Percussion Clinic Adelaide
Some Notes on Timpani Technique
by Jim McCarthy

Many percussionists use the same techniques for timpani as they do for snare drum. Unfortunately, this always means one instrument will suffer. The sound produced by the two instruments is different, and the instrument's use is different, and consequently the best way to play them also differs.

The basic grip of the stick, and all the functions of the joints and muscles is the same for timpani as for snare drum, but the way we employ these tools should be different for timpani. Some players switch to a "French" style grip for timpani - with the arm rotated so the thumb is on top of the tick. The idea of doing this is to make use of the fingers a little more relaxed because of the inherently stronger fulcrum created by the thumb. This grip can work for timpani, although I think the "German" style grip which is more similar to a proper snare drum grip, is as least as good if not better as it allows for proper wrist movement. If you want to play both snare drum and timpani, it certainly makes sense to use the same grip for both.

In general though, the playing of timpani requires the grip to be more relaxed, with some free-play between the butt of the stick and the groove of the hand. The whole idea is to let the tension of the drum skin (which varies from drum to drum and note to note) to control the rebound. This gives the "roundest" and "fullest" tone from the drum, because it doesn't force the skin to vibrate in any way that is not natural.

The playing of timpani can be similar to the playing of drum kit, in that because of the large distances to be covered between drums, lots of upper body movement is required. Because of this compromises on perfect position can sometimes be made for occasional notes. This does not mean however that we necessarily want to play rock n' roll on timpani!

The Roll

The single stroke roll is almost always used on timpani. Because of the sustain of the drum, we don't require the speed of double strokes to create the illusion of a sustained tone. As the drum already gives a note of reasonable length, we want as relaxed a stroke as possible, and double strokes invariably require a little more tension in the hands than single strokes.

The biggest variable of the timpani roll is the roll speed. There are four things to consider when choosing the speed of our roll.

1- The first thing to consider is the sound you want from the roll. Often composers use a timpani roll in their compositions to produce musical tension. We can increase this tension by increasing the roll speed. If we want a very relaxed sound from the drum, we need to roll at the speed which produces the most continuous sound. (Usually slower).

2- The speed required to produce this continuous "open" sound will vary with the note we play, and the drum we play it on. In general, higher notes on smaller drums don't ring on for as long. This lack of sustain means we have to roll faster to produce a sustained sound. (The most extreme case of this is in fact a snare drum where the drum has virtually no sustain - requiring fast double strokes). Lower notes on bigger drums require a slower roll speed. If we roll too fast on these notes we get too much contact sound from the mallet, rather than lots of drum sound. This tends to make the roll sound tense.

3- The second factor that needs to be considered when aiming for a smooth sounding roll is the dynamic level. In general, the louder the roll is, the faster the roll speed needs to be. This is particularly true of lower notes. At a soft dynamic level, the decay graph of a single stroke on timpani looks like this:

waveform of a soft timpani note
sound produced from a single SOFT stroke on a timpani.

In order to produce a sustained sound, we want to strike the drum again before the graph decays too much, but after the main "body" of the note:

sound produced from a single LOUD stroke on a timpani.

If the dynamic level is great, the decay graph of a single stroke tends to drop off more quickly:

As we need to sustain the sound at the volume indicated in the narrow peak of the graph, the following strokes will have to come sooner; ie. a faster roll.

4- A tiny modification can also sometimes be made to the roll speed, because of the actual physical vibration of the drum skin. The smoothest sound is achieved if the mallet strikes the skin at the point when it is already moving downwards in its vibration cycle. If the mallet meets the skin when it is coming upwards - it will force it back down, and so interrupt the natural vibration of the skin. The modification to our roll speed will be small in the extreme to compensate for this, and only really applicable for lower notes, where the frequency is low enough to make correct timing possible. Even then it is only for the advanced player to consider.

Mallet Choice for Timpani

The golden rule for selecting mallets is -"always one degree harder than seems correct".

Only right next to the drum (ie. in the playing position) do we hear "all that contact sound". Timpani is unique in its ability to lose contact sound over even a little distance. This is often doubly the case when playing with a large ensemble. Many is the time that I have been surprised and shocked when listening to recordings of myself playing timpani with an ensemble. What sounded way too hard to me in the performance, in fact sounded a little too soft and woolly to the microphone.

