese?

Goodman: Yes. I took my lessons in the sub-basement of Carnegie Hall, and was introduced to what was going on in all of the concerts - not only symphonic music, but chamber music and recitals of all kinds. I became a regular frequenter of Carnegie Hall concerts. This comprised the main part of my education.

Good music always fascinated me. Having learned how to read, I started playing with quite a few amateur groups, among them, the National Orchestra Society, which is still in existence. I also played in movie theaters, substituting for different people. When I was sixteen, I got into what was known as the City Symphony - not as a timpanist, but as a percussionist. That was the first professional group I played with. Their season lasted 20 weeks. I was in high school at the time, so I left school to go into that orchestra. When the season finished, I had saved up enough money to enable me to go to college. After completing high school, I did just that.

I was fortunate enough to have a job in a movie theater playing drumset, xylophone, timpani and providing sound effects. You know what drummers for the films had to do in the pit in those days - that was the kind of training that just doesn't exist today. You had a big, thick book of music, and you would play eight bars of one piece, 16 bars of another, 32 bars of another one, and you were always going from one instrument to another. That was at the end of the silent-film days. I went back to school and worked at the theaters. I was able to earn my living and pay my school tuition.

When I was 19 years old, I booked a job at Newport. In those days, I played at the Newport Casino, a very luxurious private club for the wealthy. There was a 15-piece orchestra, and we played every morning at ten o'clock in the open air - when it didn't rain - to entertain people who were playing tennis nearby. We used to have a concert on Sunday evening for the general public. In addition to that, we played dance jobs in the different wealthy homes.

At this time, I didn't know what was going on in New York, but my teacher had retired, and timpanists were auditioning for the New York Philharmonic. One of them was a fellow named Roland Wagner, who was timpanist with the San Francisco Symphony. He had come to New York that summer in an attempt to intimidate the San Francisco Symphony into raising his salary. The New York Philharmonic didn't know this. Because he was a very competent player, he was offered the position. He immediately made this known to the San Francisco orchestra, who then granted him his increase in salary. So he returned to the West Coast.

Then the Philharmonic tried out another timpanist, but he didn't make good. In September, I had returned to New York after playing in Newport all summer, and one day I got a call from the principal percussionist of the Philharmonic. He said, "How would you like to play timpani with the New York Philharmonic?" I said, "Are you kidding?" He said, "No, I really mean it." This was on a Saturday. He said, "Come down to the business office on Monday. Mr. Judson, the manager, wants to see you." So I went down and we had a short conversation, and he handed me a contract. It was a 25-week season, and I got a hundred dollars a week, which I thought was a stupendous amount of money in those days.

Mattingly: And all you had was a conversation?

Goodman: Don't think it went as quickly as that - that the audition went by the boards. Actually, what happened was, the personnel manager of the orchestra used to watch me taking lessons in the basement of Carnegie Hall. He had an idea of how I could play the timpani. Several times during the course of the preceding two or three years, I had been called on to play with the Philharmonic. Usually it was when somebody took sick, and so I had to play without a rehearsal. Once, I had to do Stravinsky's "Petrouchka" suite under Toscanini, practically reading the snare and other percussion parts at sight. If I had made any mistakes, he would have exploded. That was another feather in my cap. It impressed the management that I was a very capable player. When it came time to fill the timpani position, they decided to accept me.

My first rehearsal was with Willem Mengelberg, a famous Dutch conductor. The first piece I played with him was the Beethoven Eighth Symphony. Evidently not many timpani players were very proficient in the cross-hammering in the last movement. I played it the way it should be played, and Mengelberg recognized my capabilities. Only then, at the intermission of the rehearsal, did the manager introduce me to Mengelberg, who looked at me, and with his heavy Dutch accent, said, "I t'ink you be all right." So I was all right for 46 years. They told me it was going to be a steady job!

Mattingly: During the years you were with the Philharmonic, did you have many opportunities to play chamber music?

