Timpani: The expansion of possibilities

The age of Timpani coming into their own

When the 5 octave marimba was introduced the revolution extended the range of the marimba and explored the amazing possibilities of writing for the instrument in a wonderful renaissance.  Now every college music school in the United States own multiple, and almost every new major marimba work is based on that range.  Currently, we are on the cusp of such a revolution in the Timpani world.  As the orchestra progresses to be based less on a daily regimen of works based predominantly in the classical era and romantic era, we are able to break out and start to use the amazing technological innovations of our instruments in recent history.

Back in the days of Handel and Bach the timpani were hand tuned and relegated to practically playing only tonic and dominant.  Before those times the ancestors of timpani were predominantly war drums to strike fear in the hearts of opposing armies.  But now over the years our instruments have opened the gates to a multitude of technical possibilities and artful musical expression.  The romantic era came and so did the next innovators of technology.  Timpani were able to start harnessing their role as a more expressive instrument.  They were able to start contributing in a much more meaningful manner including non tonic/dominant based support and even the beginnings of melodic support.  Today we have come into the beginning of the next age.  Movie scores, advanced timpani design, drum corps, broadway, and the advent of more codified training have ushered in the age of full timpani maturity.  Timpani are coming into their own and we will help them take their rightful place as an instrument of chordal support, melodic, and rhythmic capacities.  Currently in the marching arts, they are uninhibited by the past art and limitations.  What have they achieved?  By not only looking to the art forms of the past they have taken this instrument and harnessed some of their unbridled potential.  Less then a lifetime ago people would have thought it crazy that you would be able to pedal all your major and minor scales on a set of timpani with impressive speed.  Every summer in the marching arts this is a standard warm up to their actual performance rep.  Imagine a world where modern students of timpani take inspiration of the past through painstaking score study, and understanding of prior works but then married it with the major potential of the modern timpani.  Should our thoughts on timpani be still constrained to the possibilities of instruments designed and built at the turn of the 20th century?  Thanks to the help of innovators like John Powell, John Williams, and many others.   The timpani are able to take their place as an instrument that can contribute as never before.

So what is next?

The range

Similar to not every ensemble having a 5 octave marimba.  Not every ensemble will have a full new range of timpani.  Before some people go “well that won’t work for what I do”.  You are correct, for many ensembles this is true.  A standard set of 4 may cover 95% of your needs.  Additionally some ensembles have space concerns to contend with.  That is okay!   But what about the leaders in the field who are on the front edge of new compositions with space and the resources.   What is a full range of timpani?  Since we build timpani for a living and have put our hands on more professional timpani sets and types than almost anyone in the world, we have some thoughts on this.  Above the 20” range timpani start to become boxy and loose the characteristic sound many of us strive for.  But what has been neglected is the low range as in the case of the marimba just a few years ago.  Most currents sets end their bottom range at a 31” or 32”.  Does a drum sound like a tuned bass drum below this?  Heck no.  That being said if you go down down down of course there is a limit to a practical sizing.  Here is where the 35” timpani comes into expand the range.  Low enough to give you a fat sound and small enough to stave off the open and almost unreadable sound like a tuned bass drum.    Has anyone actually played a readable rhythm on a 32/31” on a low D or C dare I say B?  Results typically are far too open and almost rhythmically unreadable.  Hence the use of a timpani that is purpose built to make those instances possible.  Did I mention power? No longer will you lose the fullness and power by extending a 31/32″ well below its recommended range.  Will you use it every day?  Nope.  But when you use it will the effect be dramatic?  Oh yes!

