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Cloyd Duff was born in Marietta, Ohio in 1916 and died in March 2000. He held the Principal Timpani chair in the Cleveland Orchestra from 1942 until 1981. He was on the faculty of the Cleveland Institute of Music during my graduate school years and was my primary timpani teacher.

 My First Encounters

The first time I ever heard of Mr. Duff was in high school (Annandale HS, Annandale, Virginia, outside of Washington, DC). My band director (a percussionist) had managed to get a hold of two pairs of Mr. Duff’s sticks, a pair of #5s and #4s – if I remember correctly. It was a very different sort of stick than I had ever seen before. At the time he made sticks for just about anyone, and for $12 a pair!

I had become interested in classical music, and started attending concerts. At that time orchestras played at the cavernous DAR Constitution Hall, the Kennedy Center had not been built yet. I heard the Cleveland Orchestra play there for the first time in 1969 with Szell conducting. Szell died about a year later in the summer of 1970. I still remember that concert like it was yesterday, the program was:

Smetana: Overture to the Bartered Bride
Walton: Variations on a Theme of Hindemith
Beethoven: Symphony #6

They had just released their recording of the Walton, along with his 2nd symphony. An interesting aside, I was visiting Mr. Duff at his Colorado home a number of years ago and mentioned this concert. He actually thought he could remember that program. He didn’t manage but it’s a indicator of his devotion to his work. At that time the concert would have occurred about 17-18 years earlier. Also The Orchestra (and for me the Cleveland Orchestra will always be “The Orchestra”) did a regular East Coast tour in those days, and Washington was the final stop. I was fortunate to attend a number of those performances in later years. I also heard the Orchestra several times at Wolf Trap and in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

Anyway, when the Orchestra just tore into that overture I was knocked over. That incredible ensemble, the intonation, the intensity of that orchestra in what many still consider their “golden period” in the mid-late 1960s was something to hear. And the way Mr. Duff drove them in that piece with those accented notes. No one I’ve ever heard before or since could put more zing into a single note on timpani than he did. At that performance he was playing on his first set of Light drums, which he used on tour in those days. By then the Anheier/Jähne & Boruvka set stayed at Severance Hall. I was sitting there in the audience, as a high school kid who wasn’t really all that serious about music as a career, thinking “That’s what I want to do!”

Our next meeting was a few years later. The Orchestra was in town for a couple of performances at Wolf Trap under Boulez (in 1971). Their Rite of Spring recording had just come out, which I had. Several of us went backstage afterwards to meet Mr. Duff. I asked him to sign my recording (I still have it: “for Dwight Thomas – Best Regards – Cloyd E. Duff”). He was very approachable and friendly, as he nearly always was around me. As I know now having been a timpanist myself for some time, it’s not always easy to linger after a concert and socialize with audience members when you’ve just worked very hard and just want to go home. I told him I planned to attend the concert the next night, and wished to speak with him again. I was alone the second time, so I had more time with him. He remembered me, and my main business was to ask to buy a full set of his sticks. I remember him saying that I should learn to make them myself. I could tell he wasn’t really all that excited about the prospect, but he agreed. The fact that I already had the 2 pairs was of some help I think.

As I found out later, he always thought of stick making as a “labor of love”. And in fact my set was one of the last sets he made for the “general public”. After that he restricted his pool of potential stick customers to students and working professionals. At the time I was an undergraduate at Duke University, and didn’t plan to go into music professionally. And Duke is certainly not the sort of school one would normally attend when one has that career goal. It took him some time to make the sticks (the standard 6 pairs – #s 1-6), around 6 months (which is fast compared to how long I take sometimes) and my mother put them under the Christmas tree that year as a surprise. It was the best Christmas present I ever received.

I think back with great consternation on how I abused those sticks during the next few years. Now there’s little left of that set but the #5s (recovered of course), just the wooden cores of the #1s, and the shafts of the #2s, the latter 2 pairs are still in regular use to this day.

In the next few years my career took kind of a turn. By the time I graduated from Duke I had decided to pursue a career in music as a professional performer. I wanted to attend CIM and study with Mr. Duff. In the spring of my senior year (1975) I flew to Cleveland to audition for CIM as a potential graduate student. Prior to my live audition I had sent a tape, so that was all of my playing he had heard up to that point. Another colleague from Annandale HS, David Gooding, was already at CIM as an undergraduate student at the time of my audition, so I had heard about the school through him.

