Understanding the Problem at Hand.

Don’t underestimate the importance of understanding the problem at hand. In our “neurotic” (obsessive) percussion culture we often concern ourselves too much with playing the geekiest, nerdiest, and most expensive gear. While this obsession isn’t necessarily a bad thing (and often is the most important thing) there are some instances, especially for younger players, where it can throw us off course.
As usual, I like to take things I learn in life and apply them to my teaching and playing. I recently got back to water skiing. And, as is often the case, I was reminded of something I learned way back in my skiing hay-day (too long ago) that applies to my profession today. You see, I learned to slalom ski (one ski) on mediocre to good equipment. After several years of experience I was invited to try a top of the line, very expensive ski. I got up, hit a cut as hard as normal and the next thing I knew I was eating serious water. I learned the hard way that I had greatly underestimated the ski! It was TOTALLY different, almost to the point where I was a beginner again. That ski took time to adjust to, a long learning curve to be sure! I wasn’t able to continue skiing with it, but if I had, I know my skiing would have eventually taken a big next step. Why? Was it just because the ski? Well, only partly, if I didn’t have the strong foundation of skiing well on good equipment, I would be less likely to adapt to the high test qualities of the new ski. If I had started on that high end ski I would have failed immediately.
That story leads me to my question today; how important is the equipment (both instruments and stick/mallets) we use? Could it be that we look to our instruments and mallets to solve problems that only we can solve as players? If this is true, are we really reaping the benefits from that super geeky expensive gear?

Learn how to make more than one sound out of one set of sticks than only one sound out of each stick you own.

I’ve seen it often; younger players allowing their tools to distract them from the more important goal. This summer I witnessed a student insisting they needed a deeper snare drum when what they really needed to do was solve a more important problem first; playing any drum in time with the orchestra and conductor. Often students, after learning a new trick of the trade, are too eager to unveil it in an important audition or concert, and after doing so don’t realize that it made that excerpt flop even harder. Or, what about that show player, who is more concerned about having 8 sets of timpani mallets at their disposal in the middle of a large Broadway show set-up, than taking into consideration how that seemingly constructive idea actually causes logistical issues because it causes more problems that it solves (extraneous timpani mallets flying about the set-up as mallet changes are attempted but failed).
Actually, maybe this is a phenomenon seen all around us. Think about the infamous launch of the iPhone 4. It was made with 2 sides glass! Cool and shiny right? So I bought in.. (you did too..) and in a matter of weeks or months one or both sides of my “super elegant and high-end” smart phone were shattered. Think about it. How many iPhones have you seen around you with shattered screens? So much so that it gave birth to an entire business of screen replacement establishments eager to make money off of a design that had noble intentions but was a terrible idea. I fell in love with the bling, the status symbol, drank the Apple cool-aid; “this is what YOU want”. When all along what I really needed was a more durable smartphone, a hardware design that was more practical for the constant and stressful use of a device that went with me everywhere. Imagine a phone with a rubber back, one that didn’t feel like a slippery “fish” in the hands. Admittedly, a bit less “high end” but way more functional and durable. So I turned to Android, a platform that was at the time a bit less design oriented but infinitely more customizable. After experiencing the stable but restrictive capabilities of iOS Android turned out to be the high end ski! A software experience more adaptable with more practical hardware.
But what is the problem at hand? The point is to encourage younger players to find your own solution. Don’t let the bling of a new set of sticks, or a new super geeky marimba design distract you from making a mediocre to good instrument sound great. Ask questions like: why do I only use my teachers mallets? Keep it simple. As a starting point use minimal amounts of mallets. Learn how to make more than one sound out of one set of sticks than only one sound out of each stick you own. When you fully explore this minimal approach and learn to make your best sounds the bells and whistles of a new set of mallets, or a new instrument design will then become as important as they were meant to be by the brilliant designers who created them. Because you understand the foundation you will know how to apply the icing on the cake.
Real artistry doesn’t exist on high end equipment alone. Make the marimba sound great when you play it without resonators. Learn how to play an entire show with one set of timpani mallets while still creating articulate and legato notes. Learn how to make a lower end drum kit sound like DW’s top of the line model. If you can do all of these things and you finally get that “high end ski”, you’ll begin to really understand the difference between low and high end gear.
As always, I like to hear your perspective. While I’m obviously passionate about what I write here I’m also convinced there are many other ways to this end. Please share them and any other reactions below the post.

