Timpani & Percussion -
Timpani & Percussion & its
contribution to the Modern Brass Band
by Dave Griffiths
See also: part
2 | part 3 | part
The use of percussion within the brass band has developed dramatically
in the last thirty-odd years. It is with thanks to composers such
as Gilbert Vinter, Edward Gregson, Phillip Sparke, Elgar Howarth,
Phillip Wilby and arrangers Howard Snell & Ray Farr, to name
a few, that nowadays percussion has firmly established itself as
being just as important to the distinctive ‘sound’ of
a brass band, as any other brass instrument within it.
In fact, some of today’s percussion scores can be technically
demanding for any seasoned professional percussionist. I for one
am sure that without the training, discipline and experience gained
from playing such challenging music with brass bands, that perhaps
my professional career may not have been as successful as it has
been. An ever increasing amount of percussion instruments, different
playing methods/techniques and effects, that might perhaps be more
commonly associated with percussion writing found in the orchestral
idiom, is now also being introduced into the brass band repertoire.
Many professional brass players throughout Europe’s finest
music ensembles have benefited from playing with brass bands, and
the same applies to some percussionists, found playing with International
Symphony Orchestras, West End show’s, sessions etc. However,
many of these players have furthered their own musical education
and training by attending music Conservatoires or University’s
before entering the profession. But what about those percussionists
in bands who play only as a hobby? With the ever increasing musical
and technical demands now facing percussionists, 4BarsRest decided
that such players might benefit from a few helpful ‘tips’ and
guidelines, helping them to improve their own performances.
Throughout the many years of various brass band news publications,
there has been very little information and advice of this sort
for percussionists provided by such magazines. I remember reading
one, in the eighties, penned by Clayton McCann of the Cory Band – I
haven’t seen much else!
In this series of articles I will attempt to provide a number of
helpful notes and observations, which may be of use not only to
the percussionist, but also to the conductor, adjudicator and brass
player alike, hopefully providing them with a further understanding
about the instruments and the role which I believe timpani & percussion
should play within a brass band.
Brass players are aware that over-blowing is very much frowned
upon by conductors as well as by the listener and indeed, can be
costly in a contest situation. Great care and attention is therefore
made to ensure that no matter what dynamic a brass player may be
playing, that the quality of tone is never sacrificed for volume
or over playing/blowing. However, I have experienced some percussionists
and indeed some conductors not taking into account that the same
applies to the timpani and percussion section.
The similarity between a snare drum and timpani is that they are
both drums – and that is where the similarity ends. The timpani
produces harmony and notes of definite pitch. I believe, that despite
many timpanists/percussionists in the brass band movement having
not received any training on the instruments that with a little
more ‘love’ and care of their instruments, that they
too, can start to produce more musical sounds, particularly on
the grandest of all drums – the Timpani.
During a lesson with the legendary percussionist and historian
James Blades, he once described to me that the timpanist of an
orchestra would sometimes be regarded as the second conductor.
The player should have an understanding of the works being performed
and its score inside out, not just the timpani part, but to know
what contribution all the instruments in the ensemble are making
to the performed works.
The purpose of this is mainly to recognise exactly what role the
timpani is playing within the work and by doing so, fitting into
the ensemble in a suitable and musical manner. I feel that Jimmy’s
words are so very true and I have therefore made every effort to
familiarise myself with the scores of each major work that I have
performed with a brass band, orchestra or West End musical etc.
This doesn’t necessarily mean studying the scores in as
much detail as a conductor would, but in these days of modern technology,
there may be a number of recordings available of your chosen piece
of music to listen to, which would help you to have a better understanding.
By understanding what role the timpani is playing in a work the
player should be aware of whether the timpani is merely producing
just harmony and backing to the lower end of the scoring and
should therefore blend in to the overall sound, or if it meant
to be soloistic at certain points. The sound of a brass band
can be enhanced greatly by good musical timpani playing. It can
support the bass end adding extra depth and colour, helping to
make the overall lower end sound rich and full. It can also contribute
by creating excitement and tension in those fast and technically
challenging moments of a work. On the other hand, unmusical timpani
playing can ruin performances which otherwise might be very good.
So what makes a good timpanist? What makes any musician a good
Putting aside a player’s technical ability, firstly, he/she
has to be a good listener. One should be respectful to fellow musicians
and know when to get out of the way and not interfere with another
musicians’ line that is more important than their own. A
good player should to be sympathetic and play with sensitivity.