The CIM audition trip

There’s an old saying that “A bad beginning makes for a good ending”. For some insane reason I put my sticks in with my regular checked baggage, which Eastern Airlines proceeded to lose. So when I arrived at CIM I didn’t have my sticks (which included several pairs of his models). I played for all 3 faculty members (Mr. Duff, Richard Weiner, and Don Miller), and on both percussion and timpani. I remember my first look round his legendary studio – room 16. Like the paintings on the wall, especially the one of the gigantic ear. As former CIM people know, those paintings are the work of Mrs. Margaret Duff, a very talented lady. Also impressive was the sound he produced playing on the CIM set of Light drums in the studio. I also remember the first time I walked into the CIM building, I heard the sounds of a terrific performance of the Brahms Horn Trio through the front windows, then later saw Myron Bloom (principal horn at the time) walking down the front stairs.

I was impressed with how unaffected all three teachers were, they didn’t have anything to prove, and treated me; a lowly prospective student, with complete professionalism. I must have had good karma that day, because they let me use Duff’s personal set of sticks for my audition. Which, as I found out later, was extremely unusual since he hardly ever brought them to CIM. Those sticks stayed in his locker at Severance Hall, in fact many of the students had never seen them up close, much less played with them. I played the Daniel Jones: Sonata for 3 Unaccompanied Kettledrums, the first and second movements. Later on he told me was somewhat taken aback by this choice, as he didn’t think much of the work. He also said later that I had changed his mind about it, at least to some extent.

The CIM Years

Given the title above it can be safely assumed that my audition was a success, and I entered CIM in the Fall of 1975 as a graduate student. It might be instructive to list the other percussion students attending during my time there – with their current positions:

Graduate: 

Earl Yowell (was Principal Timpani – St. Paul Chamber Orchestra – now teaching at the Shenandoah Conservatory, Winchester VA)
Dwight Thomas (Principal Timpani – Omaha Symphony)
Sally Nagel (now Sally Rochotte – Principal Timpani – Toledo Symphony)

Undergraduate: 

Rick Snodgrass (transferred to Baldwin Wallace College)
David Gooding (was Timpani – Johannesburg South Africa – remained there to run a business when the orchestra folded in 2000)
Greg Geisert (no longer in the music business)
Neil Bross (no longer in the music business)
Bruce Collie (died of a rare disease in the early 1980s)
Bruce Golden (was Principal Percussion – Toledo Symphony – no longer in an orchestra)
Charles Wilkinson (Percussion/Assistant Timpani – National Symphony – Washington DC)
Mark Yancich (Principal Timpani – Atlanta Symphony)

That’s quite a track record, and a testament to both CIM and especially Mr. Duff, Richard Weiner, and Don Miller. Just at this time players trained in Cleveland were starting to win significantly more professional positions than before, changing the near complete dominance by the New York/Juilliard group. This was the beginning of the sweeping effect Mr. Duff had on the world of timpani playing, first through his work, then the recordings, then through his students, and finally through the summer master class, each step reaching a larger audience.

The Orchestra – the CIM Years

I was at CIM from September 1975 through August 1977, including the summer months. During that time I had perhaps 50-60 lessons with Mr. Duff, and attended many, many concerts, both at Severance Hall (right down the street from CIM) and also some at the Blossom Music Center.

This was a tempestuous time for the Cleveland Orchestra. Lorin Maazel was in his second year as Music Director. He was the first regular Music Director the orchestra had had since Szell died in 1970. And since the musicians had not had that much input into his selection – things were a bit tense. For example I attended one rehearsal where there was an encounter between Maazel and a player, and the player was dismissed soon after. The sound of The Orchestra was changing, and also the nature of the job (more concerts, fewer rehearsals).

This affected Mr. Duff as well, he had to play louder, and was breaking more and more calfskin heads. So he used the Light drums with plastic heads most of the time, and always for Maazel. The Anheier/Jähne & Boruvka set was still sitting backstage though, and I was for fortunate to hear him perform on that set (which always had calf heads) several times. The large Anheier drum had a sign on it that said: “This is not a table. This is a musical instrument like your own. If you are looking for a table please look elsewhere.” During the Fall of my first year he received the very first set of Light Mark XIV drums, delivered by Walter Light himself. Mr. Duff had the bowls replaced, to match the Boruvkas. He also had an older set of Light drums (which I had heard in Washington that first time), and many, many more Anheier cable drums, mostly with calf heads. I believe he had around 20+ instruments housed in the hall, something the stagehands groused about at times.

