Timpani Revisited – April 14 to 18, 2009

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Except for the timpani part in “White Night” by Toshi Ichiyanagi, which  I played with NEXUS in one concert in Toronto a few years ago, and my own “Night Ride”, which was in the NEXUS repertoire for a few concerts in 2006/2007, I had not really spent much time ‘timpanizing’ since I left the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in 1995.

I am fortunate to have studied in my youth with three great timpanists – Fred D. Hinger, William G. Street and John  Beck – and I actually played timpani fairly regularly in the RPO between 1965 and 1995, whenever John Beck, the orchestra’s Principal Timpanist, was away.

Having been separated from orchestral timpani for almost 15 years, I never in my wildest dreams ever expected to have the opportunity to revisit that experience, so I was completely surprised when I was asked in March of this year by Chip Ross, the RPO’s present timpanist, if I would be interested in playing on the Rochester Philharmonic Series concerts on April 16 and 18, since he could not play that week.

The program was the Robert Schuman 4th Symphony, and the Brahms 2nd Piano Concerto with John Lill as soloist.  There would be no other percussion on the program – only timpani.  In fact, I inquired as to whether the orchestra’s regular percussionists had been asked, because I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes, and indeed, both of the percussionists had already made other plans which made it impossible for them to attend all of the rehearsals and performances.  Furthermore, Chip told me that the orchestra’s Music Director, Christopher Seaman, whom I have known since I was a regular member of the Philharmonic, was agreeable to my being asked.

Even though it had been a long time since I last played timpani in an orchestra, I still had a pretty good idea of the challenges I would be facing and the commitment necessary to address them.  In other words, I did not consider the offer lightly. There is a subtle, but very real difference between a ‘timpanist’ and a percussionist who plays timpani.  The difference is one of mindset – a timpanist is in a marriage with the drums, while the percussionist is basically out on a date.  (To be clear, I do not mean to imply that one is better than the other – only that they are different.) For me to say ‘yes’, I could only be comfortable if I aspired to be a timpanist for the week, with all that it implies, so I needed to consider whether I had the time and energy to make that commitment.  After taking a few days to think about it, I said ‘yes’.  The fact that I had just recently had such a great experience with Boulez and the Chicago Symphony, greatly colored my decision, but I knew that I could not rely on the past; I would have to do some work.

My first task was to familiarize myself with the scores, so I promptly visited the Sibley Library at the Eastman School and borrowed scores and recordings of both pieces,  which I studied over the next few weeks.  Then I had to get my four bright-sounding Walter Light drums back into performance condition.  As is my usual inclination, I wanted to use my own timpani rather than the orchestra’s.  My drums had been relatively neglected since I left the RPO in 1995, and the gremlins (buzzes, rattles and other unwanted noises) had moved in and taken up residence.  It took hours of work on them over several days – removing lugs, tightening bolts, clearing the heads, etc. – to get all four drums sounding the way I wanted.

Next, I reopened my bag of timpani mallets, which consisted of about a dozen pair of sticks, every one of which I had made myself decades ago when I was a student.  They were all virtually as I left them when I last played but they were basically in good playing condition.  Over the next week I tested each pair on my drums, one-by-one, trying to resolve which mallets best approached the sound I wanted to make.  I chose two pair: one  pair were relatively hard – made of a very soft (but firm) green felt that had been given to me by Mr. Hinger when I was in high school, and wrapped around small wooden-ball centers mounted on bamboo shafts, producing a sharp but full tone; the other pair had larger heads made of two layers of white piano felt and were relatively soft and especially suitable for the low-F rolls in the Brahms.

I determined that I would try to use only these two pair for the entire concert.  Rather than trying to achieve nuance by using lots of mallets made with varying degrees of hardness, I have always preferred using mainly the strokes for nuance, varying both the softness in the wrists and the amount of energy put into the lift.  I recalled one of Mr. Street’s lessons in which he said that only three pair of timpani mallets (not including wooden and other non-felt mallets) were sufficient for most playing – “general” mallets, hard mallets and soft mallets.

The final preparatory step was to obtain the performance parts from the orchestra library.  I had to wait until the week prior to the first rehearsal for the parts.  The Schuman parts were from Christopher Seaman’s  library and they contained his personal markings.  In the timpani part there were a number of added notations – dynamics and a few changes in pitch.  Not wanting to put my own notations into his parts, I made my own photocopied part, onto which I penciled in many cross-cues taken from the score.  Especially in the Brahms, with so many long rests, I wanted to be absolutely certain of where the music was at all times.  The penciled-in markings would serve as added insurance.

Every day in the week preceding the first rehearsal, I played along with the recordings through both pieces in their entirety several times, including all rests.  Through my teaching I have learned that student mistakes, when they do occur in performance, are almost entirely due to miscounting – the mistakes mostly happen in the rests, not in the playing.

That week I also made several telephone calls to the stage manager to arrange for the unloading of my four timpani into the Eastman Theatre prior to the first orchestra rehearsal.  There was a considerable amount of construction going on for a new building right next to the Theatre, and the usual stage entrance was now usually blocked-off, so the plan was to unload the drums around the block on Gibbs Street and then wheel them through the Eastman main hall and lift them down a flight of steps to the stage.  I would need the assistance of at least one of the stage crew to do this.

