I have 2 days until my concert and I still can’t figure out how to do a timpani roll, and no one will help me. Can anyone help me with how I do the roll? (because I am struggling a lot)

I’m struggling with the whole roll itself. A have a fast and furious dynamic marking and the tempo is 156. I am actually new to the timpani as well so it’s very difficult for me.

We’re playing a song called the fires fury and at the end there’s a roll. That’s the part I’m struggling with. I currently play in a band as well. My teacher had only told me to use my wrists but nothing else really, she had a drummer who does not play the timpani help me so my roll is not accurate.

  • 5
    Are you able to be more specific about what aspect of the roll you're struggling with?
    – Aaron
    Commented Apr 23 at 5:30
  • 1
    It would also be helpful to tell us about what ensemble you play in (band or orchestra?). Did you ask the director for help, and what did they say?
    – nuggethead
    Commented Apr 23 at 10:45
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    I took the liberty of adding these comments into the body of the question itself. In the future I encourage you to do that, using the "Edit" button below the question; comments aren't really an "official" or permanent part of the question. I'm afraid I don't have much useful technical advice, except that I'm pretty sure practicing at a very slow speed and gradually increasing it is a good idea! Commented Apr 23 at 14:59

3 Answers 3


The quintessential timpani roll technique is as follows:

  1. (Optional, but preferred) Hold the mallets in "French grip", meaning that your thumb is on top the shaft, fingers wrap around the bottom, and palms face each other. Your grip should be gentle. The thumb and index hold the mallet in place with only as much tension as is necessary, and everything else is relaxed.

  2. You play a single stroke roll. Other roll techniques such as double strokes or "buzz" rolls will give you more notes closer together, but they don't let the drum speak as clearly and thus are generally not preferred on timpani.

  3. At fast speeds, the motion comes primarily from the fingers, possibly with some help from the wrist, depending on the speed of the roll. The fingers are the smallest moving parts of this system and thus suited to the fastest playing. The timpani will return the mallet to the air after each strike, and the fingers can easily return the mallet to the head. Note that the back 3 fingers do not grip the shaft of the mallet- this pretty much limits you to a pure wrist motion!

Don't stress yourself out about playing the roll as fast as you can, either. With good technique, speed will naturally come, the roll won't sound better if you're tensing up trying to squeeze out the last bit of speed.

Here is a good supplementary video - This guy seems to use a lot of wrist in his technique, but you can still see (in 360p) the use of French grip, and that the back of the shaft is caught at the top of the range of motion by the back fingers but not gripped by the fingers when striking the drum.

  • The preference towards the French grip is just a matter of choice, habit, possible previous technique "building" and, not less important (but obviously irrelevant in this context), playing context. Also, fast speeds don't always play well with high dynamics, but that obviously depends on the context of that "fast". Commented Apr 24 at 3:12

First of all, you're being asked something that's above your current knowledge and experience, without considering the implicit difficulty of that request.
There's nothing to be ashamed of, nobody would ask a beginner violin player to perform the full part of Sheherazade in a symphony orchestra, or a pianist to play Scriabin's sonatas a year after they put their fingers on a piano for the first time.

The common assumption is that percussion instruments are "easy". Ask your conductor to play that as they wish (and then explain you how they did it), and see what they actually do.
Spoiler alert: they will almost fail either in doing, or explaining.

Timpani rolls are fundamentally trills. If you've ever carefully listened to a trill by a wind or string instrument, you'll probably have found out that the rhythm of that trill has probably no direct relation with the actual tempo. It usually is "as fast as you can".

There is no real math here: you just play "as many notes as you can, for the duration required".

A professional percussionist is normally able to play sixteenths at ~200bpm (four notes per beat).
This means that if the piece is at 200bpm and they have to play a roll lasting a full 4/4 bar, they will approximately play 16 notes. But if the piece is played at 100, they will play about 32 notes. What if the piece is played at 156? Well, something between 16 and 32 notes. Nobody cares.

How fast can you play? It probably doesn't matter that much at your current level and situation. You're probably near the 100-120bpm range (again, sixteenths, 4 notes per beat), but, luckily, timpani have enough sustain. Interestingly enough, some "rolls" can be more effective when played slower than the player could eventually do.