Whenever I sit behind a set of timpani, I reminded myself of the
word ‘elegance’- not in the way one might necessary
look (!) but in the way I try to approach the instruments in my
These drums can make a lot of noise if you want them too. But
the important thing to remember is ‘restraint’. There
have been moments when I have been confronted with a very fast
and loud timpani score. At first I may unintentionally go at it
like a bull in a china shop, but then I stop and think about the ‘elegance’ in
my playing, or the lack of, as the case may be. I then approach
the part again, aiming to add as much musicality, expression and
phrasing and so on to my playing as possible.
But what about that quality of ‘sound’? How can a
player help himself produce a good sound on the drums? There are
a number of elements worth considering, thus starting the player
off on the right track:-
Maintenance and care of your timpani
As with all good quality instruments there comes a price. Buying
a set of timpani is no exception. There are a number of brands
on the market today, each one producing a range of instruments
to suit the buyer’s budget. Naturally a set of copper timps
are going to have more resonance and a warmer tone than a set made
from fibreglass, but the difference in cost can be a telling factor
of which drums a band can afford to buy.
Timpani manufacturers such as Yamaha, Adams, Majestic and Premier
and so on, also produce drums which can be made more portable,
meaning, the legs are either removed or stored inside the shell
of the drum during transportation. Unless your band has a large
van with flight cases to house and protect your ‘Ludwig hammered
copper Professional Series’ Timpani (my personal favourite),
then perhaps a set of portable timps made of copper (a popular
choice with many bands these days), may suit your band best. This
is one option that could, perhaps, be considered instead of buying
large fibreglass drums in a frame, which may cause problems during
transportation as well as the obvious lack in tonal quality compared
to copper drums.
Another problem that faces many brass bands is after a concert
or contest, the longer it takes to dismantle and pack away percussion
instruments, means less time at the pub! Unfortunately, as a result,
I have seen new timpani and other percussion instruments being
thrown about into vans or buses. As a result of this bad handling
their lifespan is dramatically reduced, together with problems
occurring such as dents and scratches appearing in the heads and
in the copper/fibreglass bowl, wheels falling off, tuning gauges
being ripped off or the indices on the gauges going missing, and
All these problems can eventually add up to a general reduction
in sound quality of the instruments ( as well as large repair costs)
and no matter how good your timpani covers might protect your drums,
they can’t protect them from this sort of mishandling. Also,
no matter how good a timpanist your band may have, if they have
to perform on badly maintained instruments, they can never fully
produce the kind of sounds that your player may be capable of.
I have seen great musicians turn down offers to join bands because
they couldn’t bear to play on the instruments that the bands
are supplying for them to play on. As a proud owner of a set of
hammered copper timpani, I for one would never treat my instruments
in such a way. I don’t think for one moment that a cornetist
would also allow his instrument be thrown about in such a manner
Once you have your lovely well kept set of timpani, always ensure
that before and after each performance, including rehearsals, that
a clean felt duster is wiped over the top of the heads to remove
any finger marks or greasy stains and dirt that may be accumulated.
After wiping the heads place either a specially made wooden/felt
disc on top of the heads or a complete cover to stop dust falling
onto the instruments, particularly onto the heads.
I carry in my stick bag a little spray-bottle containing a mixture
of water and window cleaner. A couple of sprays on the surface
of the drum head (only suitable for plastic heads), which is then
wiped away with a duster or paper towel, ensures that the heads
are kept in a good working condition.
Even at band contests, I have insisted on wiping the drums over
before I use them as I don’t want muck and grease getting
onto my sticks. Then after a contest performance, I wipe the heads
again, thus leaving the timps in a good condition for the player
following me onto the stage. Perhaps this is one practice which
more players should consider in the future…?
The next and very important step to good quality note production
on the timps is your choice of sticks, just as a mouthpiece is
for a brass player. It is important for the performer to understand
that the choice of sticks used can help to produce the best sounds
- combined with good technique of course.
It is therefore necessary for the performer to have at least 3
pairs of sticks (hard, medium & soft). Some professional players
have as many as 10 or more pairs, but this can be expensive. Attacking
the drums with the hardest sticks possible in fortissimo passages
can create nothing more than an unmusical ‘thwacking’ noise.
I was shocked to hear of one brass band conductor of note asking
the timpanist to ‘get out his wooden sticks and hit the hell
out the drums’…
In some instances where I have needed a big & full sound on
the timps I have turned to some of my medium to soft range of sticks.
By striking the drums in such a way, letting gravity take its cause
and playing off the heads (and not into them) and thus drawing
the sound out of the drums, voila – a big sound is achieved.
In direct contrast, I have observed timpanists in those quieter
and more detailed moments of a work, using their softest sticks
because the part says ‘soft’, and as a result, all
important detail is lost or soaked up in the acoustic of the hall.