Fixing Things

We live in a culture where things are either working or they’re not. And if they’re not working, we throw them away.

Apparently, there used to be these things called repair stores. These were stores that fixed your broken TV’s, washer and dryers and even blenders and toasters. The way products are made and purchased today, the vast majority of these stores have gone out of business. Our approach and feeling about the things we own has also driven these stores out of our lives.

We see this in the professional world all the time as well. A good example is the shelf life for professional coaches. An under-performing season for your team (maybe 2 if you’re lucky) typically means you’re looking for a new job. This is seen not only in sports but many professions including music. Fair or unfair, it’s just the way things work.

All this leads to some misunderstandings in the music world. Many students and teachers have the mindset of “this either works it doesn’t.” Students either get it or they don’t. This has also led to the belief that people are either naturally talented at something or they’re simply not. One of my favorite quotes about talent is this – I find it amusing when people tell me that they don’t have a talent for music. I tell them to go practice for two hours a day for the next year. Then, come back and tell me how untalented you are.*

This is also one of the reasons that I’m not a fan of talent shows on television like American Idol and America’s Got Talent. They seem to perpetuate this idea that a person is inherently talented and then is somehow picked and their life is changed forever. While that’s great for the very small percentage that it works for, this isn’t reality. Reality is more along the lines of practicing everyday for ten years and creating a career through learning and experience. There are plenty of other posts on this site about creating a career, so I won’t go into that here.

Thankfully, there are places in the music world teaching the concept of persistence. The first that comes to my mind are the lessons learned in the marching arenas of percussion. Showing up everyday in the summer and every weekend through the winter teaches students that nothing is handed out, it takes a large amount of time and dedication to get good at anything in life and that things can in fact be fixed. These are invaluable lessons that go against the grain of many things in our culture. If this lesson is learned early, it can have a tremendous impact in anyone’s life.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that things can’t be fixed. Teachers – be patient and take time with your students. Students – be patient and take time with yourself. Nothing will ever be able to replace hard work over a long period of time.

*I couldn’t find the origin of this quote. If you know where it comes from, please let me know!

Talent, Work Ethic, and Family History; the Secret to Success(?)

Most of us have heard or read Malcom Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers in which he lays out his “10,000” hour “theory” claiming that the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours. I’ve read this book and I have to say that his theory, at least in the way it’s presented, is convincing. I’ve also heard other teachers refer to the “10,000” hour rule specifically. So much so that over the last several years I’ve made regular mental notes to myself noting that it seems to be catching on, this theory of his.

Many, many times, I’ve talked to my students about the importance of practicing… a lot. Blaming practice, and a relentless work ethic for a good part of the success I’ve had. But more recent research is debunking this theory (for some individuals). And, thanks to Greg Zuber for posting this article in my Facebook news feed, drawing attention to a New York Times piece drawing a similar conclusion.

To quote this article directly: “Driving another nail in the practice coffin, a different recent study suggests that even years of work may not make up for tone-deaf genes.” I think it’s common knowledge that there can be some genetic component to successful musicians (my Mother, Father, brother, and yes, 1st cousin are/were all professional musicians). This we’ve always known as being mostly true. But, as an educator charged with mentoring college level students I think it important to ask a few questions.

