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Let's talk Bartok (or: Making Things Sound As Easy As They Aren't)

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra is performing Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra this week. (Tickets here, webcast Saturday night here.) I was talking to a few colleagues the other day about how well-written the timpani part is: it contains passages that work well for the instrument without venturing into the realm of the unplayable, there are no overwritten gimmicks for gimmicks' sake, yet the part still makes demands of the timpanist that stretch their abilities.

That said, what seems challenging for one instrument may be quite simple on another. When timpanists look at the following passage in the fourth movement, they quickly recognize its technical demands and understand that they are looking at the exact spot on which many dreams of audition success have died, even as other instrumentalists are looking at the same notes and seeing a passage that's sight-readable.

What's the big deal?

Since this space occasionally gets non-timpanist passers-by, it's worth pausing for a moment to discuss why a spot that anyone with basic note-reading abilities and a rudimentary understanding of time signatures could plunk out on a piano is so challenging for timpanists. Modern timpani typically consist of a set of four drums, each having a range of up to an octave. The tuning of each of the four drums can be changed using a foot pedal, which sets in motion a series of mechanical events that either increase or decrease tension on the head of the drum. The mechanism is different, but the concept is the same as when a string player tunes their instrument by increasing or decreasing tension on individual strings using tuning pegs. That string player, however, also has the option of changing pitches by using their fingers to alter the length of the string that vibrates. Since the vibrating parts of timpani are large, circular membranes, no such option exists for us. While it's possible and advisable to get relatively quick and precise with one's timpani pedal technique, the large muscle groups involved and the physical distance the pedals have to travel make it unlikely that a timpanist's feet will ever rival the speed and accuracy of the hands of a violinist on a fingerboard, the fingers of a flutist on their instrument's keys, or a horn player adjusting their embouchure. For these reasons and others, a definitive recording of The Flight of the Bumblebee on timpani is likely not forthcoming (and that's probably for the best).

Rather than saying there are 10 note changes within this short excerpt, it's more accurate to say that a timpanist has to retune an instrument 10 different times within an approximately 18 second span.

Luckily, modern timpani also have tuning gauges, which provide a visual representation of where a drum's pedal is at a given moment, and – if they've been set accurately – which pitch corresponds to that pedal position. This is an invaluable resource in an excerpt where, once begun, there's no opportunity to check one's intonation before a new note is struck.

Now that everyone's up to speed, we can dive into how to approach the excerpt.

Which drums do all of these notes go on?

Since there is overlap between the ranges of individual drums, we've got options. Traditionally, most pedaling has taken place on the middle pair of timpani, likely because the outer pair of drums were often hand-tuned instruments with no pedals. While tuning schemes like this can work very well, I prefer to do the bulk of the pedaling work on the lowest two drums. As with many other choices, this has a lot to do with my sound concept: to my ear, putting a G and C on my 31” and 29” drums respectively sounds better than putting those two notes on smaller drums with looser heads. As you can see from my tuning indications, I start out with the drums set to E/Eb/C/G (high to low) and do all of the pedaling on the lowest two until the second-to-last note (D), which is played on the 26” drum.

An added benefit of this scheme is that it avoids having two consecutive notes ever played on the same drum, which mitigates the risk of inaccurate intonation.

Keep it clean

Whether in the context of the full orchestra where this spot is quite exposed, or in an audition setting where you're completely exposed, any audible glissandi during retuning isn't acceptable. Make sure that tuning changes are quick and precise, and only happen either once a drum has been muffled completely or at the exact moment that a different drum is struck. I've experimented with each option, and both can work, although I'm personally more comfortable with muffling before tuning.

Muffling thoughts

I'm planning to do a longer post on my approach to muffling in the future (please try to contain your excitement!), but this excerpt merits talking about it briefly.

Many of the notes in this passage are relatively short notes followed by rests. We have the option of muffling in every rest, but is that the best musical decision? Let's look at this in the context of both an orchestral setting and an audition setting.

In the orchestra, much of the quickly-decaying resonance of the timpani is often swallowed up into the ensemble's sound, especially while the ringing note fits with the harmony. Since we have little control over how our notes end once they're played (as opposed to wind, brass, and string players who actively sustain notes using air or a bow), it's tough to taper notes off quickly, and abrupt muffling can create a choked sound that can be distracting to the listener. I feel that at best, muffling is unnecessary here, and at worst, it will disrupt the flow of the passage.