We here at Precision Classic Timpani are working to move the advancement of the timpani world forward.  We are striving to expand the world of technical possibilities paired with the amazing sound you want moving forward.  Stepping into the third age of timpani, an age where timpani will come into itself as a fully matured instrument.  These times are exciting for us as well.  We stand here having seen and renovated more sets, types, and designs of timpani then almost anyone ever and now we are moving to the future.  The 35” we see as the new standard set of 6 for the modern timpanist.  For modern compositions and sound we see the future and ideal sets being a 35” chain.  Why a chain timpani you may ask?  Well, imagine a standard set of 4 timpani making a semi circle in front of you.  Would you want your 5th and 6th timpani to wrap further around the circle on either end increasing the distance between your playing zones and making you face the shell?   This is not always feasible unless you want to play in a full circle like the blue elephant from Star Wars playing that keyboard in Jabba’s palace that wrapped entirely around him.  Maybe a trap door under your riser to escape your circle of timpani.  Our solution is to add your 35” and 20” in a second row using the gaps between the low pair and the higher pair.  Now, why chain timpani? Our chain timpani can easily change pitch with a single hand.  Putting them in a second row allows the timpanist to keep their focus towards the ensemble instead of back towards the hall shell.  I guarantee your conductor will appreciate the extra eye contact.  A timpanist, having foot control over the inside 4 will cover most of the notes on the page.  The outside pair in the second row will pick up those outlying notes.   These have the opportunity to be easily manipulated by a single hand while keeping the muddy notes out of your 32/31” and the rock hard top range or impossible notes off your 23”.  This creates the ideal setup for many modern works.  Using a pedal piccolo works almost as well if not better for many works.  Every piece should be taken as a challenge to get the best sound using the best setup possible.  The less work you have worrying about your setup on stage the more you can focus on making music.  The best part is you don’t need them everyday.  Unlike the 5 octave marimba you can’t ditch the low octave during a pops gig.  When you don’t need the additional range just don’t bring them out on stage.  But trust us when you need it you will love every second with a 35”

As is our commitment to help the progression of timpani, we will be launching soon a new education section to our website.  What will this contain?  Hand technique, pedal technique, articles like this, tips/tricks, and many things to help our world forward.  Additionally we have many projects in the works to bring the technical possibilities of timpani even further forward to unlock further musical potential.  The possibilities of timpani are there to be grasped.  Get out there and show the world we are ready for more.

Chris Guthrie

2 thoughts on “Timpani: The expansion of possibilities

  1. Hi Chris…Interesting speculative article….I remember Eugene Espino, long time timpanist of the Cincinnati Symphony showing me a 35″ Ludwig and Ludwig hand tuned timpani that Leopold Stokowski had built for the Symphony in the early 20th C to allow the timpanist to play the low Cs and Ds in some of his arrangements of Bach Organ Fugues…..I think Gene had it converted to chain (or cable)…at least he said he was going to do so…..Of course, practicality will play a part in all of this as well……
    I am afraid that I am a throwback….I really love to play with hand tuned timpani….and have a pair of Ludwig and Ludwig early 20th Century drums that are remarkably clear in pitch…I have even attempted 20th C anthems on hand tuned timpani with our Anglican style choir here in Lexington…..one does get good at knowing where the notes are on those drums if he does it enough…..have always loved the OPEN sound of chain and cable timpani…a holdover of my Duff studies back in the day???? I can get remarkably clear notes on my Adams Baroque style timpani as well…….maybe those players sounded better than we imagine they did!

  2. Hi PCT,

    I am playing with the SPCO the next 2 weeks playing Beethoven 7 and I just found in the sub basement of our hall a pair of your chain timpani. The sizes are 26 and 24. I think these were a special order from years ago by another timpanist. I’m wondering if you can give me any info on these drums and if these were sold with the movable gauge and letters plus the indicator that attaches to the chain. I did not find those items when I took the drums out of their custom boxes. I did find 4 tuning T Handles as well as the 2 quad stands. No one here at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra seems to know anything about these timpani. I think these drums are great and I’m really excited to play them the next 2 weeks as their guest Principal Timpanist. Please let me know if you can shed any light on these drums – when they were sold and if they were sold with indicators and the movable gauge with tuning letters. If not I’m sure I can get the SPCO to get 2 sets of these extra items asap. Thank you for your time!
    Steve Kimball

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