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Timpani: Interview and demonstration with principal Jauvon Gilliam

Video transcript

(timpanist quietly pulsates the beat with the orchestra) (timpanist plays a drum roll at the climax of the movement) - The instruments that I'm playing are called timpani or kettledrums. They are used, basically, in the position of driving the bus or driving the rhythm with the orchestra. That's generally my main job within the ensemble is to lead from the back, if you will. I am placed at the back, in the center, and on risers. And that's so that I can have a unique vantage point like that of the conductor. (Jauvon plays steadily, quietly with the orchestra) All timpani do not look alike. It depends on the age and the type of copper. For example, the timpani that I have are not lacquered. It gives it a special quality that's somehow for me, it's very present, but somehow it can be intangible sometimes. But it definitely depends on the bowl shape, the actual type of bowl, the drum head that you put on it, and obviously the type of sticks that you use. (Jauvon plays a dramatic timpani solo) I brought with me three different types of sticks to show you. Some of the many types of sticks that I do own. Sticks can be any number of shapes, sizes, thicknesses. The type of core you use can be different. The length and everything. So, here we have a hickory stick that has a tapered shaft, that has a felt core with billiard felt on it. So, it's a very articulate type of sound, yeah. Next, we have a general mallet. This is actually a graphite stick that has a wood core and has a felt liner on it as well. More of a general sound. This one here is a bamboo stick, that same thing, has German felt lined around it, but this core is a felt core. And so, between the different weights, the different lengths as you can see, and the different head sizes, you can get a variety of sounds. And this is one of very many types of sticks that I own and do use. There's generally one place where you want to strike the drum. And that's generally four to six inches off the lip of the bowl or maybe six or seven inches from the very rim. That creates the most resonant, most desirable sound to the ear. New music sometimes dictates and asks us to play all over. (Jauvon plays timpani along with driving orchestral music) (Jauvon plays a forceful timpani solo) Some composers do specify what they want as far as sticks. Hector Berlioz was the first composer, who was actually a timpanist himself. Who specified whether he wanted wood sticks or the word which he called it, which was sponge-covered sticks, which in our vernacular is felt-covered sticks. And so, he was the first composer to specify. Mahler specifies. And some other composers specify. But generally, it's my call as to what sticks are being used or I choose what stick that I feel is appropriate for the repertoire or in some cases appropriate for the particular note that I'm playing in the repertoire. I have a myriad of sticks, and I change throughout the pieces to find the best sound. (Jauvon plays timpani along with vibrant orchestral music) Timpani are tuned in two ways. One is by my feet. And the other is by my hands when I'm not playing. I can use my feet to push on a pedal that's located near the floor. (Jauvon plays different notes on the timpani) And that changes the pitch. Basically it stretches the head across the rim, which stretches the rim across the actual kettle. And for some tinier, smaller increments, I can use what we call a fine tuner, where you can take it and you can tweak it and make different sort of adjustments that way as well. So, sometimes you will see me put my head really close to the drum and tap, tap, tap. Basically, what I am doing is, I am checking to make sure that the pitch that I'm about to play is in tune with the instruments that are playing already. Because I use a natural skin or calfskin head, the weather, the type of day, the strength of the lights on stage, a lot of things can affect the actual fluctuation of the pitch. And that happens in seconds at times. So, you have to be sure, and you have to have a process that you go through to check to make sure that when you actually play, you're in tune. (Jauvon plays timpani in an intense orchestral piece) There's a lot of great repertoire that we're doing, but one of the parts that really sticks out for me, there's actually two. One of them is in Mahler's Second Symphony. There's a part, it's the recapitulation, where it comes back at the very beginning, and you hear it again maybe 15 or so minutes later. There's two timpanists in that piece, and we're both playing away. There's this huge climax. It's the entire orchestra is putting their heart and soul into it, and that's one of those moments where I get goosebumps, and I feel very, very fortunate to be doing what I'm doing. (timpanist plays dramatic drum roll) And one of the other moments is actually at the end of "The Firebird" by Stravinsky. It's such a gorgeous and lyric melody that comes up before that, and then there's this explosion of sound that I punctuate the end of this fantastic piece. And those are the moments that really I live for. (Jauvon plays timpani in the stirring orchestral piece) I actually started my musical career on piano. I went to university on a full piano scholarship. And long story short, ended up switching to percussion. And once I decided that I wanted to become a timpanist, I pretty much put all of my energy into that. Started my master's at a conservatory specifically for timpani and then I was offered a job shortly thereafter. I was actually a pretty good piano player. The change that happened for me was actually when I met my teacher when I was in school in Indianapolis, he basically lit the fire for me. And once I realized the possibilities of timpani, it did, it made more of a comfortable fit for me to enjoy the music, play less notes, and be able to watch and sit around. Versus with piano where you play lots and lots of notes. It's sort of a different genre and a different way of expressing yourself. And when you put all the pieces together, it really does create some spectacular moments. (Jauvon plays timpani in a stately orchestral piece) (Jauvon plays a drum roll) (Jauvon plays a drum roll during the finale of the piece)