Timpani Weight


The weight of each individual timpani is beginning to play an important role in the choice of new drums, and not primarily for musical reasons. In many types of employment, new regulations dictating how heavy an object an individual is allowed to lift means that a timpani, which can weigh up to 80kg, falls outside of what a stage hand or “roadie” may safely move around the concert stage. It is only really the baroque timpani, which are just a kettle and skin, with no bulky frame or tuning mechanism, that can be lifted easily by one person. A few timpanists I spoke with thought I was referring to just this problem when I posed the question regarding the importance of the weight of each drum. But if weight can be a problem for orchestras who rehearse and perform in the one location, in France and England it has played a major role in the choice of timpani for many years.

Didier Benetti (Orchestre National de France) - ‘It is additionally problematic that we travel much. We often rehearse in different studios … and play then at the Theatre of the Champs Elysées. With these many "removals" the Ringer timpani is trouble : They weigh three tons, their linkages are fragile and the natural skins do not respond well to the movement.’ [1]

© Scott Weatherson 2011

As most problems with the instruments, such as damage to the kettles or frame, and the head being put out of tune, are most likely to occur while the timpani are being transported, whether from one hall to another or simply on and off stage, the factors above are of high importance to the timpanist of an orchestra which is constantly on the move. It is only in those orchestras who rehearse and perform in the same hall where the largest and heaviest drums – such as the Ringer timpani – can be used without such extra-musical problems.

Lastly, while to the stagehand the heavy Germanic timpani, which sit on stage in their solid frames of iron and steel with no wheels to assist in movement, must seem a heavy burden, there is a reason behind this design.

Gerald Fromme - ‘The better the connection to the stage, the better the sound. The most important is: the stage must be of softwood!!! The difference is amazing!!’

The skin vibrates, the kettle vibrates, the frame vibrates, and without plastic or rubber wheels to act as insulation, this energy is transferred to the stage. Timpanists and percussionists speak often about instruments where the kettle, or the shell (i.e. the material that encloses the sound chamber) is allowed to vibrate freely. To take this one step further and allow this vibration to go out into the hall makes much sense. As a further note, musicians speak of a change in orchestral sound resulting from such little things as changing the seats of the chairs of the orchestra from wood to soft cushions. As with most aspects of creating the ‘good’ sound, it is the natural sound carrier which often proves to be the best.

[1] Kruse-Regnard, A., Die Wiener und die franzosische Paukenschule im Vergleich, p. 36