"What kind of sticks do you use?"
I'm really picky about the gear I use. I'm quite attached to the characteristics of my set of timpani, I play on either calfskin heads (of a specific thickness and which I've tucked myself) or a specific model of Remo heads, and my current go-to pairs of mallets have been carefully chosen over a number of years. My gear makes it easy for me to sound like me when I make music – it's critically important to my comfortability and ability to express myself as a performer. I use the configuration of equipment I do because I think it's the closest thing to a perfect setup I can have.
And there's a good chance that it would be wrong for you.
This post's title is likely among the questions most frequently asked of professionals by aspiring percussionists. The logic behind it seems to make perfect sense: wouldn't someone want to find the best mallets before making an investment? Or when choosing instruments, shouldn't we look to see what the top musicians in the field are using? The equation seems simple: if we start with ideal instruments we have better odds of getting ideal results, right?
But it's not that simple. To understand why equipment shouldn't be treated as a starting point, we need to recognize our sticks, heads, and drums for what they are: tools. Without knowing exactly what we're trying to accomplish, a discussion about which tool will be best suited to the job will not be productive.
So before we start choosing equipment, we must start with a concept of sound. This concept includes our broad understanding of what's desired in our tone quality and our general thoughts about how our instrument should sound. A sound concept is also vital in a much narrower sense: how do we want an individual note or phrase to sound? If you've ever had a teacher suggest that you sing something before playing it, this is what they were getting at. The best musicians have a clear and precise idea of what they intend to do every time they pick up their instrument.
Our sound concept not only guides our performance, but it's also critical to productive practice. How can we expect to make progress without a clear sense of what we're trying to accomplish? Everything starts with having defined goals, and only then choosing a path to achieve them. Without clear objectives, it becomes impossible to evaluate whether or not you're getting closer to how you ultimately want to sound.
As I've listened to and performed more music and worked with different musicians, my thoughts about how I want to sound have changed. There's an evolutionary aspect to a sound concept that comes with an increase in knowledge and experience. And as we make technical and musical improvements as instrumentalists, our sound concept will become more nuanced and require even more skill to achieve. If it didn't, we'd quickly run out of things to practice, and practice-room growth would stall. As one of my teachers would say, you have to "keep your head (sound concept) ahead of your hands (technical abilities)."
Turning back to our question about sticks, I don't think any question about equipment can be answered without first asking, “How do I want to sound?” Our individual sound concepts may be different and lead us down very different paths. Even when the sound concepts of two people are similar, physical differences in their bodies may lead them to different equipment configurations, and contrasting technical approaches will affect the choices that yield the desired result.
Using timpani mallets as an example, a player with a lighter touch may be best served with a heavier stick, while a timpanist who prefers to play more “into the drum” may get better results with an extremely light mallet with a cork, felt, or tape core. It's possible that these two players could have similarities in their respective sound concepts even as they use drastically different approaches to achieve them.
A change to one variable can necessitate a change to another. The equipment that works most easily for you in one concert hall may produce imperfect results in another. Switching from calfskin heads to plastic is often accompanied by a change in sticks in an effort to produce a similar sound.
Our sound concept makes up a large part of who we are as musicians. I believe that if I was forced to go without my preferred equipment, I could find a way to produce something very close to my sound with a completely different setup. It might require time, significant changes in technique, and substantially greater effort, but all of my choices and experimentation would be guided by my desire to sound a certain way.
Many manufacturers are making high-quality products. Provided you're choosing between well-built, well-maintained instruments, there are no objectively best timpani, but there is probably a set of timpani that is best for you and the spaces in which you play. And while there are no heads or sticks that will be ideal for everyone, there will be a combination of heads and sticks which best suit your drums and your needs. Once you've established how you want to sound, you can start the process of figuring out which tools enable you to create your sound as easily, comfortably, and consistently as possible.•