Goodman: Yes. For instance, I played the first performance of the "Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion" with Bartok and his wife. The way this came about was, in 1940, the personnel manager of the Philharmonic asked me if I wanted to play a modern-music concert for the League of Composers at Town Hall in New York City. I said, "What sort of piece is it?" He replied, "Well, I don't have the music, but it's by a composer named Bartok." Although I had played some Bartok things, Bartok wasn't played that often in 1940.

I then asked, "What are the instruments involved?" He said, "I really don't know. Bartok isn't here yet, so send up two timpani and maybe a suspended cymbal, and the second percussion can send a xylophone and bass drum." I said okay and accepted the engagement.

The first rehearsal took place late in the afternoon at Steinway Hall on West 57th Street after two Philharmonic rehearsals that day. I sent up two hand-screw timpani, and my colleague brought up a small two-and-a-half octave xylophone and a dance-band bass drum with a foot pedal. We still hadn't received the music, so we didn't know what was required. Bartok had just come off the boat, and he had the music with him. He walked into the rehearsal and gave out the parts. He had written out the manuscript and the notes looked like little grains of pepper. Everything was congested and concentrated in a small space on the page. It was hard to tell what instrument was required or what we were supposed to be doing. I saw that there were many glissandos and intonation changes and thought, "Oh my God! Here I am with these two hand-screw drums." Bartok came over and looked at the hand-screw drums and shook his head in bewilderment. I said, "I know, I know. Tomorrow, at the next rehearsal, we'll have the correct instruments."

We did the best we could with it that day, but the other percussionist couldn't cut the part. The manager came to me and said that we had to get somebody else, so I suggested Henry Deneke. He came in and read that percussion part off at sight on the first rehearsal! We had 13 rehearsals altogether for the first performance.

The concert took place early on a Sunday evening, right after the usual Sunday afternoon Philharmonic concert. I had to rush down to Town Hall from Carnegie Hall and set up the instruments I had used at Carnegie Hall. The truckman who picked up my drums had apparently been drinking. I followed him down Sixth Avenue and his truck was zig-zagging through traffic. I could envision my drums moving around inside his panel truck, and I told myself, "Goodbye drums!" But we got to Town Hall and the drums were okay.

We started the concert, and after we got into the Allegro of the first movement, Bartok turned two pages, so the music stopped. The audience didn't know the piece, so Bartok turned to us and whispered, "Back to number 125." We started over at 125 and everything else went well.

Strangely enough, at that time there was only one music critic who recognized that as a really great contemporary piece. It was a shame, because Bartok had such a hard struggle getting the recognition that he so well deserved. Of course, after he died he became one of the most often-played composers of his period.

Mattingly: How many years did you teach at Juilliard?

Goodman: I taught at Juilliard for 41 years. During those years, I trained many of the outstanding percussionists, not only of this country, but of a good part of the world. These students have really carried my message of technique and musicianship as related to percussion wherever they've gone. Among them are some of the really great leading ones: people like Vic Firth in the Boston Symphony, Gerry Carlyss of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Roland Kohloff, who took my place in the New York Philharmonic, Rick Holmes in the St. Louis Symphony, Eugene Espino in the Cincinnati Orchestra, Barry Jekowski in the San Francisco Symphony, Bill Kraft in the Los Angeles Symphony and many others.

Not many people know this, but I also had the exhilarating experience of teaching some of the great jazz drummers - Gene Krupa, Louie Bellson and Cozy Cole among them. Gene lived near me in Yonkers. I used to go to his house and teach him. I taught Louie Bellson, too. Let me tell you a story about Louie. I had an association with Benny Goodman. We were good friends and we worked together when we played radio dates, which was before he organized his first band. He called me one day and said, "I've got a great drummer!" After Krupa left Goodman's band, Benny was never satisfied with a drummer. He kept firing one after another. But he was raving about this kid. "I wish you'd come down and hear him," he said. Benny was playing at the New Yorker hotel on 34th Street, just two blocks from Pennsylvania Station. It so happened that the Philharmonic was giving a concert that night in Philadelphia. So I said to Benny, "Okay. I have to go to Philadelphia and we're returning to New York about midnight. It will be late, but I'll be there."

