Cloyd Duff

Principal Timpani - retired - Cleveland Orchestra

Cloyd Duff Duff photo

Mr. Duff wrote the following article in the Percussive Arts Society journal Percussionist in 1966. It is reproduced here as it originally appeared, except that the photo of Mr. Duff in the original has been replaced with the more recent one you see above.


Timpanist - Musician or Technician?

by Cloyd E. Duff


Mr. Duff was born in Marietta, Ohio and raised in East Liverpool, Ohio. He studied timpani and percussion with Oscar Schwar, who was the timpanist of the Philadelphia Orchestra for forty years. He graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music of Philadelphia. Mr. Duff was timpanist of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra 1938-42 and was a member of the Leopold Stokowski All-American Youth Orchestra on its 1940 South American tour and 1941 transcontinental United States tour. He has performed under most of the leading orchestral conductors of the world and has recorded for Columbia, Epic, Victor and Angel Records. Mr. Duff has been the principal timpanist of the Cleveland Orchestra since 1942, and with this orchestra has given many concerts in most of the large cities of the United States and Canada. He has toured all the countries of Europe and the Soviet Union, receiving personal critical acclaim. Mr. Duff has taught at Baldwin-Wallace College and Western Reserve University. He is presently teaching at the Cleveland Institute of Music, Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and the new Blossom Festival School of the Cleveland Orchestra Blossom Festival.


Musician or merely technician? Which shall it be? The choice is yours. There is a tendency today for the timpanist to think too much in terms of flashy technique and not enough in terms of musicianship. After thirty years of experience as the timpanist of one of the leading symphony orchestras of the world and with the background of performing under most of the world's leading orchestral conductors, the writer feels well qualified to state that missing in the general field of timpani playing is the knowledge of how to play the timpani with quality tone and resonance. Overlooked far too often is the fact that the timpani can be played with tone like any other orchestral instrument. If, for example, a horn player played the notes only with regard to rhythm, he would only partially be playing his instrument by disregarding the possibilities of what could be done with the notes in the way of sound quality.

So often, great artists, soloists, and orchestral instrumentalists have remarked to the author after a performance, that they never realized before that it was possible to hear from the timpani such clear defined pitch, tone quality and such a musical sound. Previously, they had the concept that timpani could sound only noisy, with no musical potential. This brings us to the unhappy recognition that too often today timpani is being played with a snare drum technique, and as such, has no relation to true timpani technique. Often this happens because a percussionist, who has never studied timpani at all, or, if he has - never with a professional timpanist, but who does know all the rest of the percussion, applies the snare drum technique to the timpani because of the similarity of wrist action and rhythmical requirements. This style of playing, almost mechanically pointed and rhythmical, is called staccato, and we play this way when it is especially called for; but many performers play this way all the time. Missing, is the knowledge of how to achieve tone quality, resonance and a noble full sound with an artistic touch.

The nature of the timpani is to ring - full and resonant - so this should be developed to its full capability. This quality is needed to provide the sonority and full resonate foundation for the support of the orchestra. In much of the teaching of timpani today, overemphasis is placed upon highly technical exercises (all of which are exceedingly important for good playing) at the expense of (and very neglected) the knowledge of care of heads, tone production and quality, ear training, and the musical interpretation of repertoire.

Historically, in the first days of the acceptance of timpani into the symphony orchestra, when the music of Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert was performed, the playing of the timpani was done with sticks of wood and ivory! Imagine, if you can, the timpani sound that was achieved by using such sticks all the time. One shudders to think what a symphony orchestra must have sounded like in those early days. How the concept of symphony orchestras has advanced through the years! Timpani sound was freed from that limitation by the composer Berlioz, (a timpanist himself) who introduced the use of the soft tonal stick. The sound of the symphony orchestra was developed to the quality which we know today, by each musician striving for better tone and resonance, and keeping pace with the evolution of the instrument. No performer on the clarinet, the bassoon or the trumpet of today, to mention a few, is interested in trying to produce the sound of the ancient ancestor. So why should the timpani too often be the instrument reverting to the sound of early days?