Now, one possibility could be to play the nearest "math factor" according to your capabilities. Supposing you're able to do sixteenths at 120, a piece played at 156 would mean that you should try to play eights or triplets at that speed. Start by doing that: assuming you can play triplets at 156, and that roll lasts one bar, then precisely play triplets for 4 beats. You can only play eights? Then do that.

Still, that may sound a bit awkward: as said above, a trill is tempo-independent. Playing triplets or eights is a precise rhythm, so, how can a real roll/trill be achieved?

One thing that is often underestimated by percussion players (and, sadly, teachers) is to consider breathing and singing.

You're clearly a beginner of some level, you've got some proper understanding of rhythm, but you're probably missing the "next step", which is the proper relation between tempo, rhythm and perception of note duration (something quite difficult for somebody playing instruments that have no proper sustain control such as percussion ones).

One possibility you can use is to try to "sing" the note for the whole duration of that roll, and in the meantime try to play "as fast as you can" on the timpani.

  1. get a metronome; if you can, use one that allows setting accents every n-beats and set it to 4, so that you'll hear the down beat of each 4/4 bar; start it up with a reasonable tempo (60-80bpm);
  2. once you're feeling the tempo, start singing a note (doesn't matter which, but if it's the same of the timpani it's better; it also doesn't really matter how your pitch is correct right now) at the beginning of a new bar, and for exactly one bar (four beats);
  3. stop singing as the bar ends (aka, a new bar begins), and wait for another full bar;
  4. restart from point 2;
  5. do it for a few times, ensuring that your timing is correct;
  6. do the same for different tempos, not strictly increasing (just test yourself with random tempos);

Then, take your mallets and repeat, playing the timpani while singing:

  1. just follow the above procedure, just playing the beats along with the metronome; remember to do all these steps at different tempos;
  2. do the same while playing eights ("double tempo");
  3. again with sixteenths;
  4. again with thirty-seconds, if the tempo allows you;
  5. if you're able to, try with triplets (three strokes for each beat);

Now, do the same while trying to play as fast as you can (but not too fast), while still ensuring that you end playing when the bar ends.

Finally, do the same with different durations. For example, while still using 4-beat bars, try to make those rolls lasting 2, 3, 5, 6 or even 7 beats.

The last step is to do the same with the rolls noted on your score.

Since you're just hours to your concert, my suggestion is to try to actually do sing those rolls even while playing (nobody will probably hear it nor care about it). Remember that your voice and breathing are probably the most natural ways you have to make music, and you should trust them, even (if not especially) when playing percussion instruments.


Full disclosure up front, I'm not a percussionist. But, I have a drum kit at home for fun.

My understanding is that compared with a snare drum the timpani has less recoil of the sticks from the drum head so apparently you need to power the strokes more by comparison.

The thing I want to mention is this. In my experience when playing a drum role, just single strikes alternating hands, not a proper snare roll where the sticks bounce, slightly accenting the strike on the beat helps me keeps a good even roll.

So instead of just straight sixteenth notes, like this...

enter image description here

...I'm consciously doing this...

enter image description here

To the extent that helps me, I think it is because the accenting helps me maintain a sense of the beat and counting, which supports good timing, supports better "flow", and the sixteenths then a more clearly sensed as subdivisions of the beat. Without the accent I can get lost is a blur of sixteenth notes and things get sloppy.

This isn't much, but it's what I can offer for help.

Hopefully you gets some advice from other members here who are percussionists.

  • -1, slightly accenting downbeats is unnecessary, often undesirable, and all throughout my 8 years of school band, every instructor would point this out as an inadequacy in people's playing if they did this during what was supposed to be an even single stroke roll.
    – Edward
    Commented Apr 23 at 23:05
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    Also, timpani rolls are typically not metered rolls
    – Edward
    Commented Apr 23 at 23:26
  • I agree with Edward here: 1. timpani rolls (and, by extension, almost any "roll" in percussion, unless explicitly measured) are considered as trills, so they have absolutely no relation with the meter/tempo; 2. even with measured rolls (eg. 9-stroke-roll), the one thing that should be avoided at all costs is exactly playing accents every x beats. The roll is continuous, it may have dynamic changes ([de]crescendo), but no accents whatsoever unless (and rarely) explicitly written. Commented Apr 24 at 3:18

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