Meet the SFS Musicians: Principal Timpani Edward Stephan

SFS Principal Timpani Ed Stephan loves the dynamic nature of his two passions, music and cycling.

Edward Stephan

Principal Timpani, Marcia & John Goldman Chair
Member since: 2016
Hometown: New Brighton, PA

Principal Timpani Edward Stephan admits he didn’t initially set out to be a master of the timpani, those glimmering drums that sing out in many in the most beloved orchestral masterworks. It’s just that, “with young percussionists, typically it’s the person who can hear pitches and play in tune, and who has a natural concept of sound, who tends to get called upon to play the timpani. Early on I demonstrated some of those abilities, and naturally developed an affection for the instrument. The first full time job I landed was as a principal timpanist, and the rest is history I guess!” 

Almost every timpani part is highly audible and exposed, and Stephan admits, that can create a lot of pressure. “Part of the job is often to make it look easy and effortless, but there’s always some anxiety involved. We have a real obligation to that singular sound in the orchestra. We put a lot of thought into this. For example, in Davies hall alone, I have more than 600 pairs of sticks I’ve collected over the years! I’m very preoccupied with how a stick naturally sounds, how it feels in our hands, to get the sound I want at any particular moment, in the way that is most natural. A lot of people also don’t realize we can play complex melodies and bass lines, because we have pedals that work like valves, or the slides on a trombone. We can move these pedals to change pitch very quickly and precisely.” 

Which composers’ writing do you enjoy most for the timpani? “I love Beethoven of course, and Brahms—he was the first composer to allow for real colors to come from the timpani. And anything by Sibelius will be high on my list.” 

Edward StephanSFS Principal Timpani Edward Stephan. Photo by Stefan Cohen.

“Then there are the works that make me sit up a little taller,” he continues. “For example, anything by Bartok. John Williams’ music is notoriously difficult for the timpani as well, although at this point I have his charts ingrained in me. But when I first had the chance to play his music, I spent a lot of alone time getting to know it and choreographing it!’” 

When he’s not playing timpani, Ed likes to play jazz drums and marimba. “The main thing I love to do outside of performing is teaching [at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music; at Northwestern in Chicago, and at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, where he chairs the percussion department.] I have past students in orchestra jobs all over the country at this point. That’s been probably the best balance to what I do on stage.” 

Outside of music, Stephan loves to bike. “It definitely benefits my playing, as I enjoy the many mental and fitness benefits that comes from being physically active. Cycling was a big draw for me—outside of the orchestra itself—for coming to San Francisco. Once you climb those hills out of the city and cross the Golden Gate Bridge, it’s primed for anybody who loves to be on two wheels!” 

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