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Writing for percussion 2 Timpani for the Devil


March 1, 2013

Chris Brannick

Timpani what they are, what they do


Timpani or kettledrums (the same thing, just a more old-fashioned name) have been largely ever-present in the orchestra from
the early 18th century onwards. Originally being found in pairs and of relatively small sizes, they would have been used
processionally mounted either side of a horse.
Fast-forwarding to the 21st century, its now safe to assume a set of four, in sizes ranging from 23 in diameter to perhaps 32,
each of which is equipped with a pedal giving each timp a range of about a 6th varying according to make.
Timpanists despair of anyone ever writing properly for the timps, and Id love to be able to give you an insight into perfect timp
writing, but its such a minefield that all I can do is call your attention to some examples of good and bad practice, throw you a
few tips, then leave you to be insulted by timpanists. Its inevitable. Dont take it personally.
The first rule of writing is not to confuse a timpanist with a percussionist. There are people who do both, but there are rarely
specialists who cover both. Many professional timpanists will refuse to play percussion if you write it in their parts and at best
will get the hu.
Percussionists will play timps within a contemporary or chamber music setting (think Britten operas), and in the theatre you are
unlikely to get a specialist timpanist.
Who are you writing for?
Context is everything. More than perhaps any other instrument, you are at the mercy of the timpanist and his or her instruments.
What you can write for the timpanist of the LSO is light years away from what you can write for the timpanist of the Oswestry
Young Hopefuls Wind Band regardless of how good or bad the timpanist of that band might be.
The LSO will have access to a large number of well-maintained pedal timpani, whereas our Young Hopeful will be lucky to have
anything more than two old drums, probably without pedals, probably with knackered skins.
If you end up writing for the young hopefuls, then these are the parameters to expect:
two timps
the higher timp will be capable of about a fifth, Bb F, possibly a semitone either side of that
the lower timp will probably cover F C
note changes can be made in a gap of about 10 seconds minimum if the timpanist is good

If lucky you you end up writing for a professional orchestra, then this is what you can expect:
at least four timps (I wouldnt advise writing for more than that the timpanist might use more, but that would be to get round
any awkward pedalling or unusual ranges)
overall range will be from just below the bass clef to just above this range can be extended a little
within this, you can write pretty much as you wish, but timpanists will thank you for giving them time to pedal (and a chance to
look up from the gauges)
using too busy a timp part tends to muddy the texture keep it simple
the timpanist will also thank you for the chance to make music using the timp part, rather than fighting the part and pedalling
like a demented organist

Pedalling
There are basically two types of pedals balanced action and clutch but you dont need to know about that, and I dont intend
to waste your time writing about it. Grateful? I hope so.
Again, just listen out for good and bad practice, and ask a timpanist when in doubt. There are rarely any good reasons to write
complicated parts for timpani.
Sticks
I think I speak for most percussionists when I say that I hate composers telling me what sticks to use. If you must, stick to hard,
medium and soft. The actual relationship between the stick and the attack of the sound produced is much more subtle than
simply being down to the hardness of the sticks; if you hear a timpanist playing your music and you want more (or less) attack on
the note, say so. Thats whats important the sound not the technical means by which the sound is made.
Often, if during a rehearsal a composer asks me to use harder sticks, I will pretend to change sticks, then play with exactly the
same ones but with a dierent attack, just to see if the composer notices any dierence. Naughty, I know, but thats what I am.
Special eects
There arent many available to the timps. Glissandi, playing in the centre of the drum (where it makes a dull tuneless thud),
playing with coins in the hands (in Elgars Enigma Variations, Variation 13, where the sound is meant to imitate a ships engines
not actually written by Elgar, but apparently approved by him), damped or coperto (covered) are all possibilities, but in many of
these cases there is a dierent percussion instrument that can do the job equally as well. At one point in West Side Story
Bernstein asks for the timps to be played with maracas special timp sticks with inbuilt shakers are available for this eect. It
sounds terrible.
Asking a timpanist to do anything untoward to the head of the drum is likely to result in a refusal. Timpani heads are expensive
and easily damaged. Just dont.

