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Timpani - an introduction

Learn about the timpani from an expert musician with the U.S. Marine Band. Includes demonstrations of tuning, and different types of mallets.

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Video transcript

(solemn music) - Being the timpanist is certainly a powerful position, or it can be musically, where I can play too loud and sort of over-dominate the band while also kinda keeping a good musical time and tempo. So it's a large responsibility being the timpanist. (mysterious music) Starting before Mozart, the timpani didn't have a lot of musical range. Pitches couldn't be changed easily. You had to turn each lug individually to change the pitch, to tighten or loosen the head of the drum. As we evolved musically and mechanically, the timpani became more fluid, more flexible, and so composers were able to write music that went along with the music much more involved than in Mozart's day, and even Beethoven's. Now I sometimes feel like I'm riding a bicycle because there's so much pedaling going on in the timpani. (dramatic music) A lot of notes, a lot of rhythms, a lotta solos. It requires me to go into a rehearsal being prepared and loose with my hands. Some light practicing on a practice pad will obtain a good start to the rehearsal, but also having instruments in good shape and good sound before the rehearsal begins is very important. The first thing that I will do before starting a rehearsal is make sure the timpani are sounding good. That may require clearing the head slightly. By doing so, I go around each of the lugs on each particular timpani and make sure that they're all sounding in tune with each other. Tuning requires a really particular ear, a really specific and good-tuned ear. I assume, when I play timpani, that every note I play is out of tune, so I'm always adjusting throughout the performance. The scope of a particular pitch on the timpani can seem wide because there are so many overtones, so a C natural playing with the flutes can maybe differ slightly playing a C natural with the tubas. So I'm always adjusting and listening when tuning. I have gauges on the timpani which allow me to set the pitches easily visually, but I cannot rely on the gauges to play in tune. (dramatic music) Timpani sticks and mallets are a very personal thing for musicians, for percussionists, and they tend to wear out. We purchase timpani mallets much like a musician would purchase reeds, but after a while there is some upkeep, and when timpani mallets wear out, I have to sew more felt onto the timpani mallet. So I use German felt, which I have to purchase and then cut and sew, and it's very time-consuming. Sewing timpani mallets might take an hour for each pair. And often I'll get to the end and I'll break some string and have to start over. But in today's market, you can purchase felts and timpani mallets when they wear out, and often people will do that because it's kind of a lost art. Because I perform so often, I certainly have to sew my timpani mallets. (dramatic music)