I’ve never subscribed to the notion that a conductor should be embargoed from asking a timpanist to change sticks. After all, the conductor should have a concept of sound for the whole band that figures in the timpani, and if you (the conductor) are experienced enough to know that a stick change is the only way to get the sound you want, I say go ahead and ask. After all, if you have ears to hear, you’re in a better place than the timpanist to know how the drums sound in context. It’s important to build trust- if your timpanist trusts that you are motivated solely by a desire for them to sound like a badass they’re far more likely to welcome your advice than if they suspect you’re just a narcissistic control freak. It’s like asking for a particular bowing from the strings- ask away, but make sure you know what you’re talking about before you open your mouth.
Some conductors, of course, take this privilege too far, abusing their office and messing about in a level of minutiae that ought to be the province of the player. Chances are, if the conductor asks for a stick change more than once in a typical rehearsal, either the timpanist is a hack, or the conductor is a pain in the ass. (Of course, it’s possible and not all that unlikely for a timpanist to be a hack, and for a conductor to be a pain in the ass in the same orchestra at the same time).
But how should a professional player best manage these situations so as to fulfil the conductor’s (hopefully) larger vision of the sound world of the work, while remaining true to their own artistic vision as an instrumentalist?
I hope it doesn’t cause any discomfort if I credit the great timpanist John Tafoya, latterly of the National Symphony and now a professor at Indiana University, with the best solution for dealing with a conductor who never met a timpani entrance that didn’t need a stick change. John told me that he got fed up with never getting to use his best sticks with certain maestri since he always had to change, so he came up with a fool proof system for always getting to use his preferred kit when working with one of those conductors. It’s a method called “the third stick.” I can’t speak to how often John used this method in his professional life, but I think it’s worth studying on philosophical grounds alone. Here’s how it works:
Step one- play the passage with sticks you don’t particularly want to use. Conductor will stop the orchestra and ask for a harder stick unless the passage obviously calls for a harder stick, in which case, the conductor will ask for a softer stick.
Step two- play the passage with sticks you REALLY don’t want to use under any circumstances. Conductor will tell you that’s “much better but-” still a bit (choose one) too ponticello, too flautando or too alla breve.
Step three- play the passage with the sticks you planned to use all along. Conductor will tell you it’s “Marvellous- just the right amount flautando! With a lovely touch of alla breve!”
Works every time (or so I’m told).
This method works equally well for choosing triangles, crash cymbals, trumpet mutes and offstage sopranos in Mahler 8.
Years later, I came up with an even more sinister variant of John’s “third stick” method. It’s more expensive- if you really want to test your conductor, bring an extra copy of the “third stick” and use it as your first choice. Stand back and be amazed by all the differences the conductor hears between the two pairs of identical kit. I bet you never knew one set of Vic Firth Violacloberrer 6000’s could sound so much more alla breve than another, did you?