A skilled timpanist, we assume, knows all the repertoire, plays in tune, in time, and in the right place! This is an oversimplified given. However, for great music making, it must be taken one step further. The following is what I listen and look for in a great performer: (1) sound, (2) the placement of the sound, (3) the dynamics of the sound, and (4) the color of the sound. Only when these four “senses” are fully developed and understood does great playing come on any instrument. It takes years and much playing to grasp these in a confident manner. It is only then that you are a professional’s professional.
Sound. Sound. Sound. What do you sound like? Do you have the same sound in Mozart as in Mahler, Stravinsky, and Beethoven? If so, you are a boring player and you lack imagination. Let’s start with Mozart. Listen attentively to his symphonies and his violin and piano concertos. Listen with an ear with attention to color that blends, reinforces, and punctuates the sound of the orchestra. That sound that you create is the foundation for your orchestral color. Your own personal sound concept.
If you don’t have strong solfege, good ear for pitch, and can’t count, prepare yourself for a career selling vacuum cleaners.
Now, consider Beethoven. With Beethoven you discover a new boldness, an up-front aggressiveness, and dissonance to a degree. This is outstanding writing for timpani. Every note, every subtlety, has a major musical impact and value that contributes to this music. You can inject it with humor, vitality, and a varied palette of color. The excitement you can create is endless!
For a minute, let’s rub shoulders with Mahler. His music is enormous in its concept. Mahler pushes the idea of color, sound, and dynamics to the max. You make crescendos from the inaudible to the titanic. Your sound in this case music be filled with darkness, weight, and volumes of imaginative color changes. At other moments in the music, you create a light, airy sound interpolated with grace and a certain panache.
Consider Stravinsky. The sound is sharp, angular, and percussive, like bites of steel. Rhythmically you must be tighter than a computer; your sound must be penetrating, hard, and cutting as a diamond’s edge. Excite, startle, shock. These are the words describing the sounds of your entrances and playing with certain passages of Stravinsky’s music.
All right. I’ve tried to make you think about sound. Nothing is more important. Now comes the next critical issue: the placement of that sound. Where do you put it? A conductor once said to his orchestra, “I want you to play in tune, in time, and in the right place. That’s all that you have to do.” These things should be a given. If you don’t have strong solfege, good ear for pitch, and can’t count, prepare yourself for a career selling vacuum cleaners. Everything I’ve said so far is based on the fact that you are prepared to do those three parts perfectly. However, there is more to placement of each note. I assume you know intimately all the Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, and Mahler symphonies in addition to many others in the repertoire. If you know them well, there will be no surprises for you in terms of the printed parts. The surprises and musical craft lie in breathing life into those little black dots on the page.
Here is how to begin to sense sound placement. Think like a string player, a violinist. They play wonderfully lyrical instruments, make up 60% of the orchestra, and are off in a world to themselves. At the same time, it’s a wonderful, rarified atmosphere they play in. We can’t beat them so let’s join them. When you play at a rehearsal, observe the first violin bowings and listen to their rhythmic phrasing. What is the relationship between what you are hearing from the strings and what is visible from the podium? Their down bow is your right hand and an up bow is your left. Admittedly, the down bow and right hand is aggressively stronger than the up bow with your left. When you realize this, you are developing a set of organized sticking and “sound phrasing” that matches the strings. Your hands are now conforming to a string player’s bowing. So, philosophically you should be pulsating and thinking with the strings in moving passages. The timing of a string player is different from that of a timpanist. They play a thousand notes to our few. Consequently, they cannot watch the conductor for as long a period as we can if they are involved in a technically complicated passage. So, if the tempo moves forward, be gentle but persuasive in your forward motion.
Let’s look at the dynamics of your sound. You cannot take all dynamics literally or you will be playing too loudly. Be particularly careful with the Classical repertoire. Beethoven is a perfect example. He writes wonderful and effective timpani parts, but some of his dynamics, if played as written, will cover important string or inner woodwind sectional writing. These parts must be heard and are actually much more important. With long, loud rolls I usually play the entrance louder, as written, and then immediately drop down to piano so as not to cover the important aspects of the orchestration. I then crescendo near the end of the roll so as to bring the dynamics back to the designated dynamic level. Be conservative with dynamics, especially at the first rehearsal. The part may say forte, but if you play too loudly you will overpower the strings or woodwinds. If, on the other hand, the forte is with the brass section you can probably be more generous with the dynamic and fill out the sound more. The key is to listen and accompany. If you can only hear yourself, then you are way too loud and out of line. What section you are playing with should be audible to you when you are playing. If not, you are covering the most important aspects of the music. The bottom line is to be aware of the entire orchestra, whatever the printed dynamic. Your musical judgement and taste must supersede the printed dynamic. Listen! This comes with many years of familiarizing yourself with all the great orchestral repertoire and performing it often.
How to color your sound is the last point, but perhaps the most important. This is accomplished by the combination of three elements: the choice of sticks for a given passage, where you strike the head, and which type of stroke is utilized. This subject is rather extensive, so I will be brief and only suggest some ideas. If you want a sharp, penetrating, rhythmic sound, use an ultra-staccato stick. Combine this with an abrupt, stiff, and quick staccato stroke. This approach is appropriate in contemporary music with composers like Stravinsky. If you are playing Brahms, use a softer, round stick. Look for a full, dark sound and use a more legato stroke. If you are playing very soft sostenuto rolls, use a cartwheel type stick and move around the head looking for the least amount of stick sound. For a rich, warm sound, the playing area on the head is between two inches and five inches from the rim. Anything beyond that changes the sound significantly; your sound will become more percussive and pitch clarity tends to suffer. Beware!
A hard stick will have more penetration playing deeper on the head, and a soft stick will reveal fewer strokes when playing closer to the rim. Now you must listen and fill in the variables. Listening and adjusting are the key words. If you are trying to blend in a woodwind passage, try to get a mellow sound. If you are blending with strings, strive for a rich, controlled, vibrant sound as in the soft ostinato figure in the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. If you are the prominent voice in a section with the brass section, then be raucous and bombastic. Boldness is the idea to get just the right sound in this case.
Remember: sound, the placement of the sound, the dynamics of the sound, and the color of the sound are all a matter of control and intelligent listening. Once you have mastered these special techniques, the rewards will be wonderfully musical and exciting.
Vic Firth was the timpanist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and a teacher at the New England Conservatory of Music for over 40 years. He was the founder of the Vic Firth drumstick company, and a member of the PAS Hall of Fame. He died in July 2015.