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Rohan Shotton (principal timpani) began playing percussion as a seven year-old, largely on the grounds that he was the only one tall enough to be able to use or move the equipment. Since then he has kept up with regular playing in various places, and he says that music has provided many of his happiest experiences.

“The other part of hislife is as a doctor in South Manchester, having also studied in St Andrews. Whilst in Scotland he was lucky to find an enormous number of playing opportunities with various University and public groups, mainly sitting behind the timpani but also in the percussion section. Highlights included Mahler 1 in Dundee, a thrilling Dvorak 9 and a Dream of Gerontius on an utterly packed stage.

“He also took up conducting in St Andrews, mainly with the University Wind Band and assisting with the Symphony Orchestra, having studied with Sian Edwards, a truly wonderful teacher.

When not playing he spends a lot of time attending concerts. I have been reviewing concerts for Bachtrack for several years, In that time he has been privileged to cover many excellent events, including Daniel Barenboim’s Beethoven cycle at the Proms.

The notation of timpani parts is as delightfully ambiguous and confusing as is the case for most other instruments of the orchestra. In the early days, composers did not even feel it necessary to write out a part for the unfortunate timpanist, requiring him to invent a part for himself as the performance proceeded. In classical times, two timpani was the standard complement, traditionally tuned to the tonic and dominant of the prevailing tonality. Notes were written as C and G on the part, the actual tuning required being indicated at the start of each movement thereby turning the timpani into
transposing instruments [see (a)]. But, confusingly, this was not the universal practice: Bach, Mozart and Schubert (but only in his Second Symphony) used this system, but Handel, Haydn and Beethoven did not. They preferred to shown the notes at their actual pitch on the score [b].

A further ambiguity relates to the matter of rolls: the rapid alternate use of two sticks on a single drum to give a virtually continuous sound. Some composers (for example, Mozart) indicate this on the timpani part as a trill [c], despite the fact that for every other instrument such an instruction would require two adjacent notes to be played in rapid succession. But to confuse the issue, other composers (such as Haydn) prefer to show a roll as a sequence of semiquavers, demisemiquavers or even hemidemisemiquavers, often with no consistency even within a single work [d]. Beethoven even managed the rare feat of using both notations within a single prestissimo bar at the end of his Fifth Symphony [e]. Exactly what he had in mind is really anyone's guess. As might be expected, Hector Berlioz (himself a timpanist) left nothing to chance, specifying his requirements in absolute detail [f]. It is also typical of Berlioz that he should hold the record for the greatest number of timpani in a standard repertoire composition: eight pairs of timpani played by ten timpanists in his Grande Messe des morts.

Before the introduction of pedal timpani, composers had to take care to allow a timpanist time to retune if they wished to change key within a movement (timpanists are adept at retuning their drums even while the orchestra is playing at full volume all around them). But where this was inconvenient musically, composers would often accept an out-of-tune timpani stroke rather then having to manage with none at all; where such a situation is encountered today, a pedal timpanist will invariably correct the note without the audience, the orchestra or even the conductor being any the wiser.

For many years, the Alderley Edge Orchestra used timpani that were manufactured in London around 1920 by Hawkes & Son, a company founded in 1865 by William Henry Hawkes. The company followed a rival course to Boosey & Company, concentrating on band and orchestral music publishing, but also diversifying into the manufacture of instruments, fittings and reeds. A merger of the two companies, to form Boosey & Hawkes, took place in 1930. Although these venerable drums had acquired a few understandable dents over the years, they had regularly been fitted with new skins as required and sounded as good as when they left the Edmonton factory a century ago.

Sadly, however, the orchestra has finally had to move with the times and change to the pedal timpani shown in the photograph above. This change has been brought about by the change in the orchestra's repertoire in recent years that has resulted in the playing of larger scale works requiring more rapid retuning of timpani than can be achieved by manual drums.