Percussionists are some of the most active players in an orchestra. With bells and cymbals and drums and all sorts of instruments to keep track of, these musicians have their hands full almost constantly. One player in the back of the orchestra, though, has just one, big responsibility: the timpanist.
John Tafoya is a professor of music at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. “When you go to a concert, you can’t help but notice the timpanist back there,” he says. “They always seem to be active. And there’s a little bit of a mystery that surrounds it, because you’ll see the timpani player lean down to the drum head and lightly tapping it. For someone at the concert, they’re looking at that person, and thinking, ‘Why is he smelling the drum head?’”
The Second Conductor
Tafoya, an Indiana University graduate, spent eight seasons as the principal timpanist with National Symphony Orchestra before joining IU’s faculty in 2007. He says many timpanists believe that they serve as the second conductor of the orchestra. “What it means in my mind is that I need to know the musical score as well as the conductor knows the score,” he says. “That’s one component for me that’s still very exciting.”
Not only does the timpani player contribute to the rhythmic pulse of an orchestra; he or she plays an important role in tuning as well. Tafoya comments that he can listen to other instruments in the orchestra to correctly tune the pitches on his drums. “We also have devices on the instrument that allow us to get close,” he adds. “There are different tuning indicators on each of the drums, and if we know the instruments well enough, it’s not a problem.”
Tafoya’s has many instruments in addition to his timpani drums. From marimbas to snare drums or orchestra bells, his office is a percussionist’s playground. “For those people who want a lot of variety with their playing,” he explains, “they certainly get that with percussion.”
Percussionists are also responsible for making music on found instruments, such as trash cans and brake drums. “Anything like that can be made into a percussion instrument, so that adds to our load of all the instruments available to us as players.”
The Waiting Game
Timpani players and percussionists often spend long stretches of time counting measures of rest waiting for their turn to play. “It is sometimes a problem to wait,” Tafoya says. “Some of my colleagues will literally have something on the music stand to read – they’ll keep their minds occupied.”
He recalled a story about renowned piano soloist Emmanuel Ax. While he was performing with an orchestra, he requested to play the timpani on an overture by Mozart. “The timpani part itself was not difficult, but Ax said that he got more worked up and more nervous playing that than he ever has playing as a soloist.”
Tafoya says there are countless other stories like that, “where someone has one triangle note or a cymbal note, and it’s because there’s only one or two notes that there’s all of a sudden a huge level of importance placed on these notes.”
For More Information
- John Tafoya is the author of The Working Timpanist’s Survival Guide.
- He also serves as chair of the percussion department at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music.