Empowering the Timpanists in Your Music Ensemble

Timpani Survival 101

By NAfME Member Jeremy Kirk

I am very excited to help build your timpani knowledge in my upcoming session Timpani Survival 101 at this year’s NAfME National In-Service Conference. My session will focus on the fundamentals of timpani performance, maintenance and repair, and building aural skills. We will look closely at the following topics that will give your timpanists the skills necessary to become “the second conductor.”

  • Technique
  • Tone Production
  • Articulation
  • Intonation
  • Mallet Selection
  • Maintenance & Repair
  • Developing Aural Skills
Majestic 1
Courtesy of KHS America/Majestic

As a “mini-preview,” please enjoy the following information and begin to implement with your timpanist(s). I look forward to seeing you in Nashville!


Majestic 2
Courtesy of KHS America/Majestic






Starting with the largest timpano (32”), the fundamental pitch of each drum can be remembered as a Bb Major first inversion triad. Each timpano should safely have the range of a Perfect 5th. The middle register of each drum is preferred for optimal tone quality.

            32”      Range: D-A

music score
Courtesy of KHS America/Majestic


            29”      Range: F-C

music score
Courtesy of KHS America/Majestic


            26”      Range: Bb-F

music score
Courtesy of KHS America/Majestic


            23”      Range: D-A

music score
Courtesy of KHS America/Majestic


            20”      Range: F-C

music score
Courtesy of KHS America/Majestic




Position the body in the center of the drums and rotate the upper body with the hand following the mallets in playing position. Reposition the drums so that the mallets are easily placed over the proper playing area for each drum.

Courtesy of KHS America/Majestic



Timpani rolls are performed as single alternating strokes. The mallets should be a few inches apart to achieve proper resonance. The speed of the roll will vary due to several issues:

  • Drum size
    Generally – the larger the drum, the slower the roll; the smaller the drum, the faster the roll
  • Pitch
    Generally – lower pitch = slower roll; higher pitch = faster roll
  • Dynamics
    Generally – softer dynamics = slower roll; louder dynamics = faster roll
  • Aesthetics
    A fast roll can create tension; slower rolls can create release/resolution



Courtesy of KHS America/Majestic


Mallet Selection and Care

A variety of mallets are necessary to achieve all possible tonal colors. Mallets should be thought of in terms of articulations, as opposed to volume. For example, a pianissimo rhythmic passage would require a harder felt mallet to produce rhythmic clarity; a fortissimo resonant passage would require a softer felt mallet to produce a full, rich tone. The following is a general guide to timpani mallet felt qualities and models.

            General (such as Vic Firth T1)
            Great for all-around playing. Produces rich tone, yet still capable of rhythmic clarity.

            Soft or Cartwheel (such as Vic Firth T2)
            Produces full, rich tone. Ideal for legato strokes and lush roll passages

            Medium Hard (such as Vic Firth T3)
            Provides more rhythmic articulation and clarity than a general mallet.

            Hard (such as Vic Firth T4)
            Produces more clarity and articulation than a medium hard mallet.

Never touch the felt heads. Oil from hands will transfer to the felt, thus reducing the quality and lifespan of the mallet head. Keep timpani mallets in their own mallet bag separate of other mallets and sticks. Use a plastic sandwich bag twisted over one head and then the other to keep the mallet heads from touching. 


Majestic 3
Courtesy of KHS America/Majestic




Pesky Pedal Problems

Problem: Pedal will not stay on the lowest note

This is happening because the tension on the pedal is greater than the tension on the head. By tightening the head, you will find that the pedal and head become balanced and the pedal should stay on any note within the drum’s range. Always use two timpani keys simultaneously on opposite lugs when adjusting head tension.

Every pedal on a balanced action timpano has a spring tension adjustment, but this should be used only after you have determined that the head tension is correct. If the drum is in the correct range and tightening the head causes the drum’s range to be diminished, you may have to loosen the pedal’s tension adjustment.

Problem: Pedal will not stay on the highest note

This is usually beca use the head tension is too high and, as such, the pedal tension cannot balance against the head’s high tension.