As educators charged with building up and teaching the next generations music performers and educators how can we better identify students who are more likely to be successful? This would surely involve evaluating not only talent (the main way we audition/evaluate currently), but work ethic and family history as well. All of us know how important a good balance of talent and worth ethic is, but, is there a better mechanism that we can use to judge a students overall work ethic and artistic family history? Don’t we as educators need to take more responsibility for supporting (or not supporting) a students future in music? It’s a can of worms, but I often struggle with the college freshman in Texas who has been so involved in band in high school and knows “that world” so well that that defines what being a musician is. When that student learns in college that he can’t necessarily make a living performing in marching band, drum corps, or a concert band his reasons for doing music often have to be redefined. But, when this happens, this individual is already knee deep in an expensive college experience.

Perhaps the system as it stands is somewhat self regulating; meaning that those who are really meant to perform or teach music find a way to sift through the murkiness of the high school and college system and those who aren’t simply drop out. I’m simply asking, based on more recent research (and theories), can we do our job better to help serve these students? What is the balance between talent and work ethic and family history? What, if any importance, do you put on these theories and studies? Leave your thoughts to the many questions below the post.

Gordon Stout; Wellness, Adapting, and the Art of Being Frank

Gordon with "Big Bertha"

Gordon with “Big Bertha”


After spending several days hosting Gordon Stout at the 2014 Longhorn Marimba Intensive I couldn’t help but be impressed with his vigor and overall enthusiasm for playing and teaching. Gordon gave a marimba recital, clinic and master-class during his time at LHMI.
So how does he do it? He attributes losing weight (almost 20lbs!), a recent sabbatical, and more practice time; claiming he is currently playing his best. After his recital I can attest to that! I can only hope that in my 60’s I can be playing that well, and have as much zeal for playing and sharing my knowledge of the marimba.
Of course, In Gordon’s case, that knowledge is immense. The students (and yes, yours truly) constantly enjoyed many of Gordon’s stories and philosophies. After a serious update on the rosewood shortage Gordon made a statement saying “Breaking a marimba bar is a sin”. The students all laughed but, of course Gordon didn’t.
As someone who remembers earlier days for the modern marimba and it’s repertoire I find younger students don’t know enough about figures like Gordon Stout and what they’ve contributed to our art. To that end I know that Gordon is currently working on an iBook to help rectify this problem. We’ll keep you posted on that effort and be sure to let you know of it’s progress.
Gordon discussing his 2nd Mexican Dance

Gordon discussing his 2nd Mexican Dance


It’s refreshing to me to see how he has embraced technology. Gordon shared with me that along with his new ibook project he is also experimenting with video. Expect him to make the best use of the ibooks platform. You’ll also find Gordon on Twitter: @StoutGordon (I love his twitter profile pic). Gordon recently released a new CD entitled Welcome to Stoutland which will be released digitally soon. Hit the link above for more news and information about his new music and projects.
Want more Gordon? Be sure to check out our podcast interview from a few years back: Part I Part II.
Do you have any Gordon Stout impressions? If so, please share them below the post.

Stroke for Tone, Part Two- Predictable and Repeatable Strokes

ted hedbwToday we feature an article from Ted Rounds.

I use what I call a full stroke as the basic motion. Regardless of the stick height, the beginning and the end of the stroke are the same location in space and that location is the apex. For a thorough description of the full stroke, refer to the Method of Movement for Marimba by Leigh Howard Stevens. Stevens also refers to this stroke and its application as the “piston stroke,” an analogy that suffices, but that I do not use for insignificant reasons. (Please don’t ask me why). The full stroke has at least a couple of major components: the downstroke, and the upstroke. They can be varied in direct or inverse proportion to each other resulting in what can be characterized as less than full strokes and they have various applications. A sound that is produced by using more downstroke than upstroke is a preparation for a sound at a lower dynamic level. Conversely, a sound that is produced with a short downstroke followed by a larger upstroke is a preparation for a sound with a higher dynamic level. However, by definition, a downstroke without a consequent upstroke is a dead stroke. An upstroke without an antecedent downstroke is the sound of one hand clapping.

