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Timpani & Percussion - part 1

Timpani & Percussion & its contribution to the Modern Brass Band
by Dave Griffiths

See also: part 2 | part 3 | part 4

The use of percussion within the brass band has developed dramatically in the last thirty-odd years. It is with thanks to composers such as Gilbert Vinter, Edward Gregson, Phillip Sparke, Elgar Howarth, Phillip Wilby and arrangers Howard Snell & Ray Farr, to name a few, that nowadays percussion has firmly established itself as being just as important to the distinctive ‘sound’ of a brass band, as any other brass instrument within it.

In fact, some of today’s percussion scores can be technically demanding for any seasoned professional percussionist. I for one am sure that without the training, discipline and experience gained from playing such challenging music with brass bands, that perhaps my professional career may not have been as successful as it has been. An ever increasing amount of percussion instruments, different playing methods/techniques and effects, that might perhaps be more commonly associated with percussion writing found in the orchestral idiom, is now also being introduced into the brass band repertoire.

Many professional brass players throughout Europe’s finest music ensembles have benefited from playing with brass bands, and the same applies to some percussionists, found playing with International Symphony Orchestras, West End show’s, sessions etc. However, many of these players have furthered their own musical education and training by attending music Conservatoires or University’s before entering the profession. But what about those percussionists in bands who play only as a hobby? With the ever increasing musical and technical demands now facing percussionists, 4BarsRest decided that such players might benefit from a few helpful ‘tips’ and guidelines, helping them to improve their own performances.

Throughout the many years of various brass band news publications, there has been very little information and advice of this sort for percussionists provided by such magazines. I remember reading one, in the eighties, penned by Clayton McCann of the Cory Band – I haven’t seen much else!
In this series of articles I will attempt to provide a number of helpful notes and observations, which may be of use not only to the percussionist, but also to the conductor, adjudicator and brass player alike, hopefully providing them with a further understanding about the instruments and the role which I believe timpani & percussion should play within a brass band.

The Timpani

Brass players are aware that over-blowing is very much frowned upon by conductors as well as by the listener and indeed, can be costly in a contest situation. Great care and attention is therefore made to ensure that no matter what dynamic a brass player may be playing, that the quality of tone is never sacrificed for volume or over playing/blowing. However, I have experienced some percussionists and indeed some conductors not taking into account that the same applies to the timpani and percussion section.

The similarity between a snare drum and timpani is that they are both drums – and that is where the similarity ends. The timpani produces harmony and notes of definite pitch. I believe, that despite many timpanists/percussionists in the brass band movement having not received any training on the instruments that with a little more ‘love’ and care of their instruments, that they too, can start to produce more musical sounds, particularly on the grandest of all drums – the Timpani.

During a lesson with the legendary percussionist and historian James Blades, he once described to me that the timpanist of an orchestra would sometimes be regarded as the second conductor. The player should have an understanding of the works being performed and its score inside out, not just the timpani part, but to know what contribution all the instruments in the ensemble are making to the performed works.

The purpose of this is mainly to recognise exactly what role the timpani is playing within the work and by doing so, fitting into the ensemble in a suitable and musical manner. I feel that Jimmy’s words are so very true and I have therefore made every effort to familiarise myself with the scores of each major work that I have performed with a brass band, orchestra or West End musical etc.

This doesn’t necessarily mean studying the scores in as much detail as a conductor would, but in these days of modern technology, there may be a number of recordings available of your chosen piece of music to listen to, which would help you to have a better understanding.

By understanding what role the timpani is playing in a work the player should be aware of whether the timpani is merely producing just harmony and backing to the lower end of the scoring and should therefore blend in to the overall sound, or if it meant to be soloistic at certain points. The sound of a brass band can be enhanced greatly by good musical timpani playing. It can support the bass end adding extra depth and colour, helping to make the overall lower end sound rich and full. It can also contribute by creating excitement and tension in those fast and technically challenging moments of a work. On the other hand, unmusical timpani playing can ruin performances which otherwise might be very good.

So what makes a good timpanist? What makes any musician a good one?
Putting aside a player’s technical ability, firstly, he/she has to be a good listener. One should be respectful to fellow musicians and know when to get out of the way and not interfere with another musicians’ line that is more important than their own. A good player should to be sympathetic and play with sensitivity. Whenever I sit behind a set of timpani, I reminded myself of the word ‘elegance’- not in the way one might necessary look (!) but in the way I try to approach the instruments in my performance.

