Lame timpanists? Or lame instructors?


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Scott,

I'f first like to say that this is actually a posting thread worth reading and I thought I'd try and pose some questions. I played tymps for Southwind in '00 and Vanguard in 02.

It seems to me that other then the power issue relative to the technique, that tuning the instrument also comes into play with sound projection. With my experience I've noticed that many tympani tune well within themselves, especially at the higher levels of the corps, yet they do not tune well within the:

a) context of the ensemble

B) context of their role within the ensemble

Based upon the different chords and whatnot, some notes resonate better within particular chord structures when they rest a few cent flat or a few cents sharp.

I believe any master piano tuner can verify this.

I think that a lack of understanding of this might add to lack of the sound being able to sit on top of the overall ensemble sound to project itself with the tympani timbre that we tympani players so long to hear.

IE many pit instruments no longer tune to A440 but rather A442. These two cents worth of tuning could make the difference in a pit solo as to whether the tympani is going to be the foundation of the sound or merely just sort of in the background.

This is only compounded in difficulty as to venue, being outside in damp or dry conditions, depending on the day.

I think the best example of a tympanist really nailing this down is Phantom Regiment 1996. The presence is very strong and very intune to the necessities of the ensemble. It is interesting to note the presence on the recording difference in that tympani performance to that of 2003 tympani performances in the same venue, with more technologically advanced recording equipment, as the trends of the industry to to go.

What are your thoughts on this?

Thanks,

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SCVTeerav---you hit on probably the single toughest issue with timpani---tuning! As you guys know, there isn't any specific thing I can say in terms of getting the pitch "right." There are just too many variables. Even in a hypothetically "perfect" set of drums with "perfectly" mounted heads...the timbre of a timpano is enormously complex. With a good ear, you can hear all sorts of stuff going on besides the fundamental pitch. And different frequencies in the overtone range are going to cut through in different environments (again, piles of variables). Switch to harder mallets, and the higher frequencies get emphasized...switch to softer mallets, and the lower frequencies come through more.

You're absolutely right about pitches resonating more within a chord if they're a bit sharp or flat. Same goes for certain notes---some just sound better on a given drum.

I've actually never understood the whole A442 thing with mallet instruments. I'd like to get an explanation for this from the manufacturers. I don't know if it's done this way or not, but the entire horn line should tune to the vibes. Period. Horn players shouldn't be using digital tuners. Example: in a professional orchestra, the oboeist uses a digital tuner to get a perfect 440...then the rest of the orchestra tunes strictly by ear to the oboe. Nobody else has a tuning gauge on their stand.

Okay, maybe this isn't practical for drum corps. :) But do horn lines tune to A442? (I'm guessing probably not---they probably all use a Bb for tuning, right?) In any case, the whole point of tuning is to have a consistent pitch reference...and since you can't alter the pitch of the keyboards, they should be the master reference. (Unless they're hosed!)

I mentioned in an earlier thread the issue of tuning changes. I also mentioned that I think drum corps timpanists today do way too many of them...and arrangers don't write effectively for the timpani. I'm not "anti-tuning-change," I'm just "anti-400-tuning-changes!" Lots of players think it's cool to pedal melodic lines, and from a certain perspective it is...but it's incredibly hard to nail each pitch in a pedaled passage---I don't care how good your tuning gauges are or how familiar you are with the drums. Fewer tuning changes give you more time to check the pitch ahead of time (comparing it to known pitches the horns are playing), as well as adjust the pitch while playing to lock it in. Many of you often don't have time to do this effectively...and the intonation suffers.

Please don't think that a timpani book with fewer tuning changes would be boring. Not even close! Have you ever played Beethoven's 5th Symphony with a great orchestra? 2 pitches---that's it. And I guarantee you would have a near-religious experience playing that part! Same goes for countless other great works. There simply is no correlation between tuning changes, fun, and difficulty. None whatsoever. Sure, tuning changes are challenging...but I can give you a single 16th-note passage to play at 160bpm between 2 drums---no double strokes allowed---and you'd probably not be able to do it. (At least not without shedding it a lot!) Can you do cross-sticking effortlessly at 180bpm? Case closed. (Note: "real" timpanists never use double strokes---that's way bad juju! :))

My point in all this is to convince you that tuning---and tuning changes---are only a part of the art of playing timpani, but not the purpose of it. Just like 4-mallet keyboards. Some marimba players scoff at 2-mallet playing 'cause they think it's too easy, and "inferior" to using 4 mallets. That's sad, because they're two different techniques, each with advantages/disadvantages.