So I went there to see Benny and listen to Louie Bellson. They played a set, and Benny called me over after they finished and said, "What do you think of the kid?" I said, "I think he's terrific." Benny said, "You know, what he needs is somebody like you to teach him." I said, "Okay. Send him up to Juilliard." So I taught him for about six months, and Benny fired him! Then, of course, Louie went out on his own. Louie became a damn good composer. He's a wonderful arranger too. He's really a first-class musician, in addition to being a great percussionist.

Cozy Cole came to me when he was the first black drummer to get on the staff of a major radio station. This was during World War II. He played with a conductor named Raymond Scott, who conducted the group at CBS. Cozy took a few lessons from me and said, "I'd like to go to Juilliard." This took courage for a man his age. After all, he was about 38 or 39 years old, and he wanted to go to school! I don't think he'd had too much schooling. But he went to Juilliard and did very well. I taught him there for about three years.

During the time he went to Juilliard, he was still playing at CBS with Raymond Scott. One day Cozy came in and said, "Raymond wants to know if you'll write a piece just for you and me." That's how I came to write "Timpianna," and we played it together on CBS radio.

There seems to have been a reason for every piece I wrote. Most composers create because they are compelled to: it's what makes the artist, I suppose. But in my case, it was always an occasion that prompted me to write something.

One occasion was the time I taught at Deerwood Music Camp at Saranac Lake. We had quite an extensive modern dance department. The head of the dance department said to me one day, "Why don't I get my group to dance for you and you can write a piece to their movements." I said, "Let's do it the other way; I'll write the piece and then you can dance to it." So that's what we did. It's called "Ballad for the Dance." It became very popular, and I'm very happy about that.

The dance department at Juilliard also asked me to write a piece for them, so I wrote a piece called "Proliferation Suite," which was performed at a Juilliard dance recital about three years ago, with me conducting. I scored it for the usual percussion: marimba, xylophone, glock, chimes, timpani, several snare drums, and I also used a harp and a string bass. I incorporated "Timpianna" into the suite, because the choreography seemed to suggest a jazz piece.

Most of the things I've written have been to educate my students. For instance, I had a student who was having problems with cross-hammering. So I wrote exercises 20 and 21 in my timpani book just to teach this student how to do the cross-hammering. A lot of the exercises in my book were written with the idea of dynamic control in mind. I wanted to make the exercises not only technically instructive, but also musically enlightening, which is very important.

The trouble with most percussion people is that they don't think of what they're doing in a musical sense, whereas if you played piano or violin or cello or whatever, you would be required to continually keep this in mind. Another thing that is often neglected is the tone quality that you can produce, not only from timpani, but also from the snare drum and from many of the other percussion instruments. And then there's an important element of balance. How do you balance with different ensembles? Do you just go in there and knock the devil out of something or do you listen for the acoustical background of what you're playing and try to adjust your balance so you have the proper sound and you're well coordinated with the group you're playing with? Those are the important elements, I think, of adjusting yourself to percussion instruments.

Mattingly: For many years, you ran the percussion ensemble at Juilliard. Could you tell me about that?

Goodman: I don't know the history of percussion ensemble, but I started an ensemble at Juilliard in 1944, so I think I was one of the first. Then I offered a prize for the best percussion composition, because there was very little music for percussion ensemble then. Varese asked me to perform "Ionization" at the school, but I had to say no because we weren't ready for it. In later years I did perform it and it always proved a huge success.

Mattingly: Did someone ask you to put together a timpani book, or was it your own idea?