These drums can make a lot of noise if you want them too. But the important thing to remember is ‘restraint’. There have been moments when I have been confronted with a very fast and loud timpani score. At first I may unintentionally go at it like a bull in a china shop, but then I stop and think about the ‘elegance’ in my playing, or the lack of, as the case may be. I then approach the part again, aiming to add as much musicality, expression and phrasing and so on to my playing as possible.

But what about that quality of ‘sound’? How can a player help himself produce a good sound on the drums? There are a number of elements worth considering, thus starting the player off on the right track:-

Maintenance and care of your timpani

As with all good quality instruments there comes a price. Buying a set of timpani is no exception. There are a number of brands on the market today, each one producing a range of instruments to suit the buyer’s budget. Naturally a set of copper timps are going to have more resonance and a warmer tone than a set made from fibreglass, but the difference in cost can be a telling factor of which drums a band can afford to buy.

Timpani manufacturers such as Yamaha, Adams, Majestic and Premier and so on, also produce drums which can be made more portable, meaning, the legs are either removed or stored inside the shell of the drum during transportation. Unless your band has a large van with flight cases to house and protect your ‘Ludwig hammered copper Professional Series’ Timpani (my personal favourite), then perhaps a set of portable timps made of copper (a popular choice with many bands these days), may suit your band best. This is one option that could, perhaps, be considered instead of buying large fibreglass drums in a frame, which may cause problems during transportation as well as the obvious lack in tonal quality compared to copper drums.

Another problem that faces many brass bands is after a concert or contest, the longer it takes to dismantle and pack away percussion instruments, means less time at the pub! Unfortunately, as a result, I have seen new timpani and other percussion instruments being thrown about into vans or buses. As a result of this bad handling their lifespan is dramatically reduced, together with problems occurring such as dents and scratches appearing in the heads and in the copper/fibreglass bowl, wheels falling off, tuning gauges being ripped off or the indices on the gauges going missing, and so on.

All these problems can eventually add up to a general reduction in sound quality of the instruments ( as well as large repair costs) and no matter how good your timpani covers might protect your drums, they can’t protect them from this sort of mishandling. Also, no matter how good a timpanist your band may have, if they have to perform on badly maintained instruments, they can never fully produce the kind of sounds that your player may be capable of.

I have seen great musicians turn down offers to join bands because they couldn’t bear to play on the instruments that the bands are supplying for them to play on. As a proud owner of a set of hammered copper timpani, I for one would never treat my instruments in such a way. I don’t think for one moment that a cornetist would also allow his instrument be thrown about in such a manner either.

Once you have your lovely well kept set of timpani, always ensure that before and after each performance, including rehearsals, that a clean felt duster is wiped over the top of the heads to remove any finger marks or greasy stains and dirt that may be accumulated. After wiping the heads place either a specially made wooden/felt disc on top of the heads or a complete cover to stop dust falling onto the instruments, particularly onto the heads.

I carry in my stick bag a little spray-bottle containing a mixture of water and window cleaner. A couple of sprays on the surface of the drum head (only suitable for plastic heads), which is then wiped away with a duster or paper towel, ensures that the heads are kept in a good working condition.

Even at band contests, I have insisted on wiping the drums over before I use them as I don’t want muck and grease getting onto my sticks. Then after a contest performance, I wipe the heads again, thus leaving the timps in a good condition for the player following me onto the stage. Perhaps this is one practice which more players should consider in the future…?


The next and very important step to good quality note production on the timps is your choice of sticks, just as a mouthpiece is for a brass player. It is important for the performer to understand that the choice of sticks used can help to produce the best sounds - combined with good technique of course.

It is therefore necessary for the performer to have at least 3 pairs of sticks (hard, medium & soft). Some professional players have as many as 10 or more pairs, but this can be expensive. Attacking the drums with the hardest sticks possible in fortissimo passages can create nothing more than an unmusical ‘thwacking’ noise. I was shocked to hear of one brass band conductor of note asking the timpanist to ‘get out his wooden sticks and hit the hell out the drums’…

In some instances where I have needed a big & full sound on the timps I have turned to some of my medium to soft range of sticks. By striking the drums in such a way, letting gravity take its cause and playing off the heads (and not into them) and thus drawing the sound out of the drums, voila – a big sound is achieved. In direct contrast, I have observed timpanists in those quieter and more detailed moments of a work, using their softest sticks because the part says ‘soft’, and as a result, all important detail is lost or soaked up in the acoustic of the hall.