And so since this is an apparent lack of knowledge of how to produce good artistic tonal sound on the timpani, I am going to present for consideration several facts which I think are needed to help timpanists who are seeking the way to produce a better quality of sound on their instruments. Also are set forth ideas that will aid them in playing. The finest instrument will not sound best unless an excellent head is used on that instrument. If the head is too thick, the sound will have a tubby quality with a lack of resonance and sensitivity, with many overtones and a loss of the fundamental. If too thin a head is used the sound will be clear and resonant in piano playing, but will not have any power and projection of sound and will collapse under forte playing. It is most important to have the proper weight timpani head on your instrument. Knowing how to tuck your own timpani heads has great advantages. Every professional timpanist knows how to tuck his own heads. This, of course, takes much experience and the only way to learn is to do it. Like practicing, the more it is done, the better the results. It is most important to tuck the head very evenly all around the hoop. If the head is tucked unevenly at one spot, this cannot be corrected by pulling down the hoop at that spot with the handle. The freshly evenly tucked head must dry completely on the hoop first before ever putting it on the timpani. Then the head is again moistened and pulled down evenly by measuring at every point and allowed to dry. After it is dry, the pitch should be checked at all points to be sure that it is absolutely matching. If, out of the eight tuning spots, seven are matching and one is false (that is, flat or sharp) by tuning softly the sound is localized. But when playing louder the full head is set in vibration and that falseness will sound. Again, it is absolutely necessary that the head be evenly tuned. It is important that the brightness or dullness of tone at each spot does not influence the judgement of the player. Pitch only is to be considered at this stage.

Now let us compare plastic heads and calfskin heads. Plastic heads are used today by many performers particularly for special purposes, such as playing under adverse weather conditions for out-of-door summer concerts; or for schools where the knowledge and time for the maintenance of calfskin heads is not available. With plastic heads, the tone is resonate but thinner in quality. It is rhythmical and brittle with an edgy sound that has a tendency to spread. The range has better quality at the top where the head is stretched tight, but is quite noisy at the bottom of the range where the head is loose. There is a momentary delayed recognition of pitch at the point of stick impact which will be heard as percussive. On the other hand, calfskin heads have a much more noble sound richer in quality, sonorous, more intense, and an even quality throughout tile range. There is an instant recognition of pitch at the point of stick impact, which is heard as quality. Most professional symphony orchestra timpanists will still favor the calfskin heads because of the quality of sound that is produced. However, under the most extreme wet weather conditions, the quality of calfskin heads will deteriorate so in such cases plastic heads will probably be more satisfactory. If plastic heads are used, the next softer set of sticks should be used in order to gain the same effect as achieved on calfskin heads. That is; a more resonate quality.

Now regarding sticks: every professional timpanist makes his own sticks so that he can produce the right stick for his concept of sound as needed. The writer uses seven different pairs of varying degrees of hardness to softness for the effects needed, and changes often during the performance of a piece so that the absolutely correct quality is achieved, even if for a single note only. In the performance of modern and contemporary works, the use of hard sticks is very necessary and fitting for the most part, because it suits the demands for that style of music. The main point to be stressed is that most timpanists forget to return to using sticks that will produce the musical blend and sonority of sound needed in the classics and other works of this period. It is very necessary to have the proper tonal concept of sound needed for the performance of the classics. For best musical results, the timpani must take its proper place in the symphony orchestra in proportion to the other instruments and must support and blend except when a solo passage is played. Not every note that the clarinet, trumpet, bassoon or violins play is clearly heard, nor is every note articulated, but these instruments avail themselves of the different varieties of quality and note lengths so that they all balance to produce the needed musical quality that the piece being performed demands. Blend and support are the key words! One should not hear symphony orchestra accompanied by timpani. The timpani should not distract from the orchestra sound and the musical interpretation, but must enhance it. This is accomplished by using the proper sticks to produce tone, quality and resonance and by matching the sound to that of the orchestra. The thought that a soft stick should be or is mushy is wrong. A soft stick should still be quite firm but not hard and this is achieved in the building of the stick so that quality is produced without the hard, edgy contact sound. This stick, using a larger core, is needed to draw the full sound deep out of the kettle, rather than the hard surface sound. The timpanist must start with the concept of using softer, larger sticks and articulate more to project the sound with tone rather than the easier way of picking a small hard stick and letting it do all the work rhythmically, but with a lack of tone quality, resonance and touch. Please note the word touch!