I do not subscribe to the notion of always playing with only the wrists or allowing the forearms to dominate either. What is needed for a large dynamic range and superior control without fatigue is as much range of motion as the player can develop. I practice several combinations of wrist and forearm motions. (Strokes generated by the fingers alone are difficult to compare in Stevens grip because the inner and outer sticks are held so differently from each other. Since what follows is applicable to several techniques, I will save the subject of isolated finger motion for another article).

My warm up usually consists of playing a series of double stops (or double verticals) at a tempo that requires a cyclic repetition: fast enough to prevent a noticeable stop at the apex of the stroke. The exercise is contained in my book, Mallet Keyboard Exercises, an application of the Four Basic Strokes. Without undue regard to volume but in complete regard to the metronome, I start by isolating the wrist motion by keeping my hands low and the forearms “quiet.” I try to keep the stick velocity (volume) moderate so the stroke doesn’t seem to be motionless at the apex. This provides a predictable and repeatable motion. After many repetitions, I gradually raise the level of my hands until the angle of the attack is no longer parallel to the bars, but is rather steep, utilizing the full range of motion my wrist has to offer. Then I reverse the process until my hands are low again. When you try this, pay careful attention to the timbres produced by the changing angle of attack. I also perform this part exercise at relatively low volume levels, especially during a warm up. As a matter of fact, I work on increasing the volume level by playing at faster tempos rather than just trying to play louder. Discerning higher volume levels is very subjective. If the stroke has fluidity (smooth transitions between cycles) increased tempo should have a direct affect on stick velocity and volume if the stick height remains constant.

There is no sense in practicing to become the sloppiest player who can also play the loudest, so hit the right notes. But if you never learn to use your forearms, you will join the “mezzo piano club,” whose only recourse for playing louder is by using crappy sounding sticks

Next, I isolate the motion of the forearm beginning with my hands in the lower position. All motion is generated by the forearm. The wrist has to remain very flexible because the larger muscle groups of the forearm make them a bit more unwieldy, and a stiff wrist will get sore and cause dead strokes. If you are having trouble executing this motion set your sticks down and try this: grasp your right forearm with your left hand and use your left hand to shake your right arm allowing the right wrist to move freely. As an aside, notice how well this works if your fingers are also loose. Now make a clenched fist out of your right hand and notice how your wrist cannot move freely. Back to the exercise.

As before, increase the degree to which you raise your forearm while keeping your wrist as loose as possible. To allow the mallet heads to make contact with the bars at a steeper angle, you will need to begin the upstroke with your forearm as the mallet heads are continuing their downward motion. As you will have a huge range of motion available, be careful not to damage your instrument. Reverse the process until the height of your stroke is where you started and begin using only your wrists again. With practice, the forearm generated stroke is repeatable and depending on your hand to eye coordination, is predictable as well. There is no sense in practicing to become the sloppiest player who can also play the loudest, so hit the right notes. But if you never learn to use your forearms, you will join the “mezzo piano club,” whose only recourse for playing louder is by using crappy sounding sticks.

As you can imagine, producing more stick velocity using the isolated motion of the wrist, and exercising more control using the forearm stroke are two abilities that must overlap. I accomplish this overlapping of skills by playing wide ranges of tempi. Faster rates of repetition often result in greater stick velocity and hence, more volume. The inverse is true for slower rates of speed. Adding variable dynamics to the exercise helps the two techniques to overlap. I also work on accent patterns with the isolation procedure as well as incorporating various amounts of extra stick height using the forearm.

This exercise is also useful in achieving greater facility of the other strokes: single independents, laterals, and alternating, although with the alternating stroke, the use of the forearm is generally superfluous except for adding accents. However, do not overlook the importance of varying the hand height when working on the alternating stroke.

This is all geared toward increasing flexibility and range of motion which also translates into increased strength and improved control. Having increased control over the dynamic range provided by both wrist and forearm motions is how a player can achieve consistency of volume in a given context. Consistency of volume in a given context is my first premise for achieving good tone. I almost always qualify that definition to include consistency of placement (hit the spot on the bar you are aiming for) and using sticks with sufficient mass to produce plenty of fundamental, and not so hard so the marimba sounds like a xylophone. Loud is not the same as harsh. Harsh can be “too loud for too long,” or the effect of overplaying the instrument, which usually ends up as broken bars.

