What is the most important aspect of playing timpani?
My answer is tone production because without quality tone production from the timpani you might as well play your part on card board boxes.
Let’s look at a couple of exercises that will help every timpanist get the most out of their playing by concentrating on listening to the tone that is produced on these wonderful instruments.
When I’m teaching a beginner to produce the best sound that they can on the timpani I have them take a ball type mallet (the Grover Pro TMB-T1 for instance) and have them hold it vertically by the end of the shaft above the playing spot on the drum (about 3 inches from the rim) so that the ball of the mallet is about 15 inches above the drum. Then, they drop and catch the mallet as if they were dropping and catching a rubber ball as it bounces on the floor. The student observes the action and the reaction of the free falling mallet as it strikes and rebounds from the playing spot and they listen carefully to the tone the mallet produces without being held by the player’s hand. They notice that the dropped mallet never stops when it bounces on the drum head and they hear a beautiful round tone from the drum. After a few times of doing this the student holds the mallet with a regular playing grip and strikes the drum from the same height as they previously dropped the mallet trying to duplicate the same sound that the free falling mallet produced. This is a great exercise to help the timpanist discover if they are playing with too much tension in their stroke. If a harsh, slappy or thuddy tone is heard it is often discovered that the timpanist is whipping the mallet into the drum’s head, their wrist action is too stiff or maybe they are using too much of their arm and elbow movement in their stroke instead of just the wrist. But, by listening to the sound and copying the action and reaction of the dropped mallet the timpanist’s tone will sound more round, open and relaxed.
Here is an exercise that I use as a warm up that is all about listening to tone production. I play slow individual strokes at 60 bpm and listen very carefully to ensure that my right and left hand produce the same clear, full and round tone. I play 4 quarter notes with the right hand then 4 with the left followed by 8 quarter notes that alternate right and left repeating the pattern several times. The goal here is that you should not be able to hear any difference between the hands. Play this exercise on all the drums and on a variety of pitches and at different dynamics, but always play this exercise slowly to get the most out of it.
Remember that playing timpani is usually not about how fast you can play, but how good you sound when you play. Listen to and enjoy each and every sound you produce from any instrument you play, especially the timpani.
Andrew Proctor has been teaching percussion lessons for over thirty years, and he’s a busy professional timpanist and percussionist with many orchestras, opera companies, Broadway shows, Show Bands and other ensembles all over South Florida and Canada. He’s taught students of all ages at middle schools, high schools and universities and he’s also a clinician and drum circle facilitator.
Andrew has a Masters Degree in Performance from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and a Bachelor of Music from McGill University in Montreal. He is the creator of Free Percussion Lessons Online, a terrific resource for percussionists and educators.