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3 Timpani Grips

Dustin Woodard | December 2014

    Often percussionists play timpani just like every other percussion instrument, meaning they use the same technique and grip without putting much thought into how to play the instrument properly. Timpani is a transitional instrument between the percussion section and the rest of the ensemble. A good timpanist should think like a percussionist and a conductor because they both help lead the ensemble. Timpanists should know where their part fits into whatever the ensemble is playing.
    Ultimately the goal of any musician is to create a great sound, and technique is a tool to create that sound. If percussionists become more aware of the way they play their instruments, they are more likely to perform at a high level. In this article I will explain how to use each of the three main timpani grips to produce a legato stroke. These grips and approaches  are just a few of the factors in becoming a great timpanist.

The Fulcrum
    The main part of any grip, the fulcrum, is important for all struck percussion instruments. The fulcrum is the part of the stick or mallet that pivots while playing. Where exactly the fulcrum lies on the mallet varies based on mallet size and weight and hand size. Most players place their fulcrum so that the entire hand can wrap around the mallet with about half an inch to one inch of the mallet sticking out behind their hand. Students with smaller hands may choke up to maintain a solid grip. As far as the position in the hand, the fulcrum is between the thumb and index finger. The thumbs should be flush with the mallet so that the nail is pointing to the tip and the first joint of the index finger should be on the shaft. The thumb will be straight and the index finger will curve slightly around the mallet as seen below.

    It is important to have as little tension in the body as possible while playing. With the fulcrum there should be a firm but relaxed grip on the mallet. If the grip is too loose the mallet can fly out of the player’s hand after striking the drum. If it is too tight then the mallet will not rebound properly and the sound will be poor. This can also cause physical problems with the wrists and arms. If the student is holding the mallet too tight then their skin will turn red or white. It is preferable to have a grip that is more on the relaxed side than too tight.

The Back Fingers
    The back three fingers will wrap around the mallet but not grip it; if they hold the mallet too tightly, there is no room for the mallet to breathe and it cannot rebound correctly. These fingers can be used for playing rolls with certain techniques and also control the rebound to make sure the mallet does not bounce back uncontrollably. A common mistake is having the back fingers too far away from the mallet, as shown below. If the mallet is held this way, it becomes much harder to control the rebound and will prevent the player from getting a full resonant sound.

The Grips
    The three types of timpani grips are German, French, and American. These are by no means exclusive to the countries for which they are named; these are just the names that percussionists have associated with them. Each of these grips also has a nickname, which usually makes them easier to identify. The terms for these are also used for other percussion instruments but most commonly associated with timpani.

    The German grip is  also known as matched grip or snare drum grip because it looks and acts similarly to the grip commonly used for snare drum. While holding the mallets the back of the hands should face up with the thumbs facing inward towards each other. The mallets should produce about a 90-degree angle in front of the player. The player’s arms should be at a comfortable place over the drum, neither too high where the shoulders are lifted nor too low where they have to reach to strike the drum.

    The stroke used for timpani is called the piston stroke. To produce this properly, the mallet starts in the upward position, travels down to strike the drum, and then rebounds back up to where it began. All of this occurs with one smooth motion, not two individual ones. This is one of the big differences between using this grip on snare drum and using it on timpani. Timpani students will frequently force the mallet down into the head, which keeps the mallet against the head for too long. The mallet should lift out of the drum because the longer the mallet is on the head, the less it will resonate. It is imperative to use wrist with this stroke because using arm and shoulder motion prevents the mallet from rebounding and produces a dead sounding tone.
    Many teachers choose not to teach German grip to younger students, who may try to play the timpani like a snare drum. Other teachers prefer starting here because students are usually more comfortable with this grip. Young percussionists often play snare drum and mallet percussion long before trying timpani, so keeping a consistent grip can be beneficial so they do not have to learn a completely new technique.
    The German grip is more aggressive than the others and produces a darker tone. It can be a good grip to use for very articulate passages or when playing rolls to produce a smooth and even sound. The single stroke rolls used for mallet playing are also used, so it is possible to use the same idea when rolling on timpani. If employed properly this technique can produce a great sound, but it can be a hard grip to control, especially at first.

    The French grip is nicknamed the thumbs-up grip. With this technique the fulcrum is in the same place as before, but the hands will be rotated so the thumbs will face up rather than towards each other. A good way to think about it is to put your arms out as if shaking someone’s hand while holding a mallet. The position of the hands will also differ from that of the German grip. Instead of a 90-degree angle with the mallets, they will produce approximately a 20- to 30-degree angle, which causes the elbows to move away from the body.

    While producing this stroke there will be less wrist motion and more of a rotation with the arms. It is still important to let the mallet rebound and lift it away from the drum. Start with the mallets straight up, parallel to the body, then let them drop towards the drum and lift them back. Do not lift the mallet back before dropping it because that will change the tone; simply let gravity take over. One way to approach this is to start and end the stroke at the same place, parallel with the body. Use the thumbs to help lead the mallet down so that it will go straight down and straight back up.
    A great stretch to go with this grip is the prayer stretch. To do this stretch place the palms of both hands together directly in front of the chest with the fingers facing up. This stretch causes the elbows to point out. Next, rotate the wrists so that the fingers move forward, and then bring them back to where they started. This will not only stretch the arms and wrist, but it is the same motion used when producing the stroke.
    The French grip produces a brighter tone and makes it easier to play legato and let the mallets rebound. When crossing the mallets, this technique can  help avoid hitting them together. Initially this grip will feel quite uncomfortable. It is not a grip that players will be used to, so it is common to get some negative response when first teaching it. After it becomes more familiar, the negativity will usually disappear. I teach this technique first because playing timpani is quite different from playing any other percussion instrument. The mentality is different, so I use a different grip to make sure that students will approach the instrument in a different way.

    The last grip is most commonly referred to as the American grip. One reason why some people teach this grip is because it can help ease a player into eventually using French grip. They will start them with American grip and slowly make the transition to the French grip.
    This grip is fairly ambiguous, and there is little literature about it. Few percussionists over the last century have even heard of the term, but many have used the grip in some fashion. Some players develop this grip out of habit. It can be a natural and comfortable choice because it tends to lie well in the hands. However, students who come into the habit of using this comfortable grip may without training may become lazy and stop listening to the sound created.

    The fulcrum is exactly the same as the other grips, but the thumbs are not straight up or facing each other; they are in the middle of the two. The angle of the mallets can be anywhere between 90 and 20 degrees. Because the stroke is a mix of the other grips, players should use both wrist and arm rotation to get good sound out of the drums. Many players who use this stroke use more arm than they would with the other strokes; that motion is similar to the Moeller stroke, where the arms use a whip like motion. It starts with the shoulders and moves through the arm and into the mallet. Other players still use a piston stroke to get a full, resonant sound. The angle of the hands can make it difficult to move the mallets straight up and down, so timpanists taking this approach should pay careful attention to the stroke. If the mallet comes down at an angle, it will produce a thin, undesirable tone.
    In the 20th and 21st centuries there has been a major rise in the number of approaches to timpani technique. Many timpanists experiment with various ways of playing and do not use one grip exclusively. Sometimes it can be beneficial to use more than one grip if needed. It is best to start students on one grip and once they mature, have them try to experiment with the other grips. The most important aspect to focus on is the sound that is created. Skill with various techniques is a helpful, but the tone and touch of the instrument matters the most.