Marine Barracks Annex, Washington, DC --
On Sunday, Feb. 5, percussionist Gunnery Sgt. David Constantine will perform Jeff Tyzik’s Concerto for Timpani as part of the band’s Showcase Series concert titled “American Traditions.” The concert is free and open to the public and will take place at 2 p.m. at the Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall and Arts Center. The concert consists of an all-American lineup, with works by Leonard Bernstein, Morton Gould, John Philip Sousa, and modern-day works from living American composers. Tyzik wrote Concerto for Timpani in 2013 and Constantine discovered it in recent years.
“I listened to the piece and really liked it—timpani has always been my favorite instrument,” Constantine said. “This is a very jazzy piece, so this concerto is the perfect way for me to put those different worlds together—jazz and classical. Throughout the piece the timpani simulates multiple roles; from string bass player, to soloist and accompanist. With the timpani in front of the ensemble, you can hear and see what the instrument is really capable of. So this is a really cool way to bring that forward as a melodic instrument instead of just a drum bass instrument.”
Concert Program and Notes
But what even is the timpani? And is it “timpani” or “timpanies” or “timpany?” “Timpani is a drum,” Constantine explained. “It’s a copper bowl with a drum head over the top of it and you hit it with mallets. And it’s timpani—singular, and timpani—plural, like deer and deer. It’s a melodic instrument, it’s a solo instrument. It’s everything.”
When asked how timpani can be a solo instrument, Constantine explained: “With timpani it’s almost as much visual as it is music. When you’re in the back of the ensemble, yes the audience can see and hear them. But performing on timpani as a solo instrument, I try to do things a little bit out of the ordinary whether it’s choreography-wise or ‘sticking’ to make it a little more showy and demonstrate what the instrument is really capable of.”
Constantine added: “When a melodic line is written for the timpani, the composer doesn’t say put this note on that drum and this other note on that other drum. It’s up to me to look at that musical line and figure out how to arrange my sticking, pedaling, and tuning scheme so that each note will sound its best.”
Since the average concertgoer may have never experienced a timpani solo, Constantine explains “sticking,” “pedaling,” “tuning” and “building his instrument.”
“Think of sticking like fingering on a wind instrument. You have to figure out which fingering you’re going to use to play a certain line. With percussion you have to figure out how you’re going to get around the instrument to make that melodic line come out. Oftentimes melodies on percussion aren’t written very idiomatically, meaning it’s not easy to play on that instrument but the composer has a certain melody or line in mind and it’s up to us to figure out how to make that happen on the instrument. So an ascending chromatic line, for example, looks cool and sounds cool, but on the timpani it’s difficult to do because you only have a certain number of drums. An octave chromatic scale is 12 notes—so how do you make 12 notes come out of four drums. With sticking and pedaling involved, it’s a lot of choreography and just figuring out how to make it all happen.”
“The timpani are unique in that every drum has a pedal and some have a hand-operated chain. So you can change the pitch of each drum ahead of time or on the fly, meaning I can play a note and then pedal and play another note to become a different pitch. And each drum has a specific range. My lowest drum can go from a low C to a B-flat so I have that whole range to play with.
I went through and counted and I have 111 pedal changes—111 pitch changes from beginning to end. You’re using the pedals to change the pitch. There are times where there are chromatic lines and there are times where there are melodic lines and as the harmonies are changing I’m changing the pitches on the drums with the pedals. There are times when I’m changing which pitches are on which drums to make it playable.”
“All the drums have tuning gauges so when I move the pedal there’s a little pointer and note indicators; the pointer will move and tell you which pitch the drum is on. I’ll tune the drums before rehearsals and performances to make sure they are as close as possible using my ear and a tuning fork. I’ll use those as only a reference because the intonation of the ensemble is going to change throughout the performance. That’s always going to happen. So being able to use the gauges that I know are correct at A is 440 Hz, but in the performance I’m always using my ear to fine tune that as well, so in addition to the 111 pedal changes I’m always listening and my feet are always moving around and making micro adjustments to make sure that I’m still in tune. I’m always making adjustments.”
Building the Instrument
“I’m using 7 timpani for this. The score doesn’t dictate how many timpani to use, I just had to figure that out. One of the things I really enjoy about playing percussion and timpani is that every time we play a multiple percussion piece or timpani piece or drum set piece, we’re building a new instrument. I don’t see it as playing seven timpani, I see it as playing the timpani I’ve created for this piece. I don’t have it set up from biggest smallest, and I’m turning in circles to make it happen. It’s a very unconventional set up and I’m doing some unconventional things, but I had to figure that out and that’s one of the fun things about this piece.”
Read More about the Concert