Goodman: I had been hand writing all these exercises for my students, and finally my wife said, "You should get all of these things together in the form of a book." She kept after me and really impelled me to gel the book out.

Mattingly: How did you get in the stick business?

Goodman: From the very beginning of my career, I made my own slicks because I didn't like the commercial sticks that were available. Of course, there weren't too many good slicks available then like there are today. You were practically forced to make your own sticks in those days if you had a prestige position like I had. So I used to have three or four pair at a time turned by a local wood turner.

When I started teaching heavily, my students liked my sticks and I saw the opportunity for making a little extra money. You see, the symphony seasons in those days were very short - 28 weeks or 30 at the most with maybe six or eight weeks in the summer. So I welcomed the additional income. Eventually I went into snare drum sticks, and I built up a very lucrative business. I think I was one of the first players to market his own slicks. Others followed: Vic Firth, Fred Hinger, to name a few, and now there are several. It's a good idea because everybody has his own idea about sticks. I don't say that my stick is the only stick to use - not by any means. But I think it has proven itself.

I designed it with a definite purpose in mind - mainly for the different pieces in the repertoire I play. For the opening of the Brahms First I use the cartwheel stick on the C-natural to get a big, beautiful tone without any real impact sound. I designed my little green sticks for the Scherzo of the "Midsummer Night's Dream" by Mendelssohn.

Mattingly: Someone told me that the Calato sticks are a little bit lighter than the ones you originally made.

Goodman: Not really. Don't forget, the density of wood varies. The sticks are made with an automatic lathe. In any automatic lathe there might be some very slight variation in the turning. The reason for that is the different quality of the same species of wood - in this case, rock maple. The knife may cut a little deeper into a softer piece of maple than it would into a tougher piece. That accounts for the very slight variations in the thickness of the sticks. But I think Calato is doing a beautiful job. The thread is beautiful and the sewing is done by the same person that did my work. I don't think any mass-produced article has any better accuracy than Calato's work.

Mattingly: Do you remember the first time you played on a plastic head?

Goodman: I sure do! I'll tell you the experience I had. I first saw the plastic head in 1959 when the New York Philharmonic was making a grand tour of Europe that included Russia. The orchestra had just played in Kiev, and was travelling to Moscow. My timpani were transported in an open truck and it started to rain heavily. We got to the hotel and I thought to myself, "I better get to that hall and look at my drums." The trunk for the 25-inch kettle wasn't exactly watertight, and the rain had leaked in and soaked the hell out of the calf head. It was useless for the concert that night. I said, "Here's where I try the plastic head." I had plastic heads in one of my timpani trunks, but up to that point, I had never used them. It proved to be just wonderful! I'll never forget - that night we played the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony. I made a recording of that piece with Bernstein, using the plastic head. So from that time on, I was convinced that the plastic head was here to stay.

The plastic head has made the timpanist's life much more comfortable. I used calfskin heads through my whole playing life. In the last eight years or so of my playing, I had two sets of drums - one with plastic heads and one with calfskin. I used the plastic heads, of course, for outdoor playing. But prior to 1959, I used calfskin exclusively. I had an electrical device called a Dampchaser that was mounted inside the drum. It's a circular tube with an electrical element on the inside, and it generates about 100 watts of heat. That enabled me to play on calfskin heads under extremely damp conditions. It wasn't always successful because if you put too much heat on, it destroyed the tone quality of the head. With about 50% humidity, it worked very well and you could get a reasonably good sound. For 28 years, I played outdoors on calfskin heads. In fact, sometimes when I played opera or ballet, I would have to set up on the bare ground, at night! All of the dampness came up from the earth. The only way I surmounted that problem was by using small-diameter drums, so that I wouldn't have to stretch the heads so much for the higher notes. I once played the Brahms First on a very humid night with a 23-inch and 25-inch drum. It was the only way I could do it.