It doesn’t take much common sense to realise that where the timpani is playing short or detailed quieter phrases, with the right combination of harder sticks, perhaps with smaller heads (if you have a choice) together with the appropriate dampening (with the hands or felt mutes – but NOT beer mats), the desired affect can be produced.

I am no brass player but I am sure I am correct by saying that a larger bore instrument and mouth piece can help produced bigger sounds? The very same applies with sticks and the size of its bead and how many layers of felt cover the bead. It’s useful for a timpanist to understand the construction of timpani sticks.

Timpani sticks can be made in so many ways, using mostly cork or wooden beads - some beads bigger in size than others, with different layers and thickness of felt applied to the bead. The way the felt is sewn onto the bead, weather it is sewn tightly or loosely and how much air is in-between each layer of felt, also has a dramatic effect on the way in which the timpani will sound when struck.

Once you have your sticks of choice it is important to experiment with them, finding out which tombre of sounds can be produced from each set of sticks.

There are a number of manufacturers who make great quality timpani sticks. Companies such as Vic Firth, Vater, and Premier etc. produce sticks which are fine, however, the choice of many professional players is to use handmade sticks with bamboo shafts, made by the likes of Rossman (Germany), David Morbey (British) and Sean Hooper, to name a few. I have used all combinations also with a large collection of handmade sticks that I have made for my own use.

The prices of professional handmade sticks can range from £20 - £50 a pair.

What size drums should I use?

The choice of which drum to use for certain notes or passages can also be a very important factor to creating good sound quality. Quite a number of orchestral pieces which have been transcribed for brass band have unfortunately had to be transposed into lower keys than the original. This means that often the timpani parts are written in the lower F to C registers, instead of perhaps a higher and brighter B to F register. Because of this I have often made use of my bottom two drums (of a set of four) as much as possible, to the extent where I have placed the two larger drums in front of me (as apposed to on my left side) as I use them the most.

As I mentioned before, the use of larger bore instruments can help create bigger and fuller sounds to a brass instrument - the same applies to the size of the drum (as well as the choice of sticks). In some circumstances to help create a bigger sound I have tuned two of the larger drums to the same pitch and struck them together, however, this is a difficult technique to use correctly and one which should be used sparingly - for those extra special moments.

Another technique is when I have tuned two drums to the same pitch (or a fifth higher or lower), but only play on the one, allowing the other drum to resonate into the acoustic. This is sometimes effective in quieter timpani moments (rolls etc.). I would encourage timpanists to make more use of the pedals on the timpani.

For example, if a piece of music requires the timps to be tuned to G and C but perhaps with a few extra notes during the work tuned to Bb or D, where possible try to use just the same two drums, retuning the drums using the pedals, as apposed to using a third drum of smaller diameter.

Of course there are times where this technique is impossible. By sitting comfortably on an appropriate stool, which should be able to swivel and therefore not static (such a wooden stool is not recommended), it means that the timpanist’s feet are always free to use the pedals. On the subject of sitting at the timpani, I would like to cast your mind back to the word ‘elegance’ once again.

By being free to move from side to side with your feet either placed firmly on the floor or on the pedals of the timpani, means that you may glide from one drum to another with ease and with dignity. It also makes movement around a set of four or more timps in fast moments much easier. Therefore, I believe the choice of timpani stool (or ‘timpani throne’) is as important as the choice of sticks and drums.

Remember that comfort is very important. Every instrumentalist needs to feel comfortable in the way he/she is sitting in order to get the best possible performance. The timpanist is no exception. Choose your timpani chair carefully.

Regarding the use of pedalling on the timpani, I would encourage enthusiastic timpanists to study the timpani part from Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra (Intermezzo). There you will find the timpani playing the bass line over an eight bar phrase or so. As an exercise, tune the bottom drum to a low F and the highest 4th drum to an Eb. The other notes in the phrase should be played only on the middle two drums, dampening the drums with your hands accordingly. It’s difficult for sure, but when you have accomplished this it will encourage you to use your pedals more freely in other brass band works.

How do I tune the drums correctly and quickly in rehearsals and at a contest/concert situation?

There are a number of ways in which a set of timpani can be tuned. However, I must stress that I would seriously advise players to avoid the use of any electrical tuning device and train their ears to tune the drums instead.

Assuming that the heads have been placed and tightened evenly around the shell of the drums and that the heads are blemish free of dents etc, you are ready to start tuning your drums. At a rehearsal and prior to a concert I would advise the player to arrive at the venue ten minutes before other instrumentalist start tuning and practicing in the same room, therefore interrupting your time in which to tune the drums accurately.

