The Year 1987 – I begin to use calf heads
As I mentioned in the last three blog posts, the year 1987 was a pivotal year for both the Oslo Philharmonic and for me. 1987 saw the emergence of the orchestra onto the international music scene through its tours to Italy and Spain in the spring; the first of many visits to the BBC Proms in London in August; and the first USA tour since 1973 in the late fall. Recording contracts changed, and the orchestra undertook various interesting projects during the year. 1987 was the year that I found my footing as a timpanist with the orchestra, and one of the ways in which I accomplished this was in making the transition from a player who played on plastic heads for most of his career up to this point into a player who was learning the joys (and headaches) of working with and playing on calfskin. In the previous blog post, I made note of the fact that I visited my mentor, Fred Hinger at his home in Leonia, New Jersey for a head-tucking session and to pick up some cadmium flesh hoops for the purpose of tucking the calfskin heads I bought from Steve Polansky when I returned to Oslo. This session was a culmination of a process that had begun earlier in the year when I was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the quality of the plastic heads I was using. They were a hit-and miss affair. For each good head, I would get three heads that were not quite acceptable. I kept in touch with Mr. Hinger (who insisted I call him Dan), and decided to follow his advice and begin equipping myself with the necessary materials and start using calf. The 1987 tour was a great opportunity to obtain both heads and hoops. As I mentioned earlier, I obtained the heads at the beginning of the tour in Chicago and the hoops were obtained from Dan Hinger in Leonia midway through the tour.
The Tucking Session
The orchestra had flown into Newark from the Midwest and was on its way to Providence, Rhode Island. My former student and good friend Harry Teahan met me at the airport, and together we drove to Leonia to meet with Dan. Harry and I would drive up to Providence after our session. (I had pre-arranged this beforehand and let orchestra officials know what was going on.) It was good to see Dan again and he looked well and was his usual enthusiastic self. Both Harry and I were excited as well and I felt as if I was Dan’s student again and that twelve
years had disappeared. If memory serves me correctly, Dan was using a 25 inch head for the demonstration. I remember him demonstrating what to look for in a skin- particularly the backbone, and then going through all the steps involved in the tucking procedure, from selection to actually getting the head on to the hoop. I remember that when he had the head soaked and stretched out with the bowl beneath it, and the hoop in position and the trimming underway, that the skin reminded me of a thin pizza crust before baking. I don’t know why that image popped up at that moment, but it did. I suppose it was because I was and am lover of pizza, particularly thin crust New York style. I was amazed at what a perfectionist Dan was. He made sure the head, once mounted on the hoop, was without wrinkles. He did this by meticulous application of the tucking tool. Both Harry and I took notes, but it was difficult to keep up with the torrent of words from our mentor. We did get the sense of the operation, and learned enough to begin our own experiments as soon it was feasible.
The First Tucking
For me, “as soon as it was feasible” meant the period after my return to Oslo; more specifically, it meant the Christmas break. Between the annual “Julekonsert” (Christmas concert) and the second week of January, the orchestra gave no concerts. This was a period of about ten days or so. I had stayed on in the States for a week after the tour to visit with family, and returned to Oslo just before the holidays. I believe that my assistant, Trygve Wefring , played the Julekonsert as I had scheduled my return for the period immediately before the concert. He had been following developments on the calfskin front with interest, and I remember visiting with him at the dress rehearsal and giving him an update. We arranged to meet at the Konserthuset just after the Christmas holiday to begin tucking.