Anyway...I'm getting sidetracked. :) Back to tuning! Your goal is to get as clear and centered a pitch out of the drum as possible. Some of you may already be aware of this (either consciously or subconsciously), but here's a BIG tip: play as many notes as possible on as tight a head as possible. Ever noticed how a C (second space from the bottom on bass clef) sounds so much better on the 29" drum than the 26" drum? That's because the head is far tighter on the 29" drum when it's tuned to that C. The pitch is clearer, more focused, and your articulation is better.

Your goal is to translate this everywhere. For example: here are the "true" ranges of the drums in my experience---by "true" ranges, I mean the notes that actually sound good (meaning they're tuned with a pretty tight head)...note also I'm talking about louder playing levels (forte and above)...

32" drum - G to B

29" drum - A to D

26" drum - D to F

23" drum - G to B

Now you're probably thinking, no way! Way! The pitches I list above are the only pitches that are going to really sound excellent and centered, with a tight head. Anything below a G on the 32" drum will sound flabby. Ditto for a G on the 29" drum. You'll also notice that with the pitches above, each drum (except the 29") only has a good range of a third. That's it. When you voluntarily limit yourself to these notes, it makes pedaling melodic lines a bit more challenging doesn't it? That's why you shouldn't have so many tuning changes! (Is it all beginning to make sense? :))

Want to know an even better tip? This will instantly make you sound better---guaranteed! It's a technique that almost no American-trained timpanist uses, but is used today by many British timpanists: alter the sizes of your standard set up. So for a 5-drum setup, you would use (from the bottom up)...

32"

32"

29"

26"

23"

That's right! You use two 32" drums. Now the next thing you'll think is "Holy cow, that means I'll be crankin' the daylights out of that second 32" drum to get Cs and Ds on it!" You got it! You crank the daylights out of it---and the drum can handle it! What does this accomplish? It ensures that all your notes are played on tight heads. This should be mandatory for drum corps timpanists. Yeah, I know---those 32-inchers are monsters to lug around! But that's the price you pay for good sound!

This is a standard setup for timpanists in British symphonies...and they sound awesome. Playing on tight heads feels SO much better too---more rebound, better tone...and you never have that "beating a flabby box" feeling. (Ever notice how sometimes when you're rolling on a low note, the head almost gets on its "own roll" which doesn't synchronize with yours? That never happens on tight heads!)

So for you folks with more seasons ahead of you, go back to your pit instructors and say "We've got to get another 32" drum." They'll look at you like you're nuts, and you just smile and say "Trust me---you'll like it."

The bottom line for all of this is...play on tighter heads...hear a more centered, focused pitch...be better able to hear subtle differences in the pitch and adjust accordingly.

I think the best example of a tympanist really nailing this down is Phantom Regiment 1996. The presence is very strong and very intune to the necessities of the ensemble. It is interesting to note the presence on the recording difference in that tympani performance to that of 2003 tympani performances in the same venue, with more technologically advanced recording equipment, as the trends of the industry to to go.

What are your thoughts on this?

Hmm...I'm not familiar with that year's Phantom show (wish I had more CDs and DVDs!) Was that the year the pit was staged out on the field? In either case, remember that regardless of technology, the recorded sound will always sound dramatically different than what the fans hear in the stands. (Particularly depending on mic placement.) Though recording technology has certainly improved in general, microphone design hasn't changed much in the past 10 years (in fact, some 20-year-old mics are in high demand today for their amazing qualities)...and mics are the most critical element in the signal chain. I'd like to know what other factors made '96 Phantom's timpani show so good?

Scott

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First of all, GREAT topic.

Second of all, I just have a quick question about the ranges of the drums. I have played timapni for two summers now, and I have had two different pit instuctors. My pit instructor this summer just recently recieved her masters from UNLV in percussion performance. I had a lot of E's, D's, and even Db's on the 32. Is there a way that you can get those notes to be more clear? I really enjoyed reading your highly qualified views on the instrument.

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First of all, GREAT topic.