In an audition, I arrive at the same conclusion but for a different reason. Especially when I'm not playing a melody (as is the case in the majority of timpani excerpts), my number one audition goal is to make the committee hear the full orchestra while I'm playing. This goal governs all of the decisions I make about an excerpt. In this instance, the melody is played by the viola section, which has a long, flowing line. In my mind, the best way to create the conditions for the listener to start imagining that connected melody line is to create a connection between each of the notes I'm playing as well. Any complete stopping of the sound within this excerpt has the potential to stop the music in a committee member's mind.

Whether in the orchestra or in an audition, I've used the same approach: muffle only when necessary to make a tuning change or to avoid a semitone clash (m. 48 & 49), and muffle only as the next note is played to create a seamless, fluid feeling.

Tone Quality

Since this is the most commonly requested pedaling excerpt at timpani auditions, it's natural to focus on intonation. One trend that I've noticed, especially among less experienced players, is that this attention to the pedaling aspect of the excerpt comes at the expense of other musical factors, especially tone quality. While it's certainly important that the passage be played in tune, one can't forget that audition committee members will be listening for all of the other musical qualities valued in a potential colleague. Especially with an excerpt which may appear very easy to play, musicians who play other instruments are unlikely to overlook a lack of musicality even if every note is perfectly in tune. Be sure to find a consistent, legato tone which captures the connected nature of the passage and reflects Bartok's “Calmo” indication. Find a stick that makes it easy to achieve the desired sound. I'm using the Cloyd Duff #7 stick from Freer Percussion, which is a heavy enough stick to draw a full, clear pitch out the drums, and allows me to use my touch to achieve a smooth articulation while letting the sound open up and resonate.

Phrasing & Dynamics

I think of this excerpt in three “levels” of phrasing. First, every pair of notes should have a feeling of connectedness to one other. Second, those pairs of notes combine to form two separate larger phrases: the first from the beginning to the downbeat of measure 46; the second from the pickup to 47 to the end. Third is the big picture: the whole excerpt should have a connecting line from beginning to end. It's important that it have a sense of unbroken flow.

Focusing in on the second level, I think this is where there's an opportunity to make a notable musical gesture. I've already mentioned that my goal in auditions is to make the committee hear the full orchestra, and when I'm playing in the orchestra, my list of priorities includes the following:

2. Help the orchestra sound as good as possible

3. Make my part sound as good as possible

Notice which goal is higher on the list. The timpani has the bass line here – our phrasing should be informed by what is happening in the viola melody and support it. In most cases, I've heard the first half of the passage phrased to the downbeat of measure 45 (our Ab). Bartok provides assistance with the second phrase; the printed crescendo makes clear that the top of that phrase is the D# in measure 48, and listening to the melody confirms this.

Since there are printed dynamic changes in the second half of the passage, it's important that those be clearly audible to the listener without straying from the general tone quality and character of the excerpt.

In an audition setting, I've often slightly exaggerated the diminuendo at the end of the excerpt and added just a hint of ritardando into the last G in an attempt to create a special musical “moment” that hopefully makes a positive impression in the audition committee's mind. Obviously in an ensemble setting, one has to follow the dynamics and pacing of the orchestra, although that last G is often slightly “placed” later on the downbeat before the tempo picks up again into measure 51.

What I'm thinking during this excerpt

In performance, I'm thinking about very little of the above. If I've done my job, all of what I've discussed has been planned and practiced to the point where it's already baked into my performance, and I'm free to focus on reacting to the conductor and my colleagues. In some cases, I'll focus on a particular issue (in today's performance, I was specifically thinking about making a more gradual decrescendo than I had yesterday), but for the most part I'm simply trying to play chamber music with my colleagues.

One last thought: since we're relying on our tuning gauges throughout this passage, it's tempting to keep our eyes on them. I noted my #2 and #3 priorities in ensemble playing earlier, but the one thing that comes before those on my list is worth mentioning:

1. Don't get fired

The last thing you want is for a conductor who's looking for eye contact to see that you're not paying any attention to him or her. I remember a teacher discussing this in the context of challenging mallet parts: one has to develop the ability to get the visual information you need from your instrument while also being able to regularly check in – even if only briefly – with the conductor. In this particular spot, it's also extremely helpful to be able to watch the principal violist for timing cues.


That's a lot to think about for 16 notes that the audience (and some of your colleagues) probably won't notice. With proper preparation, this excerpt can be made to sound as easy as it looks to non-timpanists. Most people won't know how challenging this spot is. Don't give them a reason to think otherwise.•

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