About My Degree…

Written on a plane between Glasgow and London on the 8th February 2014

I am doing a Masters in Orchestral studies and I thought that it might be interesting to let people know exactly what it is… First of all, it is a 4 semester programme which you can begin either in January or September. The course is now called MAOrk, and was previously called the Swedish National Orchestra Academy. The course currently has about 40 students as I mentioned earlier from all over Europe. The standard line up of the modern symphony orchestra is as follows:


There can be anything from 50 to 80 members of an orchestra in normal concerts and on special occasions when a huge piece is performed, there may be over 100 musicians on stage, however these pieces are not performed very often as it is very expensive to hire so many people! When the school orchestra performs it is usually a collaborative project with the Masters and Bachelor students with guest students invited from different European music schools to help beef up the numbers.

A small, 50 piece orchestra may be used for earlier music such as Mozart. One of Mozart’s symphonies would usually be played with a small string section, with a small wind section and maybe one percussionist playing the timpani drums. An example of a big orchestra piece is Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. This has a lot more strings required than Mozart and everything in the wind and brass section is either doubled or even tripled! There are two sets of timpani and lots of additional Percussion instruments to add fantastic effects throughout the piece. The University of Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (UGSO) performed this piece last year in the Concert house on Götaplatsen, the hall where the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra usually perform.

I have realised that I mention a lot of different musical instruments in my Blog and some people might not know what some of them are, so I have decided that every post from now I will try and introduce an instrument from the orchestra so people understand what I am talking about. Today I thought the Timpani would be good to start with as there I have mentioned it several times! I will try my best to get a photo of my colleagues in the orchestra with each instrument so you can see how it is played! So here goes…

The Timpani

Played by: Miriam Castañón

From: Spain

The Timpani are one of the oldest instruments of the orchestra and can be found in most pieces of the orchestral literature. One example that most people will recognise the sound from is the opening to Also Sprach Zarathustra by Strauss, for any Science Fiction fans amongst you this is the opening to the movie 2001 A Space Oddesy. The Timpani have changed quite a bit through the years since their appearance in the Baroque era. Back then the timpani were simply two drums made from copper with a skin made from animal hyde. Some of these drums still exist today and you can feel the fur on the instruments! The drums are pitched and are tuned by tightening and loosening the skins to make them sharper or flatter respectively. The timpani are different from normal drums as they only have a top skin and none on the bottom.

Here is a photo of some Baroque Timps:


Overtime the tuning system has developed and although the shape of the drum has remained the same copper bowl the skins have ben developed for optimum use and the pitch can now be changed with the use of an intricate pedal system. This allows the timpanist to have a wider variety of notes to choose from. This in turn has given composers more opportunity to make more interesting parts for the players instead of simply emphasising phrase endings as was the drums were previously used for.

The drums are also now considerably bigger and a usual set up can have from 3 to 5 drums depending on the music.

Below is a picture of Miriam, our schools timpanist with the modern instruments in a recent project.


Thanks for reading and catch you again soon!


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