It doesn’t take much common sense to realise that where
the timpani is playing short or detailed quieter phrases, with
the right combination of harder sticks, perhaps with smaller heads
(if you have a choice) together with the appropriate dampening
(with the hands or felt mutes – but NOT beer mats), the desired
affect can be produced.
I am no brass player but I am sure I am correct by saying that
a larger bore instrument and mouth piece can help produced bigger
sounds? The very same applies with sticks and the size of its bead
and how many layers of felt cover the bead. It’s useful for
a timpanist to understand the construction of timpani sticks.
Timpani sticks can be made in so many ways, using mostly cork
or wooden beads - some beads bigger in size than others, with different
layers and thickness of felt applied to the bead. The way the felt
is sewn onto the bead, weather it is sewn tightly or loosely and
how much air is in-between each layer of felt, also has a dramatic
effect on the way in which the timpani will sound when struck.
Once you have your sticks of choice it is important to experiment
with them, finding out which tombre of sounds can be produced from
each set of sticks.
There are a number of manufacturers who make great quality timpani
sticks. Companies such as Vic Firth, Vater, and Premier etc. produce
sticks which are fine, however, the choice of many professional
players is to use handmade sticks with bamboo shafts, made by the
likes of Rossman (Germany), David Morbey (British) and Sean Hooper,
to name a few. I have used all combinations also with a large collection
of handmade sticks that I have made for my own use.
The prices of professional handmade sticks can range from £20
- £50 a pair.
What size drums should I use?
The choice of which drum to use for certain notes or passages
can also be a very important factor to creating good sound quality.
Quite a number of orchestral pieces which have been transcribed
for brass band have unfortunately had to be transposed into lower
keys than the original. This means that often the timpani parts
are written in the lower F to C registers, instead of perhaps a
higher and brighter B to F register. Because of this I have often
made use of my bottom two drums (of a set of four) as much as possible,
to the extent where I have placed the two larger drums in front
of me (as apposed to on my left side) as I use them the most.
As I mentioned before, the use of larger bore instruments can
help create bigger and fuller sounds to a brass instrument - the
same applies to the size of the drum (as well as the choice of
sticks). In some circumstances to help create a bigger sound I
have tuned two of the larger drums to the same pitch and struck
them together, however, this is a difficult technique to use correctly
and one which should be used sparingly - for those extra special
Another technique is when I have tuned two drums to the same pitch
(or a fifth higher or lower), but only play on the one, allowing
the other drum to resonate into the acoustic. This is sometimes
effective in quieter timpani moments (rolls etc.). I would encourage
timpanists to make more use of the pedals on the timpani.
For example, if a piece of music requires the timps to be tuned
to G and C but perhaps with a few extra notes during the work tuned
to Bb or D, where possible try to use just the same two drums,
retuning the drums using the pedals, as apposed to using a third
drum of smaller diameter.
Of course there are times where this technique is impossible.
By sitting comfortably on an appropriate stool, which should be
able to swivel and therefore not static (such a wooden stool is
not recommended), it means that the timpanist’s feet are
always free to use the pedals. On the subject of sitting at the
timpani, I would like to cast your mind back to the word ‘elegance’ once
By being free to move from side to side with your feet either
placed firmly on the floor or on the pedals of the timpani, means
that you may glide from one drum to another with ease and with
dignity. It also makes movement around a set of four or more timps
in fast moments much easier. Therefore, I believe the choice of
timpani stool (or ‘timpani throne’) is as important
as the choice of sticks and drums.
Remember that comfort is very important. Every instrumentalist
needs to feel comfortable in the way he/she is sitting in order
to get the best possible performance. The timpanist is no exception.
Choose your timpani chair carefully.
Regarding the use of pedalling on the timpani, I would encourage
enthusiastic timpanists to study the timpani part from Bartok’s
Concerto for Orchestra (Intermezzo). There you will find the timpani
playing the bass line over an eight bar phrase or so. As an exercise,
tune the bottom drum to a low F and the highest 4th drum to an
Eb. The other notes in the phrase should be played only on the
middle two drums, dampening the drums with your hands accordingly.
It’s difficult for sure, but when you have accomplished this
it will encourage you to use your pedals more freely in other brass
How do I tune the drums correctly and quickly in rehearsals and
at a contest/concert situation?
There are a number of ways in which a set of timpani can be tuned.
However, I must stress that I would seriously advise players to
avoid the use of any electrical tuning device and train their ears
to tune the drums instead.
Assuming that the heads have been placed and tightened evenly
around the shell of the drums and that the heads are blemish free
of dents etc, you are ready to start tuning your drums. At a rehearsal
and prior to a concert I would advise the player to arrive at the
venue ten minutes before other instrumentalist start tuning and
practicing in the same room, therefore interrupting your time in
which to tune the drums accurately.
