“Someone once said that a major league baseball umpire had the only job where one was expected to start perfectly and improve from there,” writes Thomas N. Akins in his new memoir Behind the Copper Fence: A Lifetime on Timpani, self-published last fall and available at www.behindthecopperfence.com. “I beg to differ. Holding a chair in a major symphony orchestra, especially a principal chair and most especially the principal timpani chair, brings with it the same demands. Simply put: they don’t pay us to miss!” Yet the rewards of the principal timpanist’s job may be commensurate with its demands: “For most of my professional life,” Akins continues, “I’ve had the best seat in the house—often in the center of the stage, frequently in the spotlight, always in the clear view of conductors and the audience and constantly amid the passions that come with making good music.”
Behind the Copper Fence is Akins’s wide-ranging reminiscence about his performing career, an insider’s look at the challenges, curiosities, joys, and occasional disappointments of playing a very visible and exposed instrument. From 1965 to 1991 he was principal timpanist of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, a chair that is now endowed and titled in his honor; after stepping down from that post he brought another set of talents to bear at the ISO, serving as the orchestra’s director of public relations and archives from 1991 until his retirement in 2007. The book focuses on artistic and practical aspects of his life as an orchestral musician. Akins describes his formative years as a professional timpanist, which included seven summers (1960-66) in the American Symphony Orchestra League’s Institute for Orchestral Studies; the experience of premiering William Kraft’s Timpani Concerto No. 1 with the Indianapolis Symphony in 1984; and his collaboration with such eminent figures as Arthur Fiedler, Raymond Leppard, Henry Mancini, and Doc Severinsen.
The following material from Behind the Copper Fence is excerpted from Chapter 19, “Controlling the Weather and Other Feats of Magic.” With characteristic humor and candor, Akins describes the unique challenges faced by timpanists in combatting the vagaries of temperature and humidity; recalls his contribution to the “build a better mousetrap” movement in timpani design; and offers a smile-inducing glimpse at the backstage politics and pranksterism of life in an orchestra.
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Most timpanists that I know have not earned a degree in meteorology, but most of us have learned, usually the hard way, that paying attention to the weather is a good idea. In particular, the amount of humidity in the air is of special concern. All musical instruments are affected by weather conditions, humidity especially, and good concert halls go to great lengths to control the humidity levels inside the building, particularly in the stage area. Many major symphony orchestras have clauses in their master agreements that require strict monitoring and maintenance of optimum conditions.
Interestingly enough, not only is it the humidity, or lack thereof, in the air on stage, but also it is that same measurement of the air inside the timpani bowl that makes life interesting for a timpanist. Since many timpanists play on heads that are made of calfskin, and since calfskin is critically affected by the amount of humidity in the air, extraordinary efforts are often required to make certain that the heads perform as expected. Too much humidity in the air means that the extra moisture is absorbed by the calfskin, thus causing it to lose tension and allowing the pitch to go down. Too little humidity creates the reverse effect—the head tightens and the pitch goes up. It’s tough enough keeping the heads at the correct pitch without having to chase humidity changes all night long. Managing the weather conditions inside the timpani bowl is a constant part of the job.
To offset this ultra-sensitivity to humidity, drum companies began to develop plastic heads in the 1950s. The first versions had little sonority and often tended to pull loose from their mounting. Research and development over several years solved all of the pulling problems and led to heads that sounded quite close to the calfskin version. Under absolutely ideal conditions, most timpanists believe that calfskin is superior in sound to plastic, but for various reasons, mostly due to weather, ideal conditions occur about three days each year. Because of that, many timpanists, this one included, believe that plastic is the answer. My Remo clear heads served me well for over twenty years. Some players prefer the opaque heads (milky white) while others now use Remo’s Renaissance model, which is a plastic designed to look like calf.
