As one of these strange beings, I can say that a tympanist is much more than 'one who beats a drum.' Percussionists in an orchestra get the sharp end of all the jokes ("What do you call someone who hangs round musicians? A percussionist!") and have a lot of hard work. Tympanists are never short of exercise because, after rehearsals and concerts, when everyone else is having fun at the bar, the percussion section has to drag, carry, and roll (very delicately) their instruments to storage/the van. The beating part is also harder than it looks. Trombonists are the only other musicians who truly appreciate how hard it is to keep count of bars in a dull piece of music, and even they do not realise the effort that goes into playing the tympani.

Perhaps the chief difficulty is that the swing has to start before the beat. Normally, this is quite easy to compensate for, but in a large orchestra (with a long time delay for the sound to travel from the back of the orchestra to the audience) and if the beat has to be very loud (or forte) and very sudden, it is like trying to balance a keyboard on a knife-edge. The most downheartening part of the job (or hobby, as it is for me) is that people assume, as in the joke above, that percussionists are failed musicians. Most of the persussionists *I* know also play the piano, and almost perfect pitch is required, expecially when one has to tune the tympani to different notes during the piece, with the orchestra playing over the sound of the note. This can get quite interesting, especially as it is important not to let the audience hear the tympani.

All in all, next time you see a tympanist (or any sort of percussionist) in the pub, buy him or her a drink. Mine'll be a double, thanks.

Tym"pa*nist (?), n. [L. tympaniste, Gr. .]

One who beats a drum.

[R.]

 

© Webster 1913.

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