One very subtle eect occasionally found in contemporary music is to rest a cymbal upside down, or a temple bowl, on the head
of the timp; strike the cymbal (or temple bowl) and gliss on the pedal; the head of the drum picks up the resonance of the
harmonics as it passes, leading to a haunting, whistling type of glissando. It is, however, almost entirely inaudible if anything else
is going on at the same time.
Talk to your timpanist
The best advice, when alls said and done, is to talk to the timpanist. There are just too many dierences between instruments
and players for there to be a one size fits all approach.
Here are some examples of interesting writing.
Bartok Concerto for Orchestra
About as tricky as you can go. Theres time to pedal between notes, but your feet are permanently moving. If you write
something this intricate, check first. And definitely dont write this for the Oswestry Young Hopefuls Wind Band.

Beethoven
Every timpanist loves playing Beethoven. You dont need anything more than two timps, and tonic and dominant (nearly all
Beethoven parts are tonic & dominant) to provide driving, evocative and colourful music that both underpins and lifts the
orchestral score. Its there where it needs to be, and not there where it would be superfluous. Listen to Beethoven and learn.
Heres an excerpt from his first symphony:

The interesting thing here is the sticking (use of left or right hand). In the first five bars (that notation in this case indicates
repeated quavers) no matter which hand you start with, you end up having either to cross sticks or to double stick (two
consecutive lefts or rights). Cross sticking is the solution here, but this goes at a mighty fast speed
And the seventh symphony:

This makes an appearance for no reason other than it is possibly the most fun you can have with a pair of timps. Whenever you
see this symphony being played, please think of the timpanist. While he or she is desperately trying to look composed and
dignified, inside his or her head is a voice going wheeee!!. Honestly.
Richard Strauss
Strauss makes two appearances here; one good, one bad. Maybe some timpanist will leap in the air (probably just after playing
Beethovens 7th) and defend the writing in Salom, but I just dont get it. First the good:

Like the Bartok, its tricky, but playable. Theres time to pedal, and it supports the harmonies beautifully. Lots of changes, but all
for a purpose, and giving the timpanist time to phrase and to play musically.
Now the less convincing:

Four timps within a minor third is not of and in itself unreasonable, but these four timps have to cover a normal orchestral range

so the lowest of these timps is screaming at the top of its range, and the highest is tub thumping on a slack skin. Add to that the
fact that the passage is easier to play if the Db and D are reversed (so then you can play it left-right-left-right etc with no stick
crossing), and then those two drums are not in their most eective ranges either. And what eect do you get from all of those
notes, none of which can be dampened, unless you put a cloth on the side of the timp? Im not convinced. Too many notes, my
dear Richard, too many notes.
The Secret Composer
As this is music for a film that hasnt come out at the time of writing, Ive been asked not to name either the film or the composer.
How very mysterious.
This is good writing, although I suspect thats by accident; the fact that the composer lists all the notes at the beginning implies
that he expects them all to be available so playing with 7 timps. I dont have arms long enough to reach 7 timps.
However, hes written with plenty of time to retune, and the notes are allowed to sound. It looks and sounds like a timp part. But
if I told you who wrote it, Id have to kill you.

Hochrainer
Finally, a study by a timpanist, from a book of technical exercises. You will see that he notes which timps you should tune to at
the beginning (you dont need to do this), and oddly, theyre not in pitch order. Looking through, I cant really see why this is. Any
advantages in particular passages are outweighed by diculties in others.

But overall, this is a good example of how timpanists might think. I just think that any timpani music written in swing notation is
on highly dodgy ground. Unless youre Eric Delaney (check this YouTube clip, filmed when he was 85 go in at 730 and dont
ever ask timpanists to play with snare drum sticks). And nobody will ever be Eric Delaney again.

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Bartok, beethoven, Eric Delaney, hochrainer, kettledrums, Oswestry, percussion, strauss, timpani
permalink [http://www.chrisbrannick.co.uk/writing-for-percussion-2-timpani-for-the-devil-2/]