Taking a concert pitch ‘A’ from a tuning fork (a must have essential in any timpanist’s stick bag) or from a glockenspiel, carefully tune the 2nd biggest drum in a set of four, or the largest drum in a set of two to that ‘A’. Release the pedal so that the drum head is slack and strike the drum at a mezzo-piano dynamic. As quickly and accurately as you can, press the pedal or turn the tuning handles on the timpani so that the head tightens.

Listen carefully and try to get as close to the ‘A’ pitch as possible, without any harmonics or overtones. Should you feel that you have gone above (sharp) the ‘A’ then release the pedal and start again. Never release the pedal from a note above the one you require to the note you are trying to pitch without first releasing the tension so that it goes below the note you are aiming to tune to.

Once you are satisfied with your ‘A’, set the tuning gauge and then follow the same procedure on the next smaller size timpani, tuning it to a perfect 5th (‘E’) above the A. Once you are happy with the sound of your timpani’s interval of a fifth, check by hitting the E and quickly dampening the ‘E’ drum allowing the ‘A’ drum to reverberate.

If the drums are perfectly in tune with each other you should be able to hear your ‘E’ singing in the ‘A’ drum. If not, the drums may not be in tune with each other. Continue with this technique of tuning around all four drums, only using intervals of fifths, fourths, octaves and unison notes between drums.

Even if you are only performing one piece of music where you might only require three separate notes, I would encourage that you always set the gauges for all the notes available on each drum. It’s a worthwhile practice and discipline getting used to. Take your time with the tuning process. However, in a rush and on the contest platform in particular, follow the same procedure but you should train yourself to do this in as little time as possible.

It should ideally take no longer than one minute to tune all notes on each drum in a set of four, in these circumstances. It’s not an ideal way of tuning, but it’s one in which you should learn to adapt to. Remember that stage lighting and room temperature/humidity can effect the tuning of your drums.

Even though you might be satisfied with the initial tuning of a note on a timpani, throughout the work being performed be prepared for fine tuning and adjustments here and there, just as a brass player does for good intonation. Finally, one rule of the thumb relating to tuning is to be courteous to your fellow musicians and refrain from banging or tuning your drums in rehearsal when the conductor may be trying to express his wishes to your colleagues.

Adding colour to the ensemble

One of the biggest differences between orchestral and brass band timpani playing is that with an orchestra, the timpanist does perhaps have more opportunity to play with more sympathy and musicality. We are all aware that because of the variety of instruments in an orchestra, more colours are available than with a band (that is with the combination of strings, woodwind, brass, organ and percussion etc).

It means that a timpanist has to fit into the scoring in a way that requires sometimes a careful ‘touch’ to the instrument, so that the timpani blends in nicely with whatever section of the orchestra the timpani is playing with. One of the brass band movements greatest music arrangers, Howard Snell, has commented on arranging that he views himself as a ‘sound painter’ in brass music and when arranging, that his biggest challenges are creating colours and textures in sounds with the instruments that are at his disposal. The musicianship and technical approach to good brass band timpani playing can, as Howard put it, help to create those ‘colours’.

Unfortunately, much of today’s modern timpani writing in the brass bands repertoire can be loud, with bad writing (for example fast phrases on 3 or 4 drums where the pitch of the drums are all close together and low in the register), however, I do honestly believe that the ‘thwacking’ element of playing can be put into the bottom draw.

One has to be very careful in the way that the timpanist never ‘over cooks’ things and in these moments where fast and furious loud timpani playing is required, (combined at the same time with hideously low tom-tom and bass drum scoring!) that the timpanist knows exactly how to blend in, making his contribution worth while and not just adding more ‘noise’ of which for some reason some composers find ‘interesting’..?

Timpanists should think more about the desired sound that they want to produce before they strike the drum. If it helps, perhaps listen to recordings of Brahms & Beethoven symphonies and in direct contrast, works by Shostakovitch and Stravinsky. It may help them understand the kind of sound one should be aiming to achieve. The type of approach to good orchestral timpani playing can also work well with brass bands.

Of course what I have mentioned is just the start to achieving better performances (there are many other factors to consider, regarding technique etc). Nevertheless, with good practice and an open musical ear coupled with some ‘elegant’ playing, we may start to hear more ‘listener friendly’ timpani playing.

It is by having the discipline and understanding of a more musical approach that eventually a timpani player develops into being a timpanist, and believe me, there is a difference! Let’s see if we can get off to a new start at the Area contests of 2004 – all five pieces have ample opportunity to display some fine musical playing.

Dave Griffiths

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