Laura Noah

Timpanist - Percussionist - Educator

Timpani Fundamentals: Lift, Muffling, and Pedaling

The following is the text from my presentation of the Timpani Fundamentals Clinic at the the 2017 Alabama PAS Chapter, February 25th at 9:00 AM

Playing in tune and in time is the foundation for building your timpani technique.  Add to that a good quality of sound, and we have the beginnings of great timpani playing. Today’s Timpani Fundamentals clinic will focus on three techniques that are essential to timpani playing: Lift, Muffling and Pedaling, with a few words on sound quality and intonation. The music selections performed today represent etudes or exercises designed to focus on developing one particular skill at a time with the exception of the Delécluse. 

Before we dive into Lift, I’ll spend a few minutes going over the quality of sound (QOS) which includes holding the mallet, stroke and mallet selection.

Music Selection: Étude 29: Delécluse, Trente Études pour Timbales

I. QOS (Quality Of Sound) "Sound is King." 

A high Quality Of Sound is determined by your concept of sound and should be the ONE thing that guides all the other aspects of your playing regardless of instrument.  As percussionists, we tend to focus so much on rhythm and timing that QOS is often forgotten.  When you put QOS first, it focuses your practicing and becomes a compass that leads you toward making the right decisions.  

Elements of QOS 

  • Instrument 
  • Heads
  • Mallets 
  • Technique
  • Historical research
  • Common trends

It is our job as percussionists and timpanist to perform with a QOS appropriate to the genre or style of the music and to develop techniques that achieve the musical goal.  On the manufacturing end, we have so many choices in instruments, mallets, and heads that those decisions also become a critical part of your “sound.”

How do you make decisions that create your QOS?  

Listen, Learn, Repeat

   Listen to professional timpanists to develop an ear for a good QOS.  Listening improves your concept of sound. 

    Learn the essential techniques on timpani, how the instrument works, and standard repertoire.

   "Think about the action until the action lets you think."  You want to make technique automatic, so you can free your mind up to make musical decisions.  Achieving the goal of automation involves practicing the technical skills correctly then repeating that action over and over until it becomes automatic.  

TIPS and TRICKS

    Play in the zone that achieves the best-conceived sound.

    To balance the console put more energy into the low drums and less in the upper drums.    

    Play the ink.  Solos offer some freedom of expression within the printed dynamics, rhythm, tempo, etc.  Start with playing the ink and using phrasing, touch, mallet selection and muffling to convey the musical intent.  

    While playing in an ensemble, listen to the players around you to determine how your sound can contribute to the group/music as a whole.  Be aware of the musical gestures other musicians are making and figure out how you can help the group musically. 

II. Basic Stroke. "The Lift"

    There are several “schools” or styles of timpani technique.  There is the Goodman or "American" style, the Cloyd Duff or “French” style, and the "German" style of timpani playing.  They all are great techniques, and each achieves a unique sound. Today, we will focus on the Duff style, and the part of the stroke called Lift.  

ACTION: 

  • Grip: hold the back end of the mallet using a front fulcrum grip (between the thumb, index and middle fingers of the hand).  The thumb is parallel to the stick and faces up.  The grip pressure is gentle but firm yet relaxed. The ring and pinky fingers will gently rest on the back of the mallet. 
  • Stroke: a 100% rebound stroke initiated from then wrist with a forearm rotation.  The hand stays relaxed throughout the stroke. The stroke is a quick wrist action off the head.  Keep the wrists relaxed and start the stroke “in position” to the head using a quick wrist action.  
  • Lift: is the stroke follow through (think of a baseball or golf swing).  Lift occurs when using the return of the mallet from the rebound stroke to move the wrist and arm in an upward motion.  

TIPS and TRICKS:

    Only lift toward the same shoulder as the hand striking the drum.  Avoid lifting across the body as the pitch becomes distorted.  

    To avoid hyper-lifting, make sure the mallet feels heavy in your hand.  Using the weight of the mallet and the action of the stroke to strike the drum then use the lift as the follow through.  

Prepare individual strokes by creating a lifting prep motion mimicking that of wind players breathing. 

III. Muffling: “Muffle like a Ninja”

    Another critical skill for any timpanist is how to effectively and efficiently stop the sound.  Caution: It is possible to over muffle, so use your informed judgment when muffling.  Reference the music and the score to determine the best time to stop the sound.  When muffling the head, the action must be quick and quiet, like a ninja.  

ACTION

After the stroke and during the rebound: hold the mallet with the thumb and index finder of the fulcrum point, rotate the elbow out and spread open the back fingers.  Quickly and quietly place the back three fingers on the head over the playing zone or just over the nearest tension rod. 

