Having spent most of the past year on the East Coast after driving across the country with her xylophone, Spokane Symphony principal timpanist Meagan Gillis will make her way back to the Inland Northwest just in time for the orchestra’s Labor Day concerts in Liberty Lake and Riverfront Park. “It’s been so long,” she said. “And I’m really itching to get back and play with a group of that size.”
Over the last few summers, Gillis has spent her time playing the xylophone with small groups on the East Coast between New York and Provincetown, Massachusetts. She started busking to pay for Off-Broadway tickets in graduate school, she said, but busking in Provincetown is almost worth doing for its own sake. “I’m addicted to it at this point,” she said. “It’s just so fun – everybody’s in vacation mode, in the best mood, in a great environment, and you really can’t complain about the weather, either.”
Still, it’s not exactly difficult to return to Spokane – and the timpani – when you’ve got a Brahms symphony and John Williams’ “Star Wars” orchestrations on the season program, Gillis said. Born to a salesman and an accountant in Churchton, Maryland, Gillis surprised her parents by taking an early interest in the arts alongside her filmmaker sister. “It was totally new territory for them, but they’ve been really supportive,” she said.
Gillis first gravitated toward the timpani during her undergraduate years at the University of Maryland and continued pursuing it through a master’s in timpani performance from the Cleveland Institute of Music, where she studied under Paul Yancich, principal timpanist for the Cleveland Symphony. After graduation, she would perform with the Auckland Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Columbus Symphony, the Fort Worth Symphony and Mansfield Symphony Orchestra while also serving as principal timpanist for the Maryland Symphony Orchestra for several years.
Gillis joined the Spokane Symphony in 2017 and has served as principal timpanist ever since. “I’ve kind of sold myself to music, and I’ve decided that whatever I make, playing music is how I’m going to be happy, so that’s what I’m doing for now,” she said. Between the timpani and the xylophone, Gillis runs the gamut from support to soloist, she said. The timpani, sometimes called “the second conductor,” is crucial when it comes to supporting an orchestra, but it’s not exactly a solo instrument.
Then the other hand, the xylophone’s “flashier” sound, she said, lends itself more to a leading role. In other words, whether you’re playing with a piano track or a group of other musicians, the music tends to come together around whatever the xylophone is doing. Experiencing both sides allows her to flex a fuller complement of artistic muscles. “It’s kind of the ultimate team-player instrument,” Gillis said. “But the xylophone is all solo. It brings a little more variety into my musical life, which I’m grateful for.”
Banging a drum might look easy, but playing one well is a whole other story. A big part of that, Gillis said, has to do with a knack for tuning the instrument. Any drum, more or less, is essentially skin stretched over the top of a bowl or other hollow base. But a timpani is so large that each of the drums – anywhere from two to eight – are able to produce recognizable pitches.
Timpanists have to have an internal sense of where their notes are going to be because they change according to temperature and a host of other environmental concerns while also managing to be heard over 70 other instruments at whatever volume. Playing loud is going to be expected, but it’s the quiet parts that Gillis finds most moving.
“Most people remember the timpani as this big, loud, rock-and-roll kind of instrument,” she said. “But I don’t think there’s anything more powerful than an orchestra playing the softest they can and an audience of 1,600 people listening quietly.”
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