He's the king of the kettle drum

Loosening the lugs of a 23-inch timpani, Art Whitson pries the drum head off and carefully upends the large copper instrument.

“The pedal is loose on this one, so it’s having trouble tuning,” he muses. “The spring mechanism may be out of wack.”

The timpani is one of four owned by Woodward Middle School, and the first of the school’s percussion instruments that Whitson is tackling – including a drum set in such disrepair it is unplayable.

In tuxedo three weekends every year, Whitson plays timpani and percussion for the Bainbridge Orchestra. To support the BHS band program of which his son Casey is a member, he joined the BHS Band Boosters.

On Fridays, he has volunteered his time to provide individual coaching for percussion students and repair the high school’s percussion instruments, some of which would otherwise cost the school several thousand dollars to replace.

Now that the BHS music department has expert percussionist Terry Marsh on staff to guide the 20 or so percussion students, Whitson works mostly with freshmen and middle-schoolers.

“I’m here to get kids excited about playing and ready for the high school level,” he said.

On the beat

Whitson picked up his first drum sticks at age 8. He was living in Omaha, Neb., and was thrilled by the drummers as they marched past in a parade.

“I said, ‘Cool! That’s what I want to play,’” he recalls.

Growing up in a military family, Whitson moved around a lot, but that also gave him the opportunity to study percussion with a number of teachers.

In Omaha and Honolulu, Hawaii, he played in the local youth orchestras and took lessons from the timpanists of a professional ensemble.

With its roots in the Northwest, his family summered on Bainbridge Island every year.

Whitson moved to the island full-time with his own family in 1983, and is now an orchestra fixture

In some ways, Whitson believes, playing percussion can be more stressful than other instruments as there’s no place to hide.

In his most recent concert with the Bainbridge Orchestra, he had to count more than 100 measures of rests before he had to come in exactly right for a critical solo.

“With practice, I learn the piece and have checkpoints along the way to verify where the orchestra is. Practice with the orchestra is important to not only learning the instrument parts, but to know how to count the long rests and learning the musical cues,” Whitson said. “A good conductor will and often does cue me in after a long rest. Being one beat off can really make the difference between playing well or not.”

Whitson started fixing drums because he saw a need in the community.

“I learned to repair from reading books,” he said. “Being mechanically oriented, I can figure stuff out.”

Inside the foot of the timpani, Whitson points to a set of pads that “brake” a shaft connected to the foot pedal at the drum’s base.

The shaft connects to another that runs into the drum and tightens or loosens the rim gripping the head, thus changing the pitch.

Woodward Middle School has instruments of four different diameters, covering a distinct but overlapping range of pitches. As band students learn, tuning is essential; when he played Dvorak’s Symphony No. 4 with the Bainbridge Orchestra in November, Whitson had to retune his own trio of drums 10 times for the pitches called for by the piece.

The tuning technique becomes an art in and of itself.

Before a performance, Whitson gets the drums warmed up to the concert hall’s room temperature and then tunes each one to its lowest note. Then, using a series of wooden blocks that he slides under the foot pedal, he can mechanically tune each drum based on pedal height.

Although he does mechanical and electrical engineering for Boeing on the cranes that lift fighter plane parts and builds systems that launch satellites, Whitson finds the work similar.

“These mechanical systems are no different than the devices we have in our cranes and automobiles,” he said.

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