Muffle zones

    1. Playing zone

    2. RH over the first tension rod to the right, LH over the first tension rod to the left. 

Muffle Actions

  • Play RH muffle RH
  • Play LH muffle LH
  • Play RH muffle LH
  • Play LH muffle RH
  • Play RH or LH and muffle with both hands. 

TIPS and TRICKS

It is possible to over muffle, so use your informed judgment when muffling.

Do NOT brush the head with your fingers.  It creates an un-musical sound and is ineffective in muffling the head.  

Muffling should occur “in time” or “in rhythm” to ensure a clean and musical cessation of sound.  

Muffling should never detract from the stroke.  Creating a good QOS is still more important than stopping the sound.  

IV. Intonation. 

    Intonation is a vital skill that every timpanist must perfect.  Everyone knows when you aren't in tune.  Some people have perfect pitch, others hear pitch easily, and others struggle.  Using tuning forks, pianos, apps, ear training, and singing are all ways you can strengthen your ear.  It is important to know all intervals, but the four most important are: perfect 4th, 5th, major/minor 3rd, and octave.

Try memorizing and singing the following progression of notes as an interval training sequence.

A   D   G   C   F   BbEbAbDb/C#  F#  B   E   A

ACTION 

How to tune the timpani. 

  1. Activate the tuning fork and listen to the pitch.
  2. Hear the pitch and translate that sound as a timpani tone in your head.
  3. Starting with the pedal BELOW the pitch, gently tap with a finger or mallet the head in the playing zone.  
  4. Quickly and quietly pedal up until the pitch on the drum matches the note in your head. If needed, check your reference pitch again and make any fine tuning adjustments to correct the pitch.  

Caution: If you overshoot the pitch (sharp), then you will have to pedal down and restart the process.  

TIPS and TRICKS

    You don’t have to start at the bottom of the drum and do a long pedal glissando up to the pitch.  Start a 3rd or 2nd below the pitch and pedal up.  Saves time and makes tuning quicker and more efficient. 

    Don’t focus too hard on tuning.  Focusing too intently gets your brain in the way, and causes you to second guess your tuning. Hear the pitch, become the pitch. Tune quickly, quietly and correctly.  

    For perfect 4th and 5th intervals, when perfectly in tune, will provide sympathetic vibration.  Use this to your advantage to ensure the interval is in tune. 

    When tuning in an ensemble setting, use your colleagues to fine tune the pitch.  Match what you hear around you.  Study the score to know when and where you can check intonation.  Usually basses and low brass will have the same notes as you.  

V. Pedaling. "Feet Work"

    The action of tuning the timpani involves the use of the pedals. The feet must move in tandem with the hands.  Do not be afraid of the pedals.  The pedaling skill is both one of the easiest and the hardest to achieve. 

ACTION

QAP (Quick Action Pedaling) 

  1. When pedaling, move your foot quickly simultaneously with the stroke to avoid hearing a glissando between notes.  
  2. Keep the ankle relaxed and move quickly and precisely.  

Kinetic awareness of the drums by knowing where the notes are is essential to this skill.  Each set of drums is different and becoming quickly familiar with a new set is important and necessary for accurate intonation. 

    TIPS and TRICKS

  • Play accessible melodies.  
  • Play along to Easy Bass Songs
  • Play scales.  
  • Have fun.  

 

METHOD BOOK SUGGESTIONS AND FURTHER READING

Delécluse, Jacques. Trente Études pour Timbales. Alphonse Leduc, 1970.

Duff, Cloyd. “Timpanist: Musician or Technician?” Percussive Notes V25 N5, Summer 1987, pp. 65-67.

Goodman, Saul. Modern Method for Tympani. Mill Music, Inc., 1948.

Hochrainer, Richard. Etüden für Timpani Vol. 1 and 2. Ludwig Doblinger (Bernard Herzmandky), 1967. 

Horner, Ronald. The Tuneful Timpanist. Meredith Music, 2000.

Leonard, Stanley. Pedal Technique for the Timpani. Ludwig Masters, 1988.

PARTING ADVICE

Develop a practice process that works for you.  Over the last year or so I have been exploring different practice procedures.  Some have worked, and others haven't.  Our society considers multi-tasking one of the desired skills of productivity, however, I argue that multi-tasking is really doing many things just OK.   I advocate for working on one problem or thing at a time in a conscious and systematic way.  The goal is a quality product, not a mediocre one.  

Remember, the journey is the destination.