I loaded my drums into my van the night before the first rehearsal.  Since I do not own shipping trunks, a considerable amount of extra care had to be taken to stabilize the drums in my van using bungie cords and the locking casters.  In order to protect them from scratching together on their metal rims, carpet sections were used as strategically-placed insulators.

At 8:00 AM on the morning of April 14, I arrived at the Eastman Theatre.  Fortunately, the normally blocked access to the Theatre was open, so with the assistance of two stage crew members, we were able to unload the timpani directly onto the stage.  The timpani were to be positioned in the orchestra separately downstage-right on 16-inch risers.  This positioning presented an interesting challenge.  Having attended literally hundreds of concerts in the Eastman Theatre, my observation has been that the timpani generally sound clearer in the balcony than they do in the lower-level seats.  I believe that this is caused by the position of listeners’ ears in relation to the timpani heads and bowls – the ears in the balcony are above the timpani heads and the ears on the lower level are below the bowls.  My challenge would be that by positioning the timpani on risers, this effect would be exacerbated, especially for the downstairs audience.  The only practical solution would be to go to harder sticks, which produce a clearer pitch and tone when listening from the audience.  The problem is that this effect is not so noticeable on the stage itself, and more particularly from the podium.  The final solution would have to be worked-out during the rehearsals.

Another concern was that the Eastman Theatre stage had been remodeled a few years ago, with an entirely new orchestra shell.  While I had heard numerous concerts since the new orchestra shell was installed, I had not played on stage with it and I would have to adjust to its acoustics during the rehearsals.

The first rehearsal started with the Schuman, and right from the very first note there were considerations.  Every orchestra negotiates (quietly) and resolves with conductors where to put ‘it’ (the note attack) in relation to the conductor’s stroke. The opening roll on the 28-inch timpano had to be placed precisely with the orchestra’s attack, and the only way for me to know (without prior experience) where to put the first stroke was to simply dive in on raw instinct.  That’s exactly what I did and – wonder of wonders – although I feared that I would get to the downbeat early, it worked!

Another concern with the opening roll was what I call, ‘blum.’ A blum occurs when the stroke immediately following the initial attack stroke is at the same dynamic or louder than the attack.  The resulting ‘blum’ sounds like a flam – with an attack that is unclear (as opposed to a ‘bumm’, which would be a clean attack). Blums are typically played by students and percussionists without a clear concept of roll attacks on timpani.  Since I had not played timpani regularly for years, it just required a bit of concern now to be sure not to blum the attack.

I decided to use the hard (green Hinger felt) sticks and I was pleased with the sound. However, Christopher Seaman, who was once an accomplished timpanist himself in London, is more tuned-in to the nuances of the timpani than is common elsewhere.   He wanted more ‘weight’ on the sound of the opening roll and he asked for softer mallets, to which I promptly shifted.  In later rehearsals, he requested that hard mallets be used everywhere in the Schuman except for the opening (basically, a return to my original plan).  He wanted hard mallets throughout in the Brahms – even on the low-F rolls.

In the second day of rehearsals, during a rest in the Schuman, my stool suddenly dropped an inch as I was sitting on it.  I adjusted it back to the height I wanted, but minutes later it slipped again.  It was very unnerving, and fortunately it happened when I wasn’t playing, so I was the only one who noticed.  I clearly did not want to have to be concerned about my timpani stool during the performances, so I took it home that evening and worked to secure it – drilling a safety hole in the stem and backing that up with a hose clamp on the stem, thereby fixing the height at the proper setting.  I would not have to be concerned about this again in the dress rehearsal and two concerts.

The Schuman 4th Symphony has its moments for the timpanist and it was very pleasurable to spend a few days with it, and to revisit the orchestra repertoire (my first love) and to renew my acquaintance with the orchestral ambiance, not to mention the friendship of my  former colleagues.

The Brahms 2nd Piano Concerto is a massive work of symphonic proportions – in four movements instead of the usual three.  The second movement has a wonderful passage in which the timpani completes a long phrase with a forceful crescendo and rallentando that is fantastic to play.  In the dress rehearsal the soloist looked back in my direction and smiled, which made me do a dozen (or so) quietly internal Tiger Woods fist pumps.  Curiously, the third and fourth movements have no timpani at all, and surprisingly, the fourth movement seems to end rather abruptly.  If I were to give Brahms some advise (chutzpah!) it would be to switch the second and fourth movements in order to end with a greater sense of completion.

The soloist, John Lill, was thoroughly masterful in his performance of what is clearly a challenging work, with an unwavering technical solidity and a clear sense of phrasing using the full tonal capabilities of the piano.  He played with clear authority and no displays of unnecessary showmanship.  Both of his performances (and Christopher Seaman’s interpretation) were immensely satisfying to me.

I will never forget this week and I will always be aware of just how fortunate I am to be a musician and to have had this experience of ‘timpanizing’ once again.



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