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Keeping Time for the NSO: Timpanist Shares Role as Orchestra's 'Bus Driver'

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The National Symphony Orchestra.
Scott Suchman
The National Symphony Orchestra.

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, Indiana, getting into all kinds of trouble.

“A lot of my friends were getting into less desirable things and my dad would have none of that,” Gilliam said. “And so music and sports was what he did to keep me busy.”

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 orchestra is to sort of be the groove-maker, if you will. Or as I sometimes like to say, I’m the bus driver making sure that the conductor and I are in sync so that we make sure the orchestra stays together,” he said.

If Gilliam’s instrument is unique, 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 didn’t grow up listening to classical music. In my house it was all Earth Wind and Fire and Jackie Wilson and that kind of stuff,” he said. “And then once I got to be a teenager, it was definitely more hip hop and rap type of music. So I think when you say there aren’t that many people of color in orchestras, I think it’s 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 some people might not know that they’re pitched instruments.

“We can actually 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,” Gilliam explains.

Playing timpani is as much a matter of choreography as it is understanding the music. Gilliam says he equates being a timpanist with being a dancer.

“Your hands and feet have to be at the correct place at the correct time or you’ll play a wrong drum or play a wrong note,” he said.

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.

Part of what gives Gilliam’s timpani that deep, resonant 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, custom-made humidor.

“I don’t anyone who has a humidor this big,” he joked.

Gilliam and his timpani next take the stage on Thursday, July 10 as the NSO begins its summer concert series at Wolf Trap with a Pops show featuring “Glee” actor Matthew Morrison.

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