Far too often in early percussion education, timpani are neglected. With so much time spent on mallets, snare drum, and marching percussion, timpani are frequently regarded as misbegotten tubs that some unlucky student must inevitably play. However, timpani are arguably the most difficult and important of the percussion instruments, considering both the melodic and rhythmic capabilities and challenges. They can reinforce rhythms and harmony as well, and the ability to change pitches with each drum adds yet another element of complexity. It is no wonder that professional orchestras have a principal timpanist, solely responsible for playing timpani and no other percussion. Despite the intricacy, though, there are some basic considerations with which any percussionist can quickly become a better timpanist.
One of the most important pieces of information is the standard range of each timpano. This is especially important when no tuning gauges are provided to tell you which pitches should be achievable on a given drum. Timpani come in many sizes; however, the most common sets being sold today exist in the following four-drum arrangement. Next to each size is a suggestion for that drum’s pitch range.
• 32-inch (largest): D to A (bass clef bottom space)
• 29-inch: F to C
• 26-inch: B-flat to F
• 23-inch (smallest): D to A (bass clef top line)
You will notice that each drum should have a comfortable range of a perfect fifth. Of course, with each make and model, variations can occur. Some might extend a step or a third on either side of the range; nonetheless, the above pitches should be achievable by any timpano of that size, and if not, chances are the drum needs maintenance. Recognizing this can help avoid unneeded frustration, as you (or whoever oversees instrument maintenance) can make the necessary fixes, rather than trying to play on timpani tuned to incorrect ranges.
Now that the timpani ranges are set correctly, how does one choose on which drum to put a given pitch? Of course, practicality is of first importance; the timpano you choose needs to be able to reach the desired pitch. Also, you must consider how many and which pitches you need at a given time. For example, if a passage of music calls for F, B-flat, and C (low to high), the most obvious option is to use the lowest three timpani. If the F was a high F above the B-flat and C, you would want to use the highest three timpani. These are the only combinations that give you the needed pitches simultaneously.
Beyond practicality, however, is quality of sound, as a timpano sounds best in its upper range. For example, a C played on the 29-inch timpano has a different timbre than the same C played on the 26-inch drum.
On the smaller drum, the head is looser, flabbier, and consequently the timbre is duller and tubbier. Because that same C is higher in the range of the 29-inch drum, the head is tighter, producing a more clear and focused sound. When possible, it is ideal to choose the timpano on which the specified pitch will sound best. Sometimes, depending on how many pitches are required simultaneously, you do not have the luxury. However, if fewer pitches are needed, or you have ample time to make tuning changes, you can and should exploit this principle.
Lastly, let us consider mallet choice. One of the biggest myths in timpani playing, and often for percussion in general, is that a loud dynamic always requires a hard mallet while a quiet dynamic always entails a soft mallet. In truth, articulation should be the primary consideration. For example, staccato or fast rhythmic sections would benefit from a harder, more articulate mallet. Even if the passage is quiet, a softer mallet will not produce the short articulation required for rhythmic clarity.
Sections of music that call for a more legato sound or long rolls benefit from softer mallets. Again, whether it is a soft or loud dynamic, the smoother, less abrasive articulation produces a rounder sound. This is suited especially for helping to mask individual strokes of a long roll, creating the sensation of sustain on timpani. Rather than as a consequence of mallet choice, dynamics should primarily be a byproduct of technique. A variety of dynamics can be achieved with any mallet, soft or hard, so choose your mallet based on the characteristic of the passage first, and only secondarily consider the dynamic.
Obviously, there is much more to playing timpani than what has been discussed here. It is a technically and musically demanding instrument, which is why some percussionists spend their later years of study solely focusing on timpani in order to specialize in it professionally. Timpani technique with respect to mallet grip, stroke, rebound, etc. can take many years to master. Nonetheless, knowing the basics like standard ranges, good tuning practices, and making informed mallet choices is a good start, and can bolster the confidence and ability of a percussionist who has had limited instruction on timpani.
Dr. Alexandros Fragiskatos is Assistant Professor of Instrumental Music at Missouri Valley College. A proponent of contemporary music, he has commissioned, premiered, and performed new works across the U.S. and Europe. Alex also plays percussion and drumset for musical theatre, as well as steel pan, having directed the Arizona State University Pan Devils Steel Band while earning his Doctor of Musical Arts degree in percussion. For more information about Alex, visit fragiskatospercussion.com.