Second of all, I just have a quick question about the ranges of the drums.  I have played timapni for two summers now, and I have had two different pit instuctors.  My pit instructor this summer just recently recieved her masters from UNLV in percussion performance. I had a lot of E's, D's, and even Db's on the 32.  Is there a way that you can get those notes to be more clear?  I really enjoyed reading your highly qualified views on the instrument.

Hi MGCpimpOtimp...

Good question! Unfortunately, the short answer is...no. Even on a 32" drum, anything below an F is gonna start getting flabby, and there's no way around it. In the entire symphonic repertoire, it's rare to find Es and Ds ever scored louder than mezzo-forte. Any louder, and the "trash can" starts kicking in.

In marching band and drum corps pits, I'd never score below an F unless it was only during quiet sections of the show. If your parts call for fortissimo playing on a low E or D, they need to be re-scored!

Intonation-wise, you can get a clear pitch from those ultra-low notes...but again, only at volumes of mf or lower. It's critical to clear the head carefully (check that pitch is equal at every lug when mounting a new head) for these low notes to sound pure.

Ultra-low notes can sound great if scored well. For example, one of my favorites is a sustained mp or mf roll on an E or D...it's so much fun to be rolling incredibly slowly (since you never need to roll fast on those notes) and find the sweet spot where you only hear a single, pure, sustained tone.

Finally, those low Ds and Es can sound better when doubled an octave higher. You can often get away with this even when not scored that way just by playing less on the higher-octave note. The idea is the note at the octave just reinforces the pitch of the low note (but be sure your octave is in tune!). e.g., left hand plays mf on the low D while right plays p on the higher D.

Scott

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Finally, those low Ds and Es can sound better when doubled an octave higher. You can often get away with this even when not scored that way just by playing less on the higher-octave note. The idea is the note at the octave just reinforces the pitch of the low note (but be sure your octave is in tune!). e.g., left hand plays mf on the low D while right plays p on the higher D.

Scott

That's what i did in the ballad this year! Thanks for all your help!

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I agree that the horns ought to tune to the strobe-tuned instruments, but it's tricky when the hornlines are palying in such variable weather. And not every orchestra tunes to 440. Solti and the Chicago Symphony used to take the A from the oboe at 442. Perhaps Solti knew something about timbre and weather conditions in Orchestra Hall. Actually, Solti probably knew everything about Orchestra Hall.

But I digress. In 1984, I asked our horn guy how sharp he took the horns and he gave me an absurdly high number and said "I don't dare tune them any lower," I assume because of pitch in the heat. It didn't make our lousy pit instruments sound any better, that's for sure. If you listen to the recording, the Knights are totally sharp to the (lousy, busted old) keyboards and tommytimp is stuck in the middle. I believe this is the reason they finally bought new concert keys for the 85 season. Of course, my (lousy, busted old) timps were so bad that on second tour one of our drum instructors told me he thought the pitches were different from me to him (ie behind the drum to out front), because I have perfect pitch and judges kept commenting on pitch problems on the drums! Then again, I played badly that year.

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Of course, my (lousy, busted old) timps were so bad that on second tour one of our drum instructors told me he thought the pitches were different from me to him (ie behind the drum to out front), because I have perfect pitch and judges kept commenting on pitch problems on the drums!

Yeah, the issue of what the pitch sounds like to you versus what it sounds to an audience member is a b*tch. About the only way anyone can address it is to get someone with a good ear up in the stands, and spend an hour tuning a pitch, then finding out if it's sharp/flat from the stands...and trying to detect a pattern.

I never did this in orchestral situations, just tuned as accurately as I could. Most conductors seemed happy with my tuning, but one could argue that they were too close!

It can definitely be tough deciding which pitch reference to go with---the pit? Or the horns? My choice would be the horns---as long as they're sounding pretty in-tune with themselves! I say the horns because the timp sound is more closely akin to low brass than to marimbas or vibes, which are radically different timbres. But of course the music might dictate this as well (e.g. tune the timps to the mallets if it's a pit feature).

Way back in '79-80, Art Fabrizio, timp/keyboard instructor for the 27th Lancers, had a great system for timp tuning: he'd signal from the stands---first, he'd hold up fingers indicating which number drum (1=bottom, 4=top), then for "sharp" he'd tug his ear lobe...and for "flat" he'd pat his hands against his chest. :) No reason not to use that system today!

Scott

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Were the keyboards ever sharp?

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