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The Timpani, Pt. 2

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours
SC Public Radio

More today about the timpani, or kettledrums. The “kettle” of a kettledrum is called the “bowl,” and is made of copper or brass. The “head” of the drum, the surface that the player strikes, is a piece of Mylar plastic stretched over the rim of the bowl. Timpani heads were originally made of calfskin, but calfskin is very sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity, and it’s expensive, so although some players still prefer the sound of calfskin heads, these days most players stick with plastic. Tuning the drums to specific pitches is a matter of adjusting the tension of the drumheads—tighter for higher, looser for lower. This is done with a pedal mechanism on most modern timpani, although hand screws around the rim are still used for fine adjustments. And if you see a timpanist bending over his instrument during a concert with his ear close to the drumheads, it’s because timpanists often have to tune their drums to different pitches while everybody else is playing.

A Minute with Miles is a production of South Carolina ETV Radio, made possible by the J.M. Smith Corporation.

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Miles Hoffman is the founder and violist of the American Chamber Players, with whom he regularly tours the United States, and the Virginia I. Norman Distinguished Visiting Professor of Chamber Music at the Schwob School of Music, in Columbus, Georgia. He has appeared as viola soloist with orchestras across the country, and his solo performances on YouTube have received well over 700,000 views.