Timpani are, in my opinion, the heavyweights of the percussion section. With the power of drums, but also pitch, they are known in the orchestra as the "second conductor."
They've also been used in many other settings, including in the rock band Led Zeppelin, by one of the most famous drummers of all time, John Bonham.
My first real experience with timps came when I was a senior in high school and made the All-State Band. I was the only percussionist to show up with a tuner, so I was "elected" the timpanist. It was an adventure, to say the least.
When I got to college I began to learn how amazing and fun playing timpani can be. We spent a long time learning proper strokes, dampening and getting great tone, as well as learning to tune the drums by ear. Along with ear training and sight singing classes, my private percussion lessons helped me to be able to "hear" the pitches in my head and get the drums in tune with the ensemble - usually the band.
For two of my years at college I was the timpanist for the Symphony Orchestra. It was challenging and very enjoyable. I learned to be connected with the conductor in a new way, and also learned to listen and align with other sections of the ensemble. In short, playing timpani made me a much better, more mature musician. These days I take the opportunity to play timpani any time I can get it!
Along with a rapidly growing collection of solo timpani literature, orchestral timpani is a high profile and very prestigious position for any percussionist. In most professional groups, the timpanist -while a part of the percussion section - usually plays only timpani. No snare drum, mallets or auxiliary parts.
A few tools are required to be a timpanist. I recommend at least three pairs of timpani mallets - soft, medium and hard. A tuning fork and a digital tuner are also not a bad idea. Most of all, get some lessons with somebody who knows a great deal about timpani and can teach you fundamentals.
Be a complete percussionist-musician. Learn how to play timpani well.
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