Washburgh Timpani Seminar

Written by Elizabeth Bloom on .

On Friday morning, I had the pleasure of attending the final session of the Washburgh Timpani Seminar at Duquesne University. Now in its fourth year, the week-long program is led by the principal timpanists of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra, Ed Stephan and Jauvon Gilliam.

There are a handful of percussion workshops across the country, but only a few focus on timpani. What makes this one unique is that Mr. Gilliam and Mr. Stephan (who also chairs Duquesne's percussion department) bring different approaches to the instrument – everything down to the order in which they arrange the drums and the type of heads they use – and have found success with those contrasting styles.

WashburghPSO timpanist Ed Stephan gives a demonstration at the Washburgh Timpani Seminar at Duquesne University.

"Jauvon is very calculated. He has a very specific style [the Cleveland school] that works," said seminar participant Michael Kemp, 27, who resides on the North Side. "He has one sound he's achieving, and he's mastered it."

Mr. Stephan, on the other hand, is "like a child in a toy store, trying to find a new toy to play with," according to Mr. Kemp, who said admiringly, "he's a freak, as far as I'm concerned."

"I'm like Cajun stew," Mr. Stephan quipped.

It worked for Mr. Kemp, an alumnus of Duquesne's undergraduate and master's programs, who recently won a trial for the timpani job at the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. A whopping five Duquesne students and graduates have earned percussion and timpani jobs in the last year, according to Mr. Stephan.

Fifteen students in their early teens to late 20s attended Friday morning's class. Those who don't live in the area stayed on campus or at a hotel. Thus far, the seminar hasn't had to turn away any applicants, who submitted a resume with their application. "We've had 60-year-old people in the past that are astrophysicists," Mr. Stephan said. "It's a cool mix."

At Friday's session on solo timpani works, Mr. Stephan discussed note lengths, muffling techniques and stick placement, among other topics. Participants were invited perform a mock audition for the group later in the day. Throughout the week, the seminar delved into various inside-baseball topics familiar to timpani students: preparing for auditions, wrapping timpani mallets, decoding orchestral repertoire and more. One session was devoted to pedaling techniques (changing the pitch of the drums using pedals with one's feet).

"I bring in AC/DC, Blink 182 and Nirvana," Mr. Stephan said. "They play the bass parts on timpani."

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