The timpani, or kettledrums were the original percussion instrument of the orchestra. The “kettle” of a kettledrum is called the “bowl,” and is made of copper or brass. The “head” of the drum, the surface that the player strikes, is a piece of Mylar plastic stretched over the rim of the bowl.
Timpani heads were originally made of calfskin, but calfskin is very sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity, and it’s expensive, so although some players still prefer the sound of calfskin heads, these days most players stick with plastic. Tuning the drums to specific pitches is a matter of adjusting the tension of the drumheads—tighter for higher, looser for lower. This is done with a pedal mechanism on most modern timpani, although hand screws around the rim are still used for fine adjustments. And if you see a timpanist bending over his instrument during a concert with his ear close to the drumheads, it’s because timpanists often have to tune their drums to different pitches while everybody else is playing.
A Minute with Miles – a production of South Carolina Public Radio, made possible by the J.M. Smith Corporation.