The Calfskin Experiment


It's 2:00 AM and I, with the help of my very patient wife Sylvia, have finished "tucking" my first calfskin timpani head (the part of the drum we actually strike). While this 3-hour process seemed to go pretty well, I won't know if I was truly successful for another 24 hours. During that time, I will place wet sheets of manila paper on the head every 2 or 3 hours in order to insure that the hide remains tucked into the hoop. Soon I will know whether half a week's salary and many hours of labor led to something wonderful, or a piece of junk.

A timpani head is composed of two elements: a hoop and a membrane affixed to the hoop. The first useful plastic heads came on the market in the late 1950s and have many advantages: the pitch and sound remain stable in all kinds of heat and humidity, and they are much cheaper (around $110 per head, compared to $400- $1000 for calf). Today, plastic heads are available everywhere, but timpanists must get their hides from a single factory in Ireland.

Why bother with calf if it so expensive and troublesome? While plastic heads can sound excellent, calfskin has a warm tone that plastic heads have never been able to match. Once one hears timpani with both calf and plastic heads, the difference is easy to detect. Upon learning that Mozart would be the focus for our 2016-17 Festival, I decided this was the perfect opportunity to bring calfskin timpani heads back to the San Antonio Symphony for the first time in over 50 years.

While many timpanists in the largest US orchestras use calf heads at least some of the time, they all have more than one set of drums onsite, usually in a dedicated percussion storage room with good climate control and limited access for everyone else. The room at the Tobin Center where our only set of timpani are stored is shared with other groups and travelling acts. It is usually impossible to access this room unless we are performing in the HEB Hall. Maestro Lang-Lessing grew up in Germany, where calf heads are the standard. I knew he would support this project, but with little access and no backup set of drums onsite, I could walk in for a rehearsal only to find that we have no usable timpani. While it required investing an uncomfortable amount of my own money, I decided to purchase a pair of older timpani with copper bowls that are more in keeping with the smaller diameter and depth Mozart would have known. They are also more portable, so I can fit them in a minivan and move them back to my house, where the access is limited to the people who should be able to get at the drums and I know the temperature and humidity will stay fairly steady.

So, how did my first attempt to tuck calfskin heads turn out? I'm thrilled at the results and I know you will be too when we debut the drums during the 2nd week of our Mozart Festival (January 13-14). I hope you enjoy these "new old" instruments as much as I enjoyed the process of preparing them for the orchestra. Performing on my own calfskin heads has been a major goal of mine since I was a student watching my teacher perform with the Cleveland Orchestra. If all goes well, perhaps we will be able to get a grant that would allow us to use calfskin heads for the majority of our performances. Stay tuned!


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