With the stuff that's being written for timpani today, calfskin heads wouldn't last two days. You have to be very careful with them. But if you could listen off to a distance to a plastic head and a fine calfskin head, and listen to them being played by a good player who is using the proper sticks, there would be no comparison whatsoever. The good calfskin would obviously sound warmer. But it's always a hazardous practice to use calfskin because you never know what conditions to expect.

Mattingly: You also make your own timpani. How did you get involved in that?

Goodman: My building these drums goes back to the summer of 1942, when the Philharmonic was playing at Lewisohn Stadium. The stagehands were supposed to remove the drums from the stage after the rehearsal and put them in a storeroom, but they left the drums on the stage, unprotected. About six o'clock that evening, there was a tremendous thunderstorm and the stage was struck by lightning. The two steel girders that held up the roof of the stage collapsed, and these girders, which weighed about five tons each, folded up over my timpani and flattened them out like pancakes.

So there I was, with a war in progress and Dresden drums unavailable. I begged some materials from a few friends who had a metal business - I practically bootlegged the stuff - and we built a set of timpani to replace the set that had been destroyed. I had to use bronze because aluminum was impossible to obtain. The bronze castings were terribly heavy, and it wasn't until after the war was over that the main castings could be made of a much lighter metal. I experimented with several alloys of aluminum but none of them seemed to work. Finally, I hit on an alloy that really did the job and could take the tremendous tension of those drums. Of course, that alloy remains my secret.

The idea of the chain drum came to me accidentally. In the early 1930s I had brought some cable drums over from Germany and used them in addition to the pedal drums. Dick Horowitz, timpanist with the Metropolitan Opera and a former student of mine, asked me if I would build some cable drums for him. I looked at the cable drums and thought, "How can I duplicate this?" So then I thought, "Why don't we use a chain?" The cable was connected by turnbuckles and could only travel between the two pulleys that actually received the cable ends, thus restricting the distance between the pulleys. With a chain, you would have endless tensioning possibilities. My chain drum was patented in 1952 - the first application of a chain to a musical instrument.

Mattingly: Didn't you also build a few snare drums?

Goodman: I made about a dozen of them. It's a suspended-shell snare drum, based on the design of the Dresden suspended-shell timpani. The vibration is really sustained and the ease of playing is enhanced by the fact that the vibration is not stifled, because nothing is screwed into the shell.

Mattingly: Could you suggest any guidelines for writing an effective timpani part?

Goodman: Study Stravinsky, Mahler or Richard Strauss, who have composed exemplary parts for the instrument.

Mattingly: What are your thoughts on the practice of altering timpani parts?

Goodman: I've done that very often. Of course, the reason composers of the 19th century didn't bother changing the pitch was that the mechanical-type timpani necessary for those changes didn't exist. If they started a piece in F and B-flat, it remained in F and B-flat unless there was a long period of time to change to another pitch.

Let me tell you something about revising a part. Don't forget that when these pieces were written, people got used to listening to the wrong notes. I remember once playing the overture from the "Midsummer Night's Dream" with Toscanini. In the transitional section the key goes to F-sharp major, but the timpani part is still using B-natural and E-natural, which are wrong notes. So I changed the note once and Toscanini stopped and said, "Don't change the note. I want it to sound as Mendelssohn heard it, with the wrong note."

There was another instance regarding historical accuracy. I remember once playing "Symphony 39" by Mozart with Bruno Walter, one off the greatest Mozart conductors of this century. The work starts with what I always thought should be a full, resonant sounding B-flat and E-flat. But Walter said, "I want it to sound like the old timpani." The drums he heard when he was young did not have the resonance of modern drums. I had to muffle the drums to get the sound he wanted.

Another aspect of this changing business: It doesn't always follow that if you change a note to what is harmonically correct in the chord, it's necessarily going to sound good. By using the "right" note, you might alter the orchestral color by changing the inversion of the chord that the composer was trying to produce at that time. Even though you do play the "right" note, in many cases it doesn't work.

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