Instrument of the Month #7 Timpani – Full on the drumhead

By Konzerthaus Berlin June 8, 2022

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All the instruments in the last row of the orchestra have a high fun factor: banging on the timpani, ringing the triangle, rattling, clanging or startling half the audience with big cymbals – who wouldn’t want to do that? Our principal timpanist Michael Oberaigner tells us all about the knowledge, patience and, above all, high level of skill required to get everything just right.

How did you wind up playing the timpani?

I grew up in Tyrol, where there are many brass bands. My father and my two brothers played in one. As a child, my favourite position was in the back with the drummers. There was always something fun going on, and I wanted to join in. At some point, my brothers started playing in orchestras – and I just followed suit. At first, I learned all the percussion instruments at the music academy, but pretty soon I realised that the timpani was my thing.

How do timpani work?

With old timpani, you have to hand-tune every single screw with an extra spanner to tighten or loosen the drumhead. That takes a long time. Above all, it’s difficult to get the exact pitch that way.

Because from Mozart and particularly Beethoven onwards it was necessary to change tones more quickly, crank timpani were developed. Their pitch can be changed by turning a crank. There are the “Viennese timpani”, whose kettles are pressed up or down against the skin, and the German crank timpani. The skin of the latter is pulled over a fixed kettle with varying degrees of tension.

And then there are timpani where you use a foot pedal to move the frame up and down within which the skin is stretched. This is very practical because you can keep your hands free!

That sounds like a lot of tuning!

Preparations for what is possibly just one note are a major part of my job. In the concert hall, we use natural skins for the timpani. They are very susceptible to humidity, can warp quickly and often need to be retuned during the concert. That’s the reason why I bend over the instruments so often. It’s the only way to set the tone that’s written in the score!

There’s no easier way to solve this?

You could also use timpani with synthetic, rather than natural skins. You pre-tune them once and they stay that way during the entire piece. But then it sounds a bit like plastic.

What are your mallets made of?

Depending on the sound we want to achieve, we decide on the proper material with a certain finish. Thin felt made of sheep’s wool, for example, produces a harder sound. Synthetic cork sounds different from natural cork. The base is usually bamboo cane from China. A well-built pair of mallets can last up to 40 years. However, only the handle and core will survive that long. Any exterior part that comes into contact with the instrument has to be replaced about every two years. By the way, my mallet maker Jason Ginter uses waxed dental floss to affix the sheathing to the core.

There is a profession called “mallet maker”?

Yes, fortunately! Jason is a great specialist who has studied percussion instruments himself. Some of my colleagues build their own mallets. But I have neither the talent nor the time and especially not the patience for something like that.

How many mallets do you own?

Probably around 150 – all of them produce a different sound. And I’m always adding to the collection! I’m working on a new series with Jason. One set already carries my name in his company JGpercussion.

I collect historical timpani books. They often contain drawings of mallets that I find interesting; these are the ones I ask him to copy for me. For example, the famous sponge-headed mallet, where a wooden disc is wrapped in a sponge and then covered with fabric. In 1810, Hector Berlioz was the first composer to request just such a mallet in his score. Until then, percussionists were always able to decide for themselves which mallets to use.

Photos: Martin Walz (cover photo), Marco Borggreve

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