When I conceived the idea for this paper, is was not with the intention of writing at this point : ‘Based on current research the ideal timpani is…’ Such an ideal does not exist, simply because even if it were possible to create the acoustically perfect timpani in a factory or workshop, by whose standards is this perfection measured? The external factors of the orchestra, the hall, the conductor, and most importantly the players themselves will make any particular type of timpani, perfectly suited perhaps in one performance situation, completely out of place in another.

The questions I was (and still am) looking for answers to are how so many styles of timpani, pedal, skin etc. can exist in many orchestras, and how each timpanist uses these instruments in their day to day life as an orchestral timpanist. Even though I only gathered the responses of 13 timpanists, along with other opinions gained through conversations and research, the approach of each of these players differs markedly on many points. It does no benefit though to point out these differences, as each player has their own personal reasons, developed over years as professionals, drawing on their experiences and shaped by their day to day life in their orchestras.

If I were to repeat this research in a different region, perhaps with timpanists from North America (or my own country of Australia),  many more thoughts and approaches would appear, each valid, and each representing the individual timpanists approach to the many aspects of their profession. Perhaps another possibility would be to confine the research to a single country, or “school” of playing, or style of orchestra, and then compare the responses. But any sort of statistical comparison does not really offer practical benefits; indeed the wide array of opinions displays in how many ways it is possible to approach and interpret the same pieces of music.

When a few of the timpanists I spoke with told me that they (or their orchestra) had purchased new timpani recently, I asked what were they looking for in a new set of timpani? The answers I received were rarely quantitative i.e. it was not particular specifications : angles, thickness, curvature etc. that was important. The primary, and probably the only necessary quality was that the drums produce the sound they liked. But what is this sound? How could it be described? Words such as richness and fullness of tone, the ability to blend; phrases which can be read on the responses page may be used, but ultimately it is something that must be experienced and not just read about. Technical details such as preferred pedal system, or combination of drum sizes, are nowadays almost of no consequence, as manufacturers produce many pedal options and almost every conceivable size of drum, and a custom built instrument is always an option.

The table on the repertoire page represents what drums each timpanist uses when performing each period of repertoire. Some players use many different types of instruments for each period, others play always the one set of timpani, their reasons described throughout this paper. The most complex (and confusing) period in the table is the early romantic period, from the later symphonies of Beethoven to the early works of Brahms. Many orchestras and conductors take a wide variety of approaches to repertoire of this period, and so the timpanist, like any musician in the orchestra, must tailor their sound to match that of the ensemble. While it may be possible to cite specific composers or periods as guides to which drums to choose, they are still only guides, and will change from orchestra to orchestra and possibly performance to performance. It becomes impossible to find this mythical ‘ideal timpani’ for even one period of music, let alone the whole gamut of orchestral repertoire!

For periods such as the early romantic, and in reality every period of music, the historical considerations of the music must stand alongside the myriad influences of balance, acoustics, and the necessity to blend with the orchestra. I have tried to address many of these points throughout this paper, but it is difficult to write in simple words about such things, and it is easier to let the timpanists who have contributed so much to this paper speak for themselves. This is why the responses page of this site contains their answers, almost exactly as they were communicated to me.

As I said earlier, I can’t state what the ideal timpani is because it doesn’t exist. Each player makes their choices based on the many factors of their playing environment, and selects from the instruments at their disposal what best suits the repertoire, the orchestra, the venue, themselves…. Sometimes there are many instruments to choose from, sometimes only a few, but each timpanist takes these drums, and along with their choices of sticks and technique, finds the correct sound – for Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Strauss – the list, and the possibilities, are endless.

© Scott Weatherson 2011

Adams Philharmonic Light timpani

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Going out and purchasing a new set of timpani is not always possible, and as it takes time to build up a large collection of instruments, the choice of timpani will be often limited by the instruments available. So while a timpanist may prefer using drums of different shape, size etc. for each period of repertoire, this is not always possible. But these players are not necessarily at a disadvantage. In this paper I have only focused on the drums themselves, and avoided questions of sticks, playing styles etc. but naturally these have an influence on the sound also. The use of different sticks, different size instruments, and most importantly different techniques and playing styles are just as important to each period of repertoire as the style and make of the timpani.