Timpani is often overlooked by band directors, especially at the middle school level, and can be intimidating for young students. Below are some tips regarding care of the drums, theory/ear training, and technique that will hopefully assist directors in providing direction and confidence in young percussionists regarding timpani.
Height, Velocity, Mass
1. “Not a table!!!” I have a sign on our timpani covers to discourage students from placing belongings on the drums.
2. Use a towel/wipe to keep the heads clean from dust and clear out anything that may collect between the head and rim.
Maintain Good Tone by Properly Caring for your Timpani
3. When moving the drums, instruct students to move by holding the side struts rather than the rim. Moving from the rim can push the head off center and impact the tuning. Also press the toe of the pedal down when moving to apply tension to the head to make it less likely that the head could move off center.
4. Keep the heads in range to allow the pedal to move properly. If the pedal heel snaps down, the tension on the head is too low. If the pedal toe snaps down, the tension on the head is too high.
Timpani Head Alignment
1. Timpani parts are written in bass clef so make sure students understand how to read bass clef. This is a common source of confusion for young percussionists.
2. Understanding the lowest pitch and ranges of the drums will help students understand which drums to play the notes on and knowing how high or low on the drum the pitch will be can help in tuning. The drums have a practical range of a 5th and some typical lowest pitches for the drums to be tuned to are: 32” (C/D), 29” (F), 26” (Bb), 23” (D/Eb).
3. Work with students to understand intervals. Using songs such as “Here Comes the Bride” for Perfect 4th or the NBC theme song for Perfect 5th can help. You can find guides with more current songs as well simply by searching online or have students find their own examples from songs that they like.
4. Matching pitch is always a challenge for students. I try to combat this by having them sing pitches as they play on keyboard instruments from the very beginning. They may not know why I am asking them to sing the pitches as they play, but it pays off when they begin to play timpani.
1. Whether to use French grip (thumb facing up) or German grip (thumb facing to the side) is often debated. I personally teach German grip to begin with because that grip and stroke is also used for snare drum, mallet percussion, and many other percussion instruments and makes for an easier transfer. The stick should be placed between the thumb and first finger, with the back fingers wrapped around the stick. The grip should be relaxed to allow the weight of the stick to be the primary source of the sound.
2. For the stroke, the stick should start in the up position and return to the up position using a legato, or rebound, stroke. Students should not play down-strokes (where the stick is stopped after striking the head) as this can cause a quick bend in the pitch and harsh tone from the head.
3. Sit or stand? Students can use a stool, or stand, when playing timpani. The primary purpose of a stool is to allow freedom of movement from the feet for tuning changes, which beginning timpani students will not typically need to worry about. For most beginning students, standing behind the drums works just fine.
A Trap Table Is Essential
4. Playing rolls. The purpose of rolls on any percussion instrument is to create a sustained sound as opposed to the rhythmic sounds typically associated with percussion instruments. To play quality rolls on timpani, students should make sure they are playing with a relaxed grip and stroke, even spacing between the notes played on each hand, and find a roll speed that sounds more like a sustain than a rhythm. To find the roll’s speed, have the students start by playing a slow open rhythm (8th notes) and gradually speed up until it sounds more like a sustain than a rhythm. Assuming they keep their grip and stroke relaxed, they should be able to identify a “window” where it sounds like a sustain. If they get too fast, it begins to sound like a rhythm again as the strokes come so quickly they cancel out the sustain of the previous stroke.
Where to Strike the Timpani
Providing students with some information regarding the care of the instruments, music theory, ear training, and proper technique will hopefully lead to more confidence and excitement for playing timpani.