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Playing on plastic heads still doesn’t guarantee immunity from adverse weather conditions. Timpanists who play calfskin indoors are likely to use plastic outdoors, but even then, strange things can happen. We made an annual summer appearance in Bluffton, Indiana, performing outside at the county fairgrounds. Of course, if it had been raining we would have been moved indoors, but the night started nicely, weather-wise. Then the night air set in. Dew? General dampness? I felt like that old cartoon character that had his own private rain cloud over his head. Whatever the cause, condensation began to collect on my heads, restricting their vibration and generally turning me into a four-headed bass drum. I signaled our stage crew to bring me a rag or something. I wiped off the moisture and continued to play. It didn’t take long for more moisture to appear, and the battle was on. We ran out of rags and used an entire roll of paper towels, trying to stay ahead of the dampness. I managed to play most of the notes that night, in between wiping the heads dry while providing entertainment for my colleagues who sat close by.
In my early days in Indianapolis, I had become friendly with Don Canedy who was a top executive with the Rogers Drum Company. Before moving to Fullerton, California, they were located in Dayton, Ohio, only a short drive for me. My principal involvement with the company was as “consultant” and “test pilot” for the development of their new line of timpani. This was 100 percent a Don Canedy production, and he was determined to “build a better mousetrap.” He supervised a long list of tests and experiments, trying to find the best design and materials for what he was certain would revolutionize the timpani world, especially that part of it that resided outside the boundaries of major symphony orchestra stages.
Upon walking into the factory one day, I was greeted by a smiling Canedy who said, “The acoustical tests are complete. Guess what bowl material sounds best according to all of the metered measurements?” For centuries, copper had been the material of choice for the finest bowls produced by manufacturers world-wide, but from the grin on Don’s face, I got the impression that copper would not be the correct answer that day. Some companies had tried fiberglass, but that wasn’t an acoustical paradise by any means, so I resisted that guess. Don could contain himself no longer. “It’s concrete!” he said with the pride of a man who had just discovered the secret of eternal youth. My response was obvious. “Surely, you’re not going to do that, are you?” I said. “No,” he assured me, “that’s a little too far out there, even for us.”
The most practical material that had tested well was acrylic which could be painted on the inside, thus not showing scratches or dents. Don’s tests further convinced him that the “breather hole” in the bottom of the bowl was highly over-rated, and the Rogers timpani bowls were an intact hemisphere. He devised a pedal mechanism that provided an extended range for each drum, so much so that a standard set measured three inches less in diameter on each drum as compared to other brands. I loved them and used them in every non-ISO situation in which I played. Colleagues praised their sound, but they never really caught on nationwide. The pedal adjustments were not foolproof, and educators didn’t seem to be able to cope with what was really a simple system. Look for them in a museum near you.
When Rogers moved to Fullerton, Don did his best to persuade me to make the move with them. “I’ll change your life,” he promised. Without a doubt, that would have become true, but I wasn’t ready to trade the glamorous life of timpanist in a 36-week orchestra for one that came with earning a paycheck every week of the year, living in warm weather, traveling to the world’s most prestigious music events and designing a classical percussion education program that might have reached many thousands of young drummers. If I had left the ISO, I wouldn’t have been in the orchestra the day an unthinking violinist left her instrument parked on the head of one of my timpani during a rehearsal break. I was waiting for her when she returned, at which time I expressed my displeasure and reminded her that the drum was neither a table nor a chair, and it certainly wasn’t a violin case. I promised her that, if she would never do that again, I would refrain from putting my drum on top of her violin at the next rehearsal break. She got the message.
What is it with string players anyway? There is no place backstage safe from string instrument cases. My timpani trunks were a perfect target, and most of the time I didn’t mind at all. However, one day I had to get into one of the trunks to retrieve some equipment that was stored on the shelf therein, and it seemed like I had a case farm growing on top of the trunk. With a combination of frustration and mischief, I quietly deposited a penny through the f-hole in the instrument of the orchestra’s assistant concertmaster. There is no sound in the world like a penny rattling around inside a violin as the bow is drawn across the strings, and the offending penny is not always easy to remove quickly. It’s much like watching someone try to shake some money out of a piggy bank. Bad boy, Tom. Funny, though.
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