More secrets of the timpanist revealed- The Third Stick

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?

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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12 comments on “More secrets of the timpanist revealed- The Third Stick”

  1. Stephen P Brown

    I’m now a conductor (who composes, too). I started my professional life as a percussionist. Nothing much closer to the truth, however evil, is stated above. Thanks, Kenneth, for giving our secrets away!

    I did learn very early on from the long-time timpanist of the BBC Symph that more often than not, not even changing sticks at all but just playing a little differently can also make a world of difference to a non-listening conductor (By non-listening, I mean conductors who hear the sound in their head rather than what is being produced.) It worked a charm for me for many years 😉

  2. Robin

    Vi FB

    Nice one, Ken. Explains a few timpanist-liaison moments I’ve, ahem, “experienced” in the past. Some can be wonderful, of course. But my prime gripe is how many of them fail to understand where they should appear in the overall orchestral fabric.

  3. Eric C

    Via FB

    I agree the conductor should feel able to ask for a change in sticks. However, asking straight away for harder sticks can miss the opportunity for the timpanist to provide the desired change in sound by (I) a bit more snap in the wrist, (ii) change the point of attack on the timp head, or even (iii) strike the head a bit harder! Any of these can sometimes be a better musical option. The great conductors like yourself know this. The rest deserve the tactics outlined in your blog!

  4. Sasha

    Via FB

    Best way to avoid this kind of scene is to become friends with a _good_ timpanist who will be happy to tell you everything about his instrument of choice. Same goes with percussion. Be genuinely interested and the musicians will showcase you with all the options for different colors possible to create with their gear. The sad thing is that there are also percussionists who don’t even care how a triangle sounds…

  5. Kenneth Woods

    Eric- I completely agree on both points. The most important thing a conductor needs to be able to do efficiently is communicate how he or she wants it to sound- not what the player should do or what piece of kit they should employ to do it. However, sometimes it’s best to get to the point- if you know stick A or mute B isn’t going to work, say so and save a lot of time beating around the bush.

  6. Kenneth Woods

    Sasha- you’re right, of course. It really pays to build a positive relationship outside of rehearsal- that’s the easiest time to really get to know what is possible. One thing I liked about my time as a cover conductor (not a job I particularly miss!) was being able to pick the brains of great players. Eugene Espino in Cincinnati was an incredibly charismatic timpanist, and very generous about sharing his trade secrets with serious minded young conductors. I’d guess you did much the same in Cleveland.

  7. Stephen P Brown

    Best point yet made: ask for the result, not the technique (can’t believe I didn’t even mention that in my previous post!)

  8. Sean Flora

    This is quite similar to the fabled “producer fader” studio trick. (The fader that does nothing.)

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  11. Craig Zerbe

    When working with professionals, it is much better to ask for what you want from a musical result rather than technical. Can you imagine asking the the oboist, “Could you use a harder reed there,” or trumpet player, “What other mouth pieces do you have?” No matter how you ask it, a professional timpanist is rolling their eyes when a conductor asks specifically for different mallets. On the other hand, ask for it softer, more staccato, legato, heavy, etc… they will be more than happy to oblige. Your request may indeed necessitate a change of mallets, but let the professional decide how best to deliver what you are asking for. If it isn’t staccato, legato, etc…. enough, just say so. I have both played timpani and conducted professionally.

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