Touch is most important to lighten the sound and is achieved by lifting the sticks off the head with the wrist action immediately after contact, lifting high, drawing out the sound and letting the head sing. The opposite effect too often is achieved by being tense, stiff, and pounding down into the head, producing a hard contact quality so that the sound is choked. Different timpani players, using the same sticks and the same instruments, will not sound the same due to the touch, concept of producing sound and the musicianship of each player, just as several players on cymbals, using the same pair of excellent cymbals, will produce a different sound due to the touch. Some will have more sound, some will have less; it is all in the concept of sound. So, the use of a soft stick does not necessarily mean that the player will play softly in that sense, but the touch will determine the quality which will be achieved with this stick.

Muffling of the head is quite often over-done. Many performers keep busy stopping the ring of the head much of the time. The player should let the head ring except when necessary to muffle, such as at the end of a phrase where it is needed so as not to ring over into a silent orchestral spot or where it interferes with the harmonic structure. The composers, especially of the classics (not so today) notated only the striking note and left the duration, in most cases, to be interpreted by the musician. There is no need to muffle in a series of eighth or quarter notes when written that way instead of as half notes. Many times a dot above a series of notes means to articulate, lighten and project the touch, not muffle. Short, sharp, single notes of dramatic nature should be muffled as called for, but let it not be so sudden as to be a noise, but with just enough duration so as to be musical and have pitch recognition.

In tuning the timpani, the accuracy of tuning will depend ever so much on how absolutely clear the head is tuned at every spot. There must positively be no falseness and this is one of the most difficult phases of timpani playing to master. Many players believe they have the head clear, but this regrettably is not always so. Constantly on commercials and on some recordings of performances the falseness is apparent because the head is not evenly adjusted. Intonation is not being referred to here, but the falseness of the head that interferes with the intonation, marring the clarity and purity, no matter how well intentioned the performer. After the heads are clear, tuning for intonation is the next procedure. Tuning is really a subjective experience; the performer within himself must hear that pitch positively and authoritatively and feel it. It is far better if one can hear in his mind the pitch without having to resort to whistling, singing, or striking a bell. Then the head should always be pedaled up to the pitch in mind and matched.

The tuning is achieved in relative pitch by the study of intervals which is developed to such a high degree of efficiency that the player is positive about it, or by absolute pitch. Interesting though, is the fact that often those with absolute pitch do not have the most perfect intonation, possibly because they do not adjust so readily to the slight variations that occur between sections and varying playing conditions. While the orchestra is playing, it is better to tune quietly with the finger instead of the stick. The finger localizes the pitch while the stick sets the entire head in vibration, so that the tuning process may be heard by others. There have been many articles written about this particular subject recommending the opposite; stating that tuning with the finger gives one pitch while the stick a different pitch. This is due again to the unevenness of the head, but when the head is absolutely clear, as it should be, the pitch achieved by using the finger for tuning and the stick will be positively the same. It is most important to have evenness of the head for clarity in tuning; this cannot be over-emphasized.

As for intonation while playing, it is more difficult to maintain good intonation when using calfskin heads because the heads are susceptible to climatic conditions; stage conditions, such as drafts; heat from stage lights; heat in the hall. It takes constant vigilance to keep the heads under control. Under such conditions it is no disgrace to have a note very slightly off pitch, but it certainly is to continue playing it without adjusting immediately. When playing, careful attention and comparison of each note is important to be sure of fine intonation and constant adjustment as necessary.

Care must be paid to the solo rolls usually found at the end of overtures and symphonies for such rolls often go out of pitch and should be adjusted to compensate for the impact. If the timpani has a loose mechanical construction the head will go flat because the mechanism gives. When using an excellent instrument, there is no give mechanically and playing so loudly on the head with such a forceful roll actually tightens the head and raises the pitch so that the roll is sharp. In either case a pedal adjustment is necessary.