This usually occurs when you are trying to tune a note on the drum that is beyond the upper range. For instance, the 29” can make a comfortable Bb, but to get to a C, you have had to tighten the head quite a bit. You may have to lower the head tension and be satisfied that the Bb is as high as that drum will go or you can tighten the pedal’s tension adjustment slightly.

Key Points:

  • The pedal tension and head tension must be balanced
  • If the pedal wants to rise – tighten the head
  • If the pedal wants to fall – loosen the head
  • Use two timpani keys simultaneously on opposite lugs
  • If adjusting the head tension does not work, you can either tighten or loosen the pedal’s tension adjustment
  • Always tighten or loosen anything with the greatest moderation. Use one quarter turn at a time



About the author:

band director

Jeremy Kirk is active as a performing artist, clinician, and adjudicator throughout North America and is currently Assistant Professor of Music at Southwestern College (Winfield, KS) where he serves as Director of Bands, Percussion, and Music Education. At Southwestern, Kirk directs the Band program, Percussion Ensemble, Drumline, African Drum & Dance Ensemble and teaches courses in Percussion Techniques, Applied Percussion, and Music Education. Kirk has appeared at notable events such as the National Association for Music Education National Conference, Percussive Arts Society International Convention, Kansas Music Educators Association Conference, West Virginia Music Educators Association Conference, and various PAS Days of Percussion throughout North America. He frequently tours to universities and high schools to present recitals, master classes, and clinics on topics such as contemporary multiple percussion, marimba, orchestral percussion, timpani, marching percussion, percussion ensemble, world percussion, effective practice habits, and mental performance preparation. He has been blessed to share the stage with renowned musicians including percussionists Michael Burritt, She-e Wu, Dave Samuels, Ney Rosauro, and Arthur Lipner; country music artists Sarah Evans and Kathy Chiavola; bluegrass legends Ralph Stanley and Jim & Jesse McReynolds; and groups including the Huntington Symphony Orchestra, Manheim Steamroller, and Flat Baroque (Mostly) Marimba Quartet.

Kirk serves on the Percussive Arts Society Technology Committee and is currently working on several commissions for percussion ensemble and solo percussion. He previously served as Director of The Presidents Drum & Bugle Corps, Percussion Caption Head of The Presidents, Director of Bands & Percussion at Coffeyville Community College, Instructor of Percussion at Marshall University, and has taught in the public schools of West Virginia and Kansas. As an educator, Professor Kirk is deeply committed to providing students the skills necessary to excel in today’s world as an educator and/or performer. Kirk combines his traditional training in Western percussion instruments (snare drum, keyboard percussion, timpani, drumset, multiple percussion, marching percussion) with his extensive knowledge in world percussion including Ewe drumming, Shona mbria, North Indian tabla, Japanese taiko, Javanese & Balinese gamelan, and Caribbean steel pans to create a unique global perspective in his teaching and performing. 

He holds a Master’s Degree in Percussion Performance from Marshall University and Bachelor’s Degree in Music Education from Glenville State College. His previous teachers include Leigh Howard Stevens, (marimba), She-e Wu (marimba), John McKinney (percussion), Ben Miller (percussion), Steve Hall (percussion), Mark Zanter (composition), Paul Balshaw (conducting and composition), Joe Porcaro (drum set), and Paschal Younge (African drumming and dance ). 

Kirk is an artist, clinician, and consultant with Majestic Percussion, Mapex Drums, Vic Firth Sticks & Mallets, Sabian Cymbals, Remo Drumheads & World Percussion, and Black Swamp Percussion. Learn more at www.jkpercussion.com.



Jeremy will be presenting on this very topic at the 2015 NAfME National In-Service Conference this coming October in Nashville, TN! Don’t miss the In-Service EARLY BIRD RATE. The deadline is July 31!

Join us for more than 300 innovative professional development sessions, nightly entertainment, extraordinary performances from across the country, a wild time at the Give a Note Extravaganza, and tons of networking opportunities with over 3,000+ other music educators! Learn more and register today: http://bit.ly/Nafville2015


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