After spending the Christmas holiday relaxing with my wife and daughters, I returned to the hall and met up with Trygve. We were both eager to get started, so we located ourselves in the timpani practice room, having appropriated a round table about waist high and round and wide enough to accommodate the tucking operation. I had procured a tucking tool, marker, scissors, etc. and had them stored in a case I had designated to hold all materials related to head tucking. Once we got the room sorted out and the table ready, we sat down and made up our game plan. We’d concentrate on just one head this day, and follow up with the others later in the week. We decided to start with the largest of the drum heads and concentrate on getting that one soaked, trimmed, tucked, and the drying process started. That would be enough for one day. I remember pulling the skin out of the tube and unrolling it, checking it for defects and making sure that we knew where the backbone was. Fortunately for us, the back bone was clearly visible and there were no discernible defects. The next step was to soak the head. As we were in the Oslo Konserthus and had no access to a normal bathtub or a bowl, we carefully soaked the head in the bottom of a shower stall, being careful not to over-soak it. Once we determined that it was soaked enough, we took it to the tucking table. As I noted earler, we had appropriated a round table of just the right size and placed it on the table. As it was the largest of the heads, we chose a large table which would accommodate the head. Once we got it properly situated, we placed the flesh hoop on the head and situated that the way we wanted before measuring and cutting off just the right amount of head that we were not going to use. That took about a half hour, and then it was time to proceed to the actual tucking. With the aid of a medium size bowl placed under the center of the head, and out tucking tool, we proceeded to tuck the head and smooth it out just as Dan had recommended. We were careful to keep the head just wet enough so that it would not dry prematurely, and after about an hour or so, we had the head carefully tucked, and we set it out on the table (which we set up in the unoccupied portion of the percussion room to dry overnight). Temperature condition s in that room were just right and when we returned the next morning, the head was ready for mounting. Trygve and I checked it by tapping it and looking it over, and we decided to go ahead and mount it. Since I had ordered two large skins of about 39 inches, we decided to mount this one on the 31-inch Light Continental chain drum. The plastic head that was mounted on that drum had “gone south” really fast the previous October and really needed to be changed, and this was the perfect opportunity. We took the head to the timpani room (along with a bowl of water and a sponge and proceeded to make the change. While the drum was headless, we renewed the Teflon tape around rim after cleaning it and making sure all was well with the mechanism. After wetting the head down carefully, we placed it on the drum, and replaced the counter hoop, making sure that all was well with the mechanism. We then carefully set it up to dry slowly – over a period of at least twenty-four hours. I think we put the head protector over the head and had it raised up on small blocks so it wouldn’t sit directly on the head. We figured it would let the head dry slower than if we had let it dry uncovered. When we came back, it was only slight damp, and showed signs of having possibilities. By the third day, it was dry and the difference from the plastic head was immense. The drum had a full-bodied tone and was actually quite powerful.
The first use of the drum with calf came later that week when the orchestra recorded the Suites 1 and 2 from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet. I used the top three Hingers with Remo hazy plastic heads, and the big Light drum with calfskin. While the plastic heads sound all right, the contrast with the calfskin was rather startling. The drum just kicked out on the bottom (as it should have) and just whetted our appetite for getting the Hingers converted to calfskin.
Once the recording session was done, we took the Hingers off line for a week while we went through the tucking and mounting processes for all four drums. It took about a week and a half (we used the Light drums for rehearsals and concerts during this period). Once the drums were finished, we tested them in the hall and compared them to the Lights, which were still equipped with plastic. We set the two sets up side by side and each of us played on them for a half hour and discussed what we felt were the finer points of calf. We liked the calf very much, feeling that there was a great deal of character as well as warmth in the sound, much more so than the plastic.
As we started using them in rehearsals and concerts, we began to get used to the quirks of calfskin. We found that once the air conditioning was turned on in May, it was too damp to play on calf. From May to October, it generally paid to play on plastic heads, and from October to May, when the heat was turned on, it was easier for us to use calf. This was the beginning of eleven years of working with calf and trying different types of heads. It was a good beginning and it would be an interesting “ride”, with a lot of ups and downs, although there were more ups than downs.
Here is the Folk Dance from Suite One of “Romeo and Juliet” by Sergei Prokofiev d recorded by the Oslo Philharmonic and Mariss Jansons in January of 1988.