Often composers call for players to switch to the back ends of felt mallets when a harder sound is suddenly needed. This is really a "school band" idea, usually used simply because students don't often have a full range of mallets, and composers who don't have full knowledge of percussion see it, and use it. I absolutely refuse to do this for any dynamic above pp. The simple fact is, that the back end of most mallets tend to damage timpani heads. Most composers don't realize how much, or don't really care, as long as they get the sound they are after. Large tipped snare drum sticks are better, as the tips are rounded, and don't have a triangular edge that digs into the skin, however they are still not really acceptable.

A cork head or wooden ball mallet will give a very similar sound without damaging the skin, and a skilled player can swap mallets on a trap stand fast enough for just about any situation, so the "I haven't got enough time" reason doesn't hold up. There have been a small handful of times though when I have needed a change of sound faster than I could swap mallets during a performance. In these scenarios, I have managed to get around the problem by holding both pairs at once using a 'marimba' style four mallet grip. Another alternative is to use double ended mallets. I have a few pairs of 'special' mallets for these types of situations. Hard felt/snare drum sticks - hard felt/wooden ball - very hard felt/very soft felt - etc......

If the composer is really insisting on a light "pingy" sound, try using chopsticks (the sort with rounded ends) for dynamics up to a medium forte. This is ok, as chopsticks don't have the weight behind them to dent a skin.

The following is a list of timpani mallets which I carry in my standard bag. This combination sees me through just about any scenario.

- Felt covered Cork- very soft - soft - medium - hard - very hard.
- Sheepskin covered Cork- very soft.
- Inverse two-tone- hard/medium - hard/soft.
- Polished Leather covered Cork
- Varnished Cork head
- Large wooden ball head
- Medium felt mallets with extra large heads.
- Hard felt 'French Style' mallets
with oversize snare drum tips
lathed into handle on reverse end.

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For most ensemble situations where there are more rests than notes, I will generally use the range of simple felt covered mallets. I select the appropriate hardness for each group of notes according to the note pitch and volume required. Often I will use a harder mallet in the right hand for the higher notes and a softer mallet in the left hand for the lower notes, unless of course there is a sustained roll which would require an even sound.

The 'inverse two-tone' mallets are good general mallets for a reasonable sound in all situations. They are a good first mallet to buy when starting your collection, but I make my own and have never seen such a mallet on the retail market. This type of mallet is useful in situations where you are playing a lot of notes at different dynamic levels without time to change mallets - as is often the case with some timpani solos.

The "medium felt mallets with extra large heads" was one which I made specially for a performance of the Berlioz Requiem. The idea is to produce as loud a sound as possible without getting too much contact sound. This helped make all those load rolls in the Dies Irae very load but still very smooth and thundery. It works because the larger mallet head moves a greater amount of timpani head when it contacts, giving it a rounder tone at high volumes.

The cork, leather and wooden ball are all very hard mallets, used when clear and articulate sound is required. The wooden ball is heavier, and tends to be for louder playing. Cork is lighter and slightly spongy, so tends to soften a little at loud dynamics, but gives a harder and more "pingy" sound when played softly. The polished leather mallet gives the most contact sound of all - at any dynamic. The sound tends to be "slappy" and at times "rude".

The sheepskin mallets are really only for fussy ears, and sounds quite similar to the soft felt mallet. They do however have a unique timbre, and sound strikingly similar to a pizzicato double bass. This is useful, as there are many times when a timpanist is required to play double bass cues.

The "French" mallets are the hardest felt mallets I have. They have a smaller head, so they dig in a little more, to give a lighter sound. This is also helped by the tapered handle. For general use, I prefer a single thickness handle of the 12.5mm standard, however the "French" handle which is 14mm at the butt and tapers to 9mm just behind the head, gives a very definite center of gravity. This makes it good for light and effortless playing, where lots of finger control is used.

Timpani Dampening

The most effective general method of dampening timpani that I've seen is as follows. Once the note has been played, remove fingers two, three and four from the butt of the mallet and stretch them out. Finger one is still employed in gripping the stick with the thumb. Simultaneously press the fleshy pads of these fingers and the outer palm of the hand, which is next to the groove, into the drum head. This will stop the drum's vibration. Some practise will be required to do this with minimal "clicking" sound as the hand contacts the drum.

There are times however when even a good dampener will make too much noise during dampening for the music. For these situations I use an ordinary woollen glove, with the thumb and first finger cut off. This allows effective gripping of the stick, but makes dampening easier.

There are times when three drums need to be dampened at once, or when the palm does not dampen immediately enough. For these situations, try using the elbow as well. The whole side of the forearm can be placed on the drum skin along with the palm, or the elbow part used to dampen one drum, while the palm end of the arm dampens another. I have even on occasions, used my left leg and knee to dampen low drums when five timpani all had to be dampened at once.

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