by Al Payson
Muting is given little attention by most student timpanists, but professionals know that it is an important aspect of timpani performance. Making the most advantageous use of mutes requires a basic knowledge of how timpani head vibrates, so here is a primer:
You can demonstrate this to yourself by placing a mute or handkerchief or similar object on the head at the perimeter, and slowly dragging it to the center while at the same time playing repeated strokes with a mallet. You will notice that the areas of minimum muting are, as would be expected, at the two nodes (edge and center), and the area of maximum muting is half-way in between (illus. #2).
The other way a timpani head vibrates is with diametric nodes that bisect the entire circumference of the head. The location of the axis of each diametric node is determined by where the head is struck. The axis of the most prominent node is located 90 degrees from where the head is struck (illus. #3). Another way of envisioning this is that when the head is struck at the “south pole”, it vibrates in halves with the axis at the “equator”, and the “northern hemisphere” moving opposite the “southern hemisphere”.
You can demonstrate this to yourself by placing a mute or handkerchief or similar object at point “a” in illus. #4, and slowly dragging it in a semi-circle around to point “b” while at the same time playing repeated strokes at the point indicated. You will notice that the areas of minimum muting are at the diametric node.
By making a composite of the two primary circular nodes and the diametric node, we can see the resulting vibration pattern of the head (illus. #5).
The darkest shadings represent the areas of largest amplitude, while the lightest shadings represent the areas of smallest amplitude (nodes).
Now let’s go on to look at ways of using the above information advantageously.
* Note in illus. #5 that if you want less tha maximum muting, you can move the mute in any direction away from the spot of maximum resonance, with equal results; however, the least distance required in going from maximum to minimum muting is directly “north” or “south”. Moving the mute due “north” or “south” is not always the most advantageous, however. When muting must be done by eye rather than by ear (i.e., during performance, where pre-testing is not possible), many timpanists position the mute at 12, 1, 2 or 3 o’clock.
* It would be well to keep in mind that you can change the degree of muting by changing the beating spot rather than changing the location of the mute. this is sometimes very advantageous. For example, suppose you have the following passage, and in order to articulate the rhythm you place a mute directly opposite from your normal beating spot. But upon commencing to play the passage, you discover the head is muted too much. There is not time to move the mute, but you have the option of simply moving the mallets gradually to the left and right until the desired amount of articulation is reached (illus #6).
* Taking the above one step further, try the following: in the next musical sample, play the 16th note triplet figure at location “a” and the eighth notes (played with the right hand only) at location “b” (illus. #7).
It is obviously very important that the mute stay exactly where you place it, no matter how long or loud you play. Give your mute the acid test. Place it on the area of maximum vibration, then play a fast rhythmic figure at the fortissimo level for about 30 seconds. The mute should not creep in any direction. The Rhapsody Stay-Put Mute is the only one I know of that will pass this ultimate test. Yet it’s so inexpensive and easy to use! Why be without it?
The Stay-Put Timpani Mute is a uniquely-designed timpani mute that will not creep; even when the drum is played fortissimo for an extended period of time. Yet it can be quickly removed and the degree of muffling and placement of the timpani mute can be infinitely adjusted.
The Stay-Put Timpani Mute also works well on a tom-tom, tenor drum, field drum, snare drum, or any upright drum you feel may need muffling.
***Color will vary