A Different Drummer

timpani and orchestra

Timpani are not often featured in a solo role and the timpanist doesn’t neatly fit into conventional notions of virtuosity. Timpani can’t dazzle us with fast runs or bring us to tears with beautiful melodies. Their niche has been literally and figuratively at the back of the orchestra. Because their sound is, by nature, confident, declamatory, perhaps even authoritarian they tend to be the arbiters of time for the orchestra. If the timpanist is a little late it is most often heard as if the whole orchestra were early and vice versa. They can drive the orchestra forward, hold them back or lay it down.

Up until recently I have been afraid of the timpani and it has been a long process of personal growth to come to appreciate them to the point that I felt I had something to contribute to their story. I feared that any prominent use of the timpani would make my music sound “old fashioned” … like my favorite Beethoven Symphonies that end with insistent repetitions of the tonic and the dominant. So, I found minimal things for the timpani to do but nothing approaching a foregrounded role. As I became more confident with my own personal sense of groove the timpani started playing a larger role in leading the orchestra to both groove and stumble. My timpani parts became more involved which opened up instructive dialogues with the timpanists I worked with.

My final epiphany was taking my orchestration class to a New Jersey Symphony rehearsal of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony where we were able to sit behind the orchestra in order to be watch the conductor and experience what life was like back there (where the timpanist lives). It just so happened that they were auditioning for the position of principal Timpanist and consequently the connection between the conductor and the player was laser focused.

I always give Beethoven the credit for upping the timpanist’s role by assigning them critical motivic roles and the Scherzo to Beethoven 9 is an excellent example. His pithy “bum-pa-da” reminded me the timpanist has more than enough available pitches to play a riff I would be proud to own.

The major revelation was that there are, in fact, some things that the timpani can do better than any other instrument in the orchestra. They can deflect the destiny of the orchestra with a couple of well-placed strokes better than any other instrument. More impressively, the timpani alone can just flat-out, legitimately, interrupt the orchestra. That amount of responsibility and boldness deserves to be celebrated!

The title refers to the famous quote from Walden Pond by Thoreau: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

A Different Drummer is in 6 sections – an Introduction and 5 excursions – with a duration of about 25 minutes.