MS. REBECCA SHEIR
I'm Rebecca Sheir and welcome back to "Metro Connection." Our theme, this Independence Day weekend, is a different drummer. And the man we'll meet next fits that description to a T, both metaphorically and literally.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Hear that, those are the kettledrums, known as timpani. And Jauvon Gilliam knows that instrument quite well. He's the principal timpanist for the National Symphony Orchestra and one of only two black musicians in the acclaimed D.C. based ensemble. Lauren Ober met up with Gilliam and brings us his story.
MS. LAUREN OBER
Jauvon Gilliam's father gave him two choices growing up, he could play sports and he could play music. What he could not do was run the streets in his hometown of Gary, Ind., getting into all kinds of trouble.
MR. JAUVON GILLIAM
A lot of my friends were getting into other, sort of, less desirable things and my dad would have none of that.
So Gilliam studied piano and worked on his jump shot. Both of those pursuits helped him get where he is today, sitting behind a set of timpani, a few rows away from the conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra. The 34-year-old is the principal timpanist for the NSO, a position he's held for the past five years. It's not exactly a glamorous role, like say, the concertmaster. But it's one of the most critical.
The timpanist's job in the -- as a whole, within the orchestra, is to kind of, sort of, be the groove-maker, if you will. Or I, like, sometimes call it the bus driver, to make sure that the conductor and I are in sync so that we make sure that the orchestra, sort of, stays together.
If Gilliam's instrument is unique, then so is the man behind it. As a musician of color, the timpanist is a rare sight on the many stages he's performed on around the world. There are only two black players in the NSO and the other, second violinist Desi Alston, is retiring at the end of the year. Gilliam chalks up the lack of classical musicians of color to culture.
I did not grow up listening to classical music. In my house, it was all Earth Wind and Fire, it was all, you know, Jackie Wilson, you know, it was all that kind of stuff. And then my friends, even once I started to become a bit of a teenager, it was, you know, definitely more hip-hop, more rap, type of music. And so, I think, when you say that there aren't that many people of color in orchestras, I think it's just because they're not exposed to it.
The timpani, or kettledrums, don't enjoy the same kind of name recognition as kick or snare drums might, so a brief music lesson is in order.
Timpani are pitched instruments. We actually can change the notes with our feet. And so if my feet aren't in the right place or on the right pedal to change the note at the right time, it's like playing out of tune or pushing down a wrong key for a trumpet player or something like that.
Playing timpani is as much a matter of choreography as it is understanding the music.
I equate being a timpanist to being a dancer. It's all about the choreography, your hands and feet have to be at the correct place, at the correct time or you'll play a wrong drum or you'll play a wrong note.
To fully appreciate the instrument, you have to hear it. So we venture down to a big room in the basement of the Kennedy Center, affectionately referred to as, Gilliam's Lair. This is where all of Gilliam's equipment is stored, including his monster collection of drum sticks.
Let me find a pair of sticks here and we can show you what I do.
Are those all of your...
No. There's this case.
There's that case. There's sticks in there and then there's all the sticks I have at home.
But do you have, like, your favorite sticks?
I do. All these sticks, aside, I really only use, like, two or three pairs that are my go-to pairs, that are, kind of like my home-boys. I really -- I use those for most of my playing. A lot of timpanists use a lot of pairs of sticks, that’s one particular way of doing it. I tend to use, sort of, the same sticks to try to make my sound more consistent throughout the repertoire and so I usually end up finding two or three pairs of sticks that are my go-to's.
Getting the timpani to ring out into the audience requires hitting the drumhead in just the right spot, not too close to the center or the edge. But best to let Gilliam describe it.
I'm trying to get the best possible tone. That's my main goal in everything I do. I wanna make sure that the tone that I want to produce is actually articulated out into the audience, onto the recording and into what everybody hears. So if I play smack in the middle of the drum, this is the kind of pitch that you end up getting...
Sounds more like a bass drum or a tom-tom, it does necessarily a definitive pitch. If I play at the very, very edge of the drum, this is what you get...
More tone, more ring, as you can hear it. But it still can be more defined if you play a little bit closer, in four to six inches off of the lip. And you get something like this...
So you can hear, in the middle...
...at the very edge...
...in the correct playing spot. There's more tone in the right playing spot. And so that's generally where I play most of the time.
Part of what gives Gilliam's timpani that deep resonate sound is his drumhead selection. He uses animal skins on his primary drum set. Though, for outdoor shows, he uses plastic skins because of the heat and humidity. The animal skins are so sensitive to climate that Gilliam stores them in a giant humidor.
We have a custom-made humidor in this room which I think is most -- it's just awesome. I don't know anybody else that has a humidor this big. And inside this humidor, you'll see we have spare natural heads and I have a cylinder in there which actually has spare skins that haven't been used yet.
Gilliam unwraps a skin so we can have a look.
As you can see, it's basically a sheet itself, right? And smell -- you can smell it, smells...
It smells like animal-y, a little.
Right, right. And it's in the humidor, so it's nice and moist right now.
Perfect for some Reveille or Shostakovich. I'm Lauren Ober.
Jauvon Gilliam and the NSO are prepping for a bunch of summer shows at a bunch of venues including the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Vienna, Va. You can find out more on our website, metroconnection.org.
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