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Timpani: Interview and demonstration with principal Jauvon Gilliam

Video transcript

("Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67 III.Allegro" by Beethoven) - The instruments that I'm playing are called timpani, or kettle drums. They are used basically as in the position of sort 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 sort of have a unique vantage point, like that of the conductor. (orchestral music) All timpani do not look alike, depends on the age, and the type of copper. For example, the timpani that I have are not lacquered. It gives it sort of a special quality that's somehow, for me it's very, present, but somehow 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 you use. (timpani booming) 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, thickness, 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 billard felt on it. So, it's articulate type of sound. Next we have a sort of 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 general sound. This one here is a bamboo stick, that, same thing, has a 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 see 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 wanna 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. ("Blast!" By David Stock) Some composers do specify what they want as far as sticks. Hector Berlioz was the first composer who actually was a timpanist himself, who specified whether he wanted wood sticks, or the way he called it, which was sponge covered sticks, which in our vernacular is felt covered sticks. And so he was the first composer to sort of 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. ("Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op.36 IV.Finale" by Tchaikovsky) 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. (timpani booming) 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 cat skin, 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 sort of a process that you go through to check to make sure that when you actually play, you're in tune. ("Symphony No.9 in E minor, Op.95 I.Adagio" by Dvorak) 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 that comes right back, 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, and there's this huge climax, it's the entire orchestra's 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. ("Symphony No.9 in E minor, Op.95 I.Adagio" by Dvorak) And one of the other moments is actually one of the, 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 sort of explosion of sound, that I sort of punctuate the end of this fantastic piece. And those are the moments that really, I live for. (orchestral music) 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 masters 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 from me, and once I realized the possibilities of timpani, it did, it made more of a comfortable fit for me to sort of 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. ("Academic Festival Overture Op.80" by Brahms)