When I think about what drew me to Timpani – what made me desire so strongly to be the timpanist of an orchestra – one thing comes to mind each time.
The role of the timpani in the orchestra varies from moment to moment. It can, within minutes, move from being the support of a particular harmony to being a strong rhythmic punctuation and driving force.
It is, arguably, the most powerful reinforcement of climactic moments in music. If you imagine some of the most powerful moments in music, you were probably hearing a strong timpani roll leading and releasing into that moment, perhaps without even knowing it.
This unique impact crosses all genres of music and is appreciated by all audiences with or without their consciousness. To me, a great timpanist, is much like a great drum set player – you truly have the ability to lead through a certain deliberateness and commitment to your style, sensibility, and concept of your sound.
This all begins with how you play one beautiful note. That note is born in your concept of sound. For me, the greatest example of beautiful sound – integrity of sound – comes from the great Cloyd Duff (1915 -2000). Mr. Duff was the Timpanist of the Cleveland Orchestra from 1942-1981, performing in the greatest concert halls throughout the world and under the legendary orchestral conductors of our time.
In his article, Timpanist – Musician or Technician, Mr. Duff wrote the following: “Overlooked far too often is the fact that the timpani can be played with tone like any other orchestral instrument. If, for example, a horn player played the notes only with regard to rhythm, he would only partially be playing his instrument by disregarding the possibilities of what could be done with the notes in the way of sound quality.”
I have found that because the percussion family of instruments are among the most convenient to make an initial sound, there is the misconception that tone quality does not need to be a consideration. This is absolutely false. We must take as much pride in our sound as any other musician.
How do I implement this philosophy in my career?
I have spent years studying recordings of Mr. Duff, studied and continue to play for and be coached by students of his, and each time I sit behind the drums, I have a distinct sound in mind before I play my first note. This affords me a situation in which I control the instrument – the instrument does not control me. You can sit behind your drums and say, “I hope this works out…” or you can sit behind your drums and actually hear the sound you want to create in your head before you play. This gives you direction and purpose each time you approach the instrument. Now, of course that doesn’t mean that you play perfectly each time. But what it does is help you to almost immediately know how or why you fell short. When you return to practice, you can more efficiently deal with how to build the facility needed to execute next time.
I truly believe if a musician is fortunate enough to be heard by an audience – whether in a concert hall, arena, club, or recording studio – it is our responsibility to commit ourselves to elevating the profession each and every time we are heard.
I was once told, “Every time you hit that stage, give everything you can give. No matter how many times you’ve played this, you never know who is hearing this music for the first time. You never know who is listening.”
Principal Timpanist, Tucson Symphony Orchestra
Acting Director of Percussion Studies/Adjunct Professor of Percussion, University of Arizona