Thomas Stevens

Trumpet Traditions II (Battery Parts)

  • For Trumpeters Only

An Old Tradition Regarding Battery Parts in Classical Works

“ The long [dotted] notes in the winds and brass should be as in the “pauken” [tympani] because he [the tympanist] cannot control [the length of] the notes.”-German conductor, Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, 1965, referring to an unwritten tradition regarding the performance of battery parts.

The above Quotable makes perfect sense: Acoustic sounds decay, and with any percussion instrument where the sound is a reaction to the instrument being struck, with no continuing air stream to sustain that sound, it begins to deteriorate sooner (if there is no acoustical/electronic means of sustaining it) than it does in the case of brass/wind instruments. Therefore, it would seem logical to assert that ensemble discipline would require the latter instruments, when playing the same rhythmic accompaniment parts in classical period music as the tympani, defer to the note duration restrictions endemic to the instrument that is hit to make its sound.

Two problems with this concept:

1. All acoustical settings have different reverberation times. In a dry studio setting it could be one second or less, while, at the opposite end of the spectrum, a cathedral could have five+ seconds of reverberation time*.

2. The sounds of all instruments do not decay at the same rates. The sound of a directional instrument like a trombone will have a greater amount of “hang-time” than will the sound of a less directional woodwind instrument.

When one hears great orchestras, one usually hears well-coordinated battery parts. Whether this is the result of conscious efforts by the performers beyond simply using their ears and applying good musicianship, or whether it is part of particular orchestras’ traditions passed from generation to generation, (the old “this is how we do it here” b.s.) is anyone’s guess. Since no one ever talks about this subject these days it could be either.

The old rule, like all old rules, is somewhat overstated; however, the concept of deferring to the tympani in classical performances is as important as it is valid. There can be no great Mozart, Haydn, or Beethoven performances without great tympani players; they are as important as drummers in big bands, for many of the same reasons, and, due to those same reasons, the rest of us should pay an equal amount of attention to them, especially with regard to the performance of battery parts.

*The graphic shown below illustrates the following (hypothetical) point: Re: the dotted eighth-sixteenth figure (A). Under it are two blocks (B/C) representing tympani real time performance sound durations of (A) for that dotted note, with “t” serving the dual role of representing the traditional function of time as well as identifying the tympani. In this example, the tympani dotted eighth note is sustained for two different durations, but the decay (total) time is almost the same because of a difference in reverberation time. Of course, there could be many other variations of such acoustical phenomena. This is a good example of why battery parts are so difficult to coordinate.