Quick guide to popular Timpanis

The Timpani

The Timpani, also know as a kettle drum, is one of the most important instruments in a symphony orchestra. The orchestra’s repertoire is often based on them.

A Timpani has a membrane or skin that is stretched tight over a large kettle-shaped barrel shell and kept taut by rope lacings, screws, and other kinds of lacings that may pierce the membrane directly. When struck with a mallet, it produces a definite pitch that merges well with the music being played by the Philharmonic orchestra. The Timpani has been featured in many musical pieces by great composers like Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Berlioz to name a few.

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The History of the Timpani

The Timpani appeared in the 15th century as a cavalry percussion instrument that usually was carried by a horse. The kettle drum did not undergo a lot of changes except for the tuning mechanisms in the mid 1800s that allowed for faster tuning or change of pitch and the securing of the membrane.

The kettle drum or Timpani plays only one note at a time. Thus it comes with varying sizes of 32, 29, 26 or 23 inches. The best sizes for a pair of drums for beginners are a 29 and a 26 inch drum, followed by a 32, then a 23.  In many of the great pieces however, 4 drums are usually needed and the sizes of 32 and 29 provide for the greatest clarity. Sometimes, a 5th drum, the 20-inch Picollo Timpani, needs to be added in order to gain clearer and more proper pitch. Do not be mislead into thinking that since a drum or two carry a lot of octaves, that the notes played by them are good and within the range to sound properly.

Timpani’s nowadays have a pedal mechanism for better pitch control. This adds assurance to the player. These pedals on the floor come with a pivotal action, spring fed or sometimes hydraulic.  But hydraulic mechanisms ought to be tested for quietness and smoothness.  A creaking sound forewarns of destruction to the drum itself.  The opaque head of the drum is best made of plastic instead of calfskin as plastic lasts longer and is more durable.  But the best bowls are made of copper and should freely be suspended by their inset rings.


A Deeper Dive into the History of the Kettle Drum

The Timpani probably originated in the Middle East where clay pots with a skin over it were found. Some of those found had Arabic writings that were traced back to the 10th century. The earliest pictures of drums show “Bowl Drums” which were egg-shaped and had a flat bottom. The hemisphere showed metal or clay. Thus, it can be said that the Timpani originated in Islamic countries and were associated the trumpet to signify power, wealth and royalty. Most Timpanis come as a pair and were carried either by a horse, an elephant or a camel. It was used for wedding ceremonies, religious ceremonies and wars.

From the Middle East, the kettle drum of the Turks was brought to Europe in the 13th century via Germany. Europeans in the 16th century upgraded it by adding calfskin heads. 16th century techniques and repertories with the trumpet such as Orfeo (1607) were passed orally. Highly complex drum techniques and patterns appeared in the 17th century and by the 18th Century. The kettle drum joined the orchestra as the Timpani.


Purchasing a Timpani

Timpani’s are big and not cheap. In fact they are very expensive.  Budget an amount of $3,000 for regular kettle drums and up to $30,000 for better pedal brands. The Timpani mallet may cost up to $100 depending on the brand being bought. Thus it is always important to know how to maintain them.

Cleaning it well after each rehearsal or performance and then covering them, locking the pedals and securing them well when transporting them to prevent the head from becoming loose. Loose heads can affect pits and clarity. These tips won’t cost much. When it comes to Timpani’s, it is always better to purchase four pedaled Timpani’s instead of used drums or instead of 2 pedaled ones and 2 non-pedal Timpani’s.  Therefore, buying sequentially is the best advise. However, expect that ordering one may take some time; as Timpani’s are not usually kept on stock in stores, online or off.

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