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The Reasons Why You Should Learn Your Scales on Timpani

September 12th, 2019 by Louis Raymond-Kolker

If your teacher came up to you right now and asked you to play an F major scale on timpani, could you do it?

It’s a ridiculous request, right? You’ll probably never need to play an F major scale on timpani for a wind ensemble or orchestra concert, and you probably won’t even have to play an F major scale for your all-region audition or jury piece. And the drums are so big! And the gauges don’t even work! So why should you learn it? I have two reasons:

1) It’s about the scales.

When you play a scale on a keyboard instrument, there’s a lot of information for you to process. You have to think about what notes to play, what order to play them in, where you’re going to strike the bar on the accidentals, what sticking you’re going to use... and that doesn’t even cover basic questions like your technique (posture, stick height, grip) and your musical considerations (tone quality, volume, phrasing). Playing scales ain’t easy.

But if you’ve been playing your scales for a couple of years, this somewhat difficult task becomes more automatic. You can rely on the fact that you probably know where the notes are, you probably know how to hold mallets, and you probably know how to play a cohesive musical line — then when you practice scales, you can just check in on these aspects one at a time.

If you’ve never played your scales on timpani, chances are that a lot of this information isn’t automatic yet. Let’s think of what it takes to play a scale:

Where are you putting your notes?

What drum is that F going to sound best on? What drum is the A going to sound best on? Is it easier to pedal a half step E-F on the 23”, or go all the way up to E on the 26”?

When are you pedaling?

If you're this guy, never.

The coordination to play and tune at the same time is not easy — but just like learning to play with all four limbs at the same time on drumset, or pedal and play vibraphone, or march and play a drum, all it really takes is slow practice and thinking about coordination. After some time passes, you won’t have to think about it as hard anymore.

How’s your technique? How’s your posture? How’s your tuning?

Are you standing up or sitting down? Do you want a quick piston stroke or a more legato stroke? How’s your playing area? Are you getting a good pitch on every drum, or are you overshooting by a half step?

This is all to say — and I’ll speak for myself here — there’s a ton of room to improve, questions to answer, and processes to make automatic (just like scales on keyboards) that you can learn just by playing your scales on timpani. The goal isn’t to be perfect at them (yet), or to breeze through them kind of haphazardly, but is instead to focus on something that makes you better. And the fun part is once you’ve mastered all of your major scales, and you’re used to 10 or so tuning changes per rep, the 2-drum tuning change in the middle of your next audition piece or jury is going to be a piece of cake. That said...

2) It’s not about the scales.

I know. Scales were a big deal just a second ago! But stick with me (pun intended).

I’m a firm believer that percussionists should study all percussion instruments as thoroughly as they can, as much as time and access to instruments allow. Some people will gravitate towards snare drum, or marimba, or steel pan, or tambourine, but I think that everyone should know as much as they can about everything.

Why? One reason that I hear a lot is that you never want to turn down a gig because you can’t play an instrument. If your favorite rock band was going on tour tomorrow, and they wanted YOU to drum, you’d probably do anything to take the gig, right? But if you don’t know how to play drum set, that might be an issue to bring up before you get on the tour bus.

Another reason is that every instrument you study makes you better at other instruments. When your brain stretches a certain way to learn instrument X, it is more flexible and adaptable when you come back to instrument Y. I was a way better marimba player after I did a season of DCI on drumset, because my time was way more solid after drumming for 12 hours a day for a month.

But the main reason that I’m on my timpani soapbox (kettle-stal?) is because the work you put in is your way of saying “this is important to me.” If you put in the hours to make your timpani (or triangle, or snare drum, or vibraphone) playing awesome, you’re not only telling yourself that the instrument matters to you - you're telling everyone who watches or hears you play, too. As someone who’s responsible for playing a bunch of instruments, it’s a big show of self-respect to be able to feel great about every instrument you touch.

The cool thing about this is that once you start thinking about it this way - relating instruments to other instruments - you’ll come up with some really wild combinations. Can you play your rudiments on snare drum? Hopefully! So can you play your rudiments on marimba? Why not! Practice flams with two mallets and see how good it makes your grace notes sound. Practice 9-stroke rolls with 4-mallet permutations and you’ll wind up with a sweet ripple roll. Practice your backward inverted cheeses off the left with 6 mallets and... well, maybe don’t do that one.


So, in short, here are a few things you can do to become a better percussionist:

  1. Learn your timpani scales. Or at least start to. Think about what it would take to make it happen - you'll learn a lot in the process.
  2. Approach every instrument with curiosity. Don't let yourself say "I can't do that" without a good reason. If something hasn't happened yet, it might just be because nobody's tried it yet, or because nobody's worked hard enough to make it good. Be the person who works hard enough to do something new, well.
  3. Find inspiration! There are so many awesome percussionists out in the world, and a ton of them are doing new, exciting things. One of my timpani heroes right now is Dr. Diana Loomer, who can play some wild stuff on timpani (and some mean steelpan, and marimba, and drum set - you name it).

If you’re looking for timpani resources:

Be sure to check out our selection of timpani method books, solos, and mallets. Happy practicing, and please share your thoughts, timpani tips, and instrument-crossing combinations in the comments!

Louis started working here in August of 2019. He enjoys playing percussion, writing music, and making terrible puns.

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