Timpani - Sound production
Pair of timpani
The drums are placed in front of the timpanist, the higher one (small bowl, C or D drum) on his left, the lower (large bowl, G or A drum) on his right.
The same principle applies as to the pair: the highest drum (smallest bowl) is placed on the extreme left, the lowest on the extreme right. The timpani form a semicircle in front of the musician.
This arrangement does not correspond to the sequence of notes on the piano.
Pair of timpani
The drums are placed in front of the timpanist, the lower one (large bowl, G or A drum) on his left, the higher (small bowl, C or D drum) on his right.
The same principle applies as to the pair: the lowest drum (largest bowl) is placed on the extreme left, the highest on the extreme right. The timpani form a semicircle in front of the musician.
This arrangement corresponds to the sequence of notes on the piano.
The use of timpani in the modern-day orchestra is dependent on the work being performed: either the classic pair is used or four timpani. In works from the Romantic literature it has become standard to use four timpani.
A timpanist can play a set of six or seven drums at the most. This is not usual, however, and is only asked for in 20th century solo works (and then very rarely).
The drumstick rebounds after every beat. This bounce is exploited for rapid repetitions and rolls.
The “striking spot” is the mysterious part of the skin that produces the purest tone. It is a hand-width from the rim. Strokes on the middle of the skin (“second striking spot”) do not produce a clear pitch; they sound like a drum and are only asked for in more modern music.
The marked resonance is generally damped with the fingertips.
Modern tuning techniques
In contemporary orchestras pedal timpani are used. Rapid retuning is possible by means of a gauged pedal, the pitches are shown as a scale on the tuning gauge on the upper rim of the shell. The range, i.e. the relation between the used scale of pitches and the tuning, must be set with the fine-tuner before playing.
On a pedal drum roughly half an octave can be played as a scale (maximum range: a major sixth). Up to a tempo of quarter note = 150 a new step of the scale can be played every quarter note. Scales or parts of scales are played on one kettledrum – the sound is more consistent. The wider the interval the longer it takes to retune.
During a performance timpanists must retune unobtrusively in the background; this is done while the timpani are pausing (usually, (-;).
Historical tuning techniques
The traditional hand-tuned kettledrums, a few of which could still be found in orchestras in the 1950s, were tuned with six or eight screws which all had to be turned the same distance. This was relatively time-consuming and the timpanist needed at least eight bars’ rest for it. Fortunately for the timpanists, works of the Classical era hardly ever required retuning during a piece. When from the Romantic period onward this began to be demanded the machine drum and later the pedal drum were invented, which made it possible to retune fairly quickly. In addition, the number of timpani used in the orchestra increased from two to three from the middle of the 19th century.