Taking a concert pitch ‘A’ from a tuning fork (a must
have essential in any timpanist’s stick bag) or from a glockenspiel,
carefully tune the 2nd biggest drum in a set of four, or the largest
drum in a set of two to that ‘A’. Release the pedal
so that the drum head is slack and strike the drum at a mezzo-piano
dynamic. As quickly and accurately as you can, press the pedal
or turn the tuning handles on the timpani so that the head tightens.
Listen carefully and try to get as close to the ‘A’ pitch
as possible, without any harmonics or overtones. Should you feel
that you have gone above (sharp) the ‘A’ then release
the pedal and start again. Never release the pedal from a note
above the one you require to the note you are trying to pitch without
first releasing the tension so that it goes below the note you
are aiming to tune to.
Once you are satisfied with your ‘A’, set the tuning
gauge and then follow the same procedure on the next smaller size
timpani, tuning it to a perfect 5th (‘E’) above the
A. Once you are happy with the sound of your timpani’s interval
of a fifth, check by hitting the E and quickly dampening the ‘E’ drum
allowing the ‘A’ drum to reverberate.
If the drums are perfectly in tune with each other you should
be able to hear your ‘E’ singing in the ‘A’ drum.
If not, the drums may not be in tune with each other. Continue
with this technique of tuning around all four drums, only using
intervals of fifths, fourths, octaves and unison notes between
Even if you are only performing one piece of music where you might
only require three separate notes, I would encourage that you always
set the gauges for all the notes available on each drum. It’s
a worthwhile practice and discipline getting used to. Take your
time with the tuning process. However, in a rush and on the contest
platform in particular, follow the same procedure but you should
train yourself to do this in as little time as possible.
It should ideally take no longer than one minute to tune all notes
on each drum in a set of four, in these circumstances. It’s
not an ideal way of tuning, but it’s one in which you should
learn to adapt to. Remember that stage lighting and room temperature/humidity
can effect the tuning of your drums.
Even though you might be satisfied with the initial tuning of
a note on a timpani, throughout the work being performed be prepared
for fine tuning and adjustments here and there, just as a brass
player does for good intonation. Finally, one rule of the thumb
relating to tuning is to be courteous to your fellow musicians
and refrain from banging or tuning your drums in rehearsal when
the conductor may be trying to express his wishes to your colleagues.
Adding colour to the ensemble
One of the biggest differences between orchestral and brass band
timpani playing is that with an orchestra, the timpanist does perhaps
have more opportunity to play with more sympathy and musicality.
We are all aware that because of the variety of instruments in
an orchestra, more colours are available than with a band (that
is with the combination of strings, woodwind, brass, organ and
It means that a timpanist has to fit into the scoring in a way
that requires sometimes a careful ‘touch’ to the instrument,
so that the timpani blends in nicely with whatever section of the
orchestra the timpani is playing with. One of the brass band movements
greatest music arrangers, Howard Snell, has commented on arranging
that he views himself as a ‘sound painter’ in brass
music and when arranging, that his biggest challenges are creating
colours and textures in sounds with the instruments that are at
his disposal. The musicianship and technical approach to good brass
band timpani playing can, as Howard put it, help to create those ‘colours’.
Unfortunately, much of today’s modern timpani writing in
the brass bands repertoire can be loud, with bad writing (for example
fast phrases on 3 or 4 drums where the pitch of the drums are all
close together and low in the register), however, I do honestly
believe that the ‘thwacking’ element of playing can
be put into the bottom draw.
One has to be very careful in the way that the timpanist never ‘over
cooks’ things and in these moments where fast and furious
loud timpani playing is required, (combined at the same time with
hideously low tom-tom and bass drum scoring!) that the timpanist
knows exactly how to blend in, making his contribution worth while
and not just adding more ‘noise’ of which for some
reason some composers find ‘interesting’..?
Timpanists should think more about the desired sound that they
want to produce before they strike the drum. If it helps, perhaps
listen to recordings of Brahms & Beethoven symphonies and in
direct contrast, works by Shostakovitch and Stravinsky. It may
help them understand the kind of sound one should be aiming to
achieve. The type of approach to good orchestral timpani playing
can also work well with brass bands.
Of course what I have mentioned is just the start to achieving
better performances (there are many other factors to consider,
regarding technique etc). Nevertheless, with good practice and
an open musical ear coupled with some ‘elegant’ playing,
we may start to hear more ‘listener friendly’ timpani
It is by having the discipline and understanding of a more musical
approach that eventually a timpani player develops into being a
timpanist, and believe me, there is a difference! Let’s see
if we can get off to a new start at the Area contests of 2004 – all
five pieces have ample opportunity to display some fine musical
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