How to Play the Timpani
The mallet has an effect on the quality of sound
The mallet used to strike the timpani is said to have the greatest influence on sound quality. Different mallets are used by the player depending on the type of sound that needs to be expressed, such as sharp sounds, clear sounds, soft sounds, and so on.
Timpani mallet heads are made of felt, cork, wood, flannel and so on; whereas the handles are made of materials such as wood or bamboo. Although bamboo seems like an unusual material to use, players in Europe like using bamboo mallet handles, and they are popular due to being lightweight, easy to use, and allow the player's subtle hand motions to be faithfully expressed. Two mallets are held together as a set, both held straight at the same finger joint position.
Mallets were once shorter
In the Baroque era when Mozart and other musicians were active, hand-tightened timpani were used that were slightly smaller than those in use today. The mallet handles were short and made of wood, and the sound was more like a light tapping sound. If Mozart had heard the deep booming sounds of today's timpani, he certainly would have been surprised!
How to hold the mallets
There are a variety of ways to hold a mallet, depending on the person playing.
Each mallet has a gripping position that is just right for that particular mallet. Mallets are gripped from around 1/3 to 1/4 of the handle length from the end, between the flat part of the thumb and the second knuckle of the index finger or the first joint of the middle finger. The ring finger and little finger are used for support. Basically, the same grip should be used for both hands.
Make sure that the gripping position does not slip, by moving the mallet up and down using your wrist. At a minimum, the thumb and index finger or middle finger should press firmly on the handle. You will not get a good sound if you clench the handle with all your fingers at once.
Posture-wise, the back of your hand can be facing directly upwards, or the back of both hands can be facing outwards to the side.
The important part is when you actually play the instrument. Make sure to swing the mallet so that its head does not press down on the timpani head (skin); in other words, you need to find a way to grip the mallet so that the mallet head quickly snaps back. As we have just mentioned, you will not get a good sound from the drum if you clench the mallet with all of your fingers at once.
To learn how the timpani should ring out, try holding the mallet vertically with the head down, and then drop the mallet straight down onto the timpani head from a distance of around 10 cm. Catch the mallet as it naturally bounces straight back up. Your mallet will bounce back in just the right way if the force you apply to the mallet is balanced correctly, and hence the instrument will ring out naturally. Now, see if you can make the very same sound when you grip your mallet.