The counting of measures is a matter of much experience, so that one approaches the entrances (which are so important) with authority and confidence. One must be absolutely positive; it is not possible to sneak in on a timpani entrance - the player must be THERE! For the beginner, the combination of tuning and counting bars at the same time, accurately, is a difficult problem. This is overcome by experience and counting should be developed to the extent that it is done subconsciously so that attention is free to concentrate on the tuning. The author has often listened to a program and found that even though not participating, he has counted subconsciously thirty or forty bars unaware, because it has become second nature to count.

A timpanist should always remember these points: play with a musical approach, play staccato only when needed; play tonally when needed; blend; be exacting in rhythm; be careful in ensemble playing; bring out the sonorous quality and beauty of the instrument; and add to the resonance and support of the orchestra sound.

Now let us consider interpretation. Anyone can play the notes. It is not the notes but what the performer does with them that counts. It is very important to know the literature - especially the classics - for playing and for teaching. Exercises are not enough; they have a tendency to become mechanical. For even a single note within a piece, the player must have the concept of what that note should sound like, the proper stick to use to produce the desired effect tonally, rhythmically, quality-wise in order to match what else is going on in the orchestra, and for the more technical passages to be interpreted musically. There is no substitute for experience and knowledgeable background.

Now a few miscellaneous points to discuss. The decision to stand or sit on a high stool (actually lean on the edge of a twenty-eight inch stool) while playing is one of individual choice. However, the writer feels that the only reason to stand is if the player is short of stature. The reasons in favor of sitting are: a performer can play better, is more relaxed; it is more comfortable, easier to get around the instruments, and sitting brings the performer down to the level of the instruments, doing away with the awkward posture of leaning over the timpani for a full rehearsal or concert. Since the body weight is taken off the legs and feet, the feet are free to do the tuning and constant pedal adjustments are easier. Those who stand, do sit down on a stool for difficult tuning passages in order to have the feet free for pedaling, which tends to prove the point.

The European tradition of timpani playing, which is the oldest, has the timpanist sitting down, with the lowest timpani placed to the right of the performer, and tradition has handed this down from the very beginning of timpani playing. This system is used today throughout all Europe and to a lesser degree in parts of our country. The American system reverses the placement of the instruments, placing the lowest timpani to the performer's left, corresponding to the piano keyboard. There is no decided advantage to be had in either placement. Each position will offer sticking advantages and disadvantages equally in relation to the passage involved.

The author performs using the European placement, as a matter of preference, with the low drum on the right, but demonstrates and teaches both systems. The argument that it is necessary to place the drums piano keyboard style is invalid. Timpani is never played in numerical order, 1-2-3-4 progression but in varied sequence according to the notation, and a C, C#, or D can be had on any of the top three drums if need be, making it necessary to remember the placement along with the rest of the tunings as designated in the piece. In the modern day percussion ensemble, the author feels that too often the character and style of the timpani are being maligned, not purposely, but because the instrument does not really lend itself to the nature and design of the percussion ensemble. To do so, the sound and resonance of the timpani are straight-jacketed and put into a category that demands super-dry staccato passages of fast technical display that are more suited to the less resonate and more articulate tunable tom toms, plus the added gimmickry of sliding glissandos up and down. In most cases, a cheap effect is achieved because the musical possibilities are either ignored or unknown. The musical application of the instrument, usually, is lowered to a highly technical exercise of a mechanical nature.

In conclusion, tonal quality production on the timpani is the complete application of all the above mentioned points. It is hoped that this concept of tone production - timpani playing in its most musical sense will be of help to the aspiring timpanist. Let it be remembered, however, that there is no substitute for a student/teacher relationship, for the teacher can demonstrate, correct, and advise how to carry through these concepts. There is much to be realized from the ideas set forth here and the author believes that quality musical playing will be gained by those who seek it.

It is the responsibility of the leading timpanists of the world to bring something special to the profession and to present a better concept for having played, to set the high standards of teaching along these lines and particularly to improve the style of musical timpani performance and to contribute to the resonance and glorious sound of the symphony orchestra of today.


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