Timpani, or kettledrums, can be traced back to Europe from around the 13th century. Like many other percussion instruments, the original use for timpani was for military or state occasions. The shells are made of copper although ceremonial drums have been made of silver. Timpani are generally 20″ to 32″ in diameter. Timpani players have certain problems and peculiarities that no other orchestral principal or percussionist has to contend with, such as tuning and function.
Timpani are the major instrument of the drum family and are seen as the leader in the orchestral percussion section. A good timpanist must have good stick technique. The mallets used in playing this instrument can be gripped in two ways: Matched grip, in which the palm faces down and the stick pivots between the thumb and the main joint of the index finger (similar to a matched snare grip), or the French grip, in which the thumb is on the top of the stick is pivoted between the end of the thumb and the smaller joint of the index joint. When rolls are played on the timpani, the use of rapid single strokes is required because the large, loose head does not make for good buzz strokes like a snare head. The normal playing spot on the head is about 4″ from the rim. A good timpanist must also have the skill of tuning. Generally the player is sitting on a throne so he can function pedals, which can adjust the tuning of each drum. The musician must have a trained ear that can recognize intervals and switch tuning quickly.