I felt that those concerts (and some rehearsals as well) at Severance were as important a part of my CIM studies as the school work, so I made it a point to go as often as I could. I learned a great deal from watching Mr. Duff work, and always had binoculars along, and also scores when possible. It was an art form at CIM to learn how to sneak into the 2nd half of Severance concerts. Although I did so myself a few times I usually paid for my tickets.

In Severance Hall Duff usually played on a platform, he was often the only player in the orchestra that was raised above stage level. He also used small rubber carpet pads under the feet of the drums. One of the many things that knocked me over was his Severance performance of the Nielsen 4th, on the calf drums. He did those fast tuning changes with one hand in the slow movement on that big Anheier drum. I’ve never seen anyone before or since who could do that like he could. There was some other repertoire with quick pitch changes on his big cable drum, like Till Eulenspiegel, or the Bártok Concerto for Orchestra. Nowadays most players use 4 pedal drums as their standard set, so such a skill has become kind of a lost art.

At that time the orchestra usually was on tour during the early Fall for about a month, and also there was their annual East Coast tour for a few weeks in January I believe. No other orchestras played in Cleveland at that time, but the Metropolitan Opera had an annual series. There was a lot of other music as well, what with all the concerts at CIM.

Mr. Duff as Mentor & Teacher

Mr. Duff tried to set a disciplined example for his students. The first time I met him (1971), he was 56. When I entered CIM he was 60. He was always a very stylish dresser, and usually was wearing a quality, neatly groomed suit every time you saw him. At 6’2″ he was an impressive presence. He would put his tie inside his shirt at rehearsals. He pressed us to match his example, once when I was turning pages for the pianist at a colleague’s recital I wore a tux. He also made sure room 16 was kept clean and neat, often in sharp contrast to the others. It is important to remember that this was 1975-77, a transitional period. Most of the students were pretty serious, some were almost grimly so, but this was still a period not that far removed from the late 1960’s.

Lessons at CIM varied depending upon whether you were an undergrad or grad student, and whether you were a timpani or percussion major. Undergrads studied on their major instrument (timpani or percussion) for 3 of their 4 years. All the graduate students during my time there studied timpani. My 2 years were spent working entirely on orchestral repertoire and the literature for my 2 required recitals. There were two sets of timpani at CIM (and an old pair of hand-tuned drums with calf heads) my first year, one was a set of Lights set up German style, and a set of Ludwig Dresden model drums. During my second year another set of Light Mark XIs (also German setup) arrived. Mr. Duff taught many people from outside CIM (and also some people at CIM) who played American system, so the Ludwigs were there for them.

German vs. American?

A few thoughts about the merits of German (larger drums to the right) vs. American (larger drums to the left) system. In the DC area there was a private teacher, Jack Behrend, who had also studied with Schwar in Philadelphia, as Mr. Duff had done. Many of the percussion students in the area studied with Behrend, and that was my first introduction to the German placement. So by the time I got to CIM I had played both systems. Once there I switched back to German, mainly because that’s the way the good set of Light drums was configured, and also because Mr. Duff was more comfortable playing and teaching that setup. His descriptions of stickings and other stylistic points did not have to be translated, they were exactly the same.

Those players that have never tried the German setup are missing an opportunity in my opinion. Especially if you are right-handed, German is more natural for many technical passages. There’s a stigma about it (so-and-so plays backwards) that I have never understood. Drum sets are set up German, so are the strings on cellos and basses. Traditional setup of hand drums is German in much of the world.

At the same time there is a down side to playing German, related to auditions. If you play only German, sometimes there is no allowance made for you in the organization of the audition. And sometimes the orchestra won’t let you bring your own instruments either. So you have these choices:

  1. Play the audition American
  2. Play German with the pedals spread out
  3. Bring your own instruments if it is allowed

At one time or another I have done all three of the above. One solution is to use Ludwig (or Yamaha) instruments with the pedal in the middle, but when you switch the drums around the playing spots on the heads change as well. Playing German with the pedals spread also changes the playing spot, and the spread pedals can made pedaling excerpts nearly impossible. However I have know several colleagues who have developed great skill in playing that way.

Most of the time if I can’t bring my drums I switch over to American. Some people are less comfortable switching under that kind of pressure. Ultimately it’s a personal decision. I play German in the orchestra here in Omaha, and both sets (my personal set and the orchestra set) of Lights are German. Even though I am left-handed (which favors American) I still prefer the German setup.

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