All about Timpani

Our Principal Timpanist, Josh Hickman, has been wandering the halls lately with colorful bowls of sponges. Below, Josh explains some of the things you may have wondered about, such as the cost to purchase and maintain these instruments, as well as helping to understand how temperamental these drums can be.

How many timpani are normally used?
Most classical programs require 4 drums, but with current New Music programming, 5 timpani are becoming the norm.

What is the cost of a full set of high quality timpani?
The cost for a new set of drums varies and, depending on the upkeep of older instruments, the value doesn’t usually depreciate much from the “new” pricing, especially if the older instruments are still in high demand. The short answer would be $25-$35,000 for a high-quality set of used timpani, and $45-$60,000 for a brand new customized set of timpani. Some designs hold up well and require infrequent replacement parts or recalibrating critical machinery, but used drums may need expensive recalibration and alignment especially those sold on the lower end of the price range from $18-20,000, which can be as expensive as buying one new drum.

What is the cost to replace a drum head?
Synthetic drum heads average from $100-180 per drum head being replaced; this value changes slightly if the heads are not “universal” sizes (32, 29, 26, 23, & 20 inches for a set of five.) Calfskins drum heads are significantly more expensive since the only trusted manufacturer is based in Ireland. Each head can range from $500-$700 depending upon the size; a full set of 5 is approximately $2,000-$2,500, and the special “flesh hoops” to tuck the skin around are about $175 each.

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Nashville is a unique city; Geographically it is situated in a region that can be considered sub-tropical. Summer seasons can provide consecutive days of high humidity and nearly 100-degree temperatures, with muggy evenings in the mid 70-degree range. Winter seasons can be mild or extremely cold, yet, highly humid. Weather fronts moving through the area bring up warm humid air that usually keeps cold fronts that would cause snow/ice to stay along the Kentucky and Tennessee borders. Musicians making a living anywhere to an extent must keep an eye on the weather conditions and the effect it has on acoustic instruments. As principal timpanist with the Nashville Symphony, I am always paying attention to daily and predicted weather patterns.

Timpani can be played with synthetic drum heads that will maintain their integrity and tone throughout the instrument range and react minimally to any changes in humidity and temperature. I use calfskin drum heads which will react immediately to any change in temperature and humidity. The Schermerhorn Symphony Center has an air control system that can maintain a humidity and temperature range that makes using calfskin heads possible. Without this control system, the average weather patterns of the region would make using this material almost impossible. Sometimes the system does too much, or too little to maintain a consistent air quality, and additional moisture may need to be added to the drums to keep the skins from tightening or relaxing rapidly.

Timpani have air vents at the bottoms of the bowls which allow equalization of air and pressure between inside of the bowl and in the performance environment. If the air is too warm and dry, ‘wicks’, or sponges may be place inside of the bowl through these vents which will in short time increase the amount of moisture in contact with the skin and help bring the drum back to a normal playing range. At some point the amount of wicks/sponges will maintain a humidity level inside of the bowl that will prevent the dryer and warmer air from taking the moisture from the surface of the skin too quickly, so that minor adjustments during a rehearsal or performance can be managed. If the concert hall is too dry, an excessive amount of sponges may need to be added, which can cause the skin to sound dull since one side is exposed to a ‘closed off’ high moisture area while the outer playing surface is reacting to the dryer.

It is not unusual to arrive prior to a rehearsal or concert and find the timpani are sounding a 4th higher on each drum than the indicated pitch on cold or warm, yet, very dry days.

A major concern is when weather patterns bring warm air, with a dew point that is close to the projected high temperature of the day. A combination of our heat-emitting stage lights, and humidity control may not be enough to keep the humidity in the air from causing the skins to slacken well below their playing range. I personally favor a slightly dryer playing environment as I have both sponges to use to add moisture, and the mechanics of the drum to fine tune the pitch. On highly humid days, I only have the fine tuner to maintain the normal playing range of calfskins. There is a finite amount of threading on the fine tuner mechanisms of any high end set of concert timpani, and the last resort is to manually adjust each tension rod which seats the drum head on the bowl. This is risky to adjust quickly in such situations, as each tension point is tightened as precisely as possible to where the overall resonance and tone of the drum head blends with the pitch of the orchestra. If too much fine tuner is used to loosen the skin, eventually the mechanism will disengage which will also affect changes that can be made with the foot pedal. If too much fine tuner is used to tighten the drum head, the skin will become overstretched and the quality of the sound will diminish. I have never (thankfully) used all of the fine tuner threading, or had to make this manual adjustment of the individual tension points during a performance or rehearsal. I have however learned that 28 sponges is the most I can use in my largest drum; there isn’t room for more and on that particular day (thankfully near the end of the rehearsal) that wasn’t enough!

These preparations and adjustments require time to make sure the skins settle. I am usually 90 minutes or more early for rehearsals or concerts to begin making adjustments. I am also usually seen backstage with about 50 multi-colored strips of sponges in anticipation of what each drum will need to stay within manageability.

I am in my third season with the Nashville Symphony, and have had 3 skins break, and dealt with many weeks of various combinations of weather and performance conditions that posed extreme challenges, while others were very mild and manageable. None of the adverse conditions has been unmanageable and more importantly each experience helps the decision-making process for the next set of performances. Whatever each week’s challenges are, I find they are manageable by adhering to three rules: Pay attention to the weather and dew point, arrive extra early, and have plenty of extra sponges!

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