To me, sticks that are too hard create a harsh sound. Sticks that are too soft are just “poofy,” and sticks with too much yarn are “thuddy.” Either may work in limited pitch ranges and in limited dynamic ranges. I rarely use sticks with graduated hardness as a set, i.e. soft in #1 position, medium soft in #2, medium hard in #3, and hard in #4. It’s not an inherently bad idea, just cumbersome in most situations. If the piece uses a texture that calls for the bass to be separate from the other voices consistently, I might be inclined to use a softer stick in the #1 position. In most cases, I would prefer to try to control the dynamics with a uniform set of sticks. By the way, you may have noticed that I use the term “sticks” instead of “mallets.” There is no particular reason- no big deal either way.

Speaking of thuddy sound and placement, notice how much more extraneous noise of the rails and frame are produced when playing out on the ends of the black notes. That particular part of the bar also produces a different harmonic spectrum than anywhere else you can play. Still a usable sound, and often a necessary concession the player must make to facilitate particular passages. However, when it is practical, I aim for the same placement on the black notes as I do on the white notes: somewhere between the strings. (OK, OK, the nodes.) This adds another opportunity to observe the stick height and angle of attack: when going from white notes to black notes and vice versa.

Another difficult concept to reconcile with consistent tone is “playing below the surface of the instrument.” This is a very useful idea to students of the martial arts when attempting to break boards, but pine is considerably less expensive than rosewood. If this concept is useful to you, by all means embrace it. There are other Zen-like ideas that seem more applicable to me, but they always seem to make more sense while imbibing in libations.

The instrument I play on is a bit lower in comparison to my height than many players prefer because I do not play with my hands as low to the keyboard as others. Therefore, my “middle of the road” stroke has a steeper angle of attack than those who position the instrument to facilitate the sticks being parallel to the surface of the keyboard. I prefer to achieve this slightly steeper angle without having to raise my shoulders and still have a wider range of forearm motion when necessary. I can still execute “flat stick” strokes, but it is by design rather than by default. This also makes it easier to play much higher on the mallet heads when necessary. To some, I may appear to be using more stick height than is necessary, and to some extent that may be true. I like to think of a neutral rest position with the mallet heads an inch or so off the keyboard. (Obviously, a completely relaxed position would be with my arms extended at my side, but I can’t play from there). In the “neutral” position the distance of the inch between the mallet heads and the keyboard is easily traversed by residual motion (gravity and inertia) as the muscles begin the upstroke portion of the cycle. As that return motion is begun, there is a natural spring-like action as the wrist approaches the end of its available range. This helps in returning to the apex of the stroke. Is this “the only way to play?” No, but it does make use of several muscle groups working together. When I play a drum with a stick, I prefer to do half the work: I do the downstroke, the drum and the stick do the upstroke. That doesn’t work as well on the marimba, so I need to find another way to do less work during the upstroke. Especially since the center of gravity in a marimba stick is almost totally located in the mallet head. I should add that the mass of the sticks I use is heavier than average. If the neutral position puts the sticks parallel with the keyboard (flat stick position), the range of motion available to the wrist is considerably less, so the dynamic range is limited to the stick velocity generated by a short stroke.

If the main controllable component of our sound is volume, then it is the consistency with which we execute predictable and repeatable strokes that produces the overall effect of good tone.

Experienced players are able to create considerable velocity with very low stick height and this is a necessary skill to play quickly at higher volume. Greater stick height means faster passages are going to be more difficult to execute. The exercise I described at the beginning of this article can help to develop these skills, but in my own playing, I “hit the wall” soon if my forearms are too low for my wrists to recoil. In order to generate a great deal of velocity with lower stick height, the contributing muscles (in this case, mostly wrist muscles) must contract very quickly and release in time for their counterparts to lift the sticks. It is an exercise in timing that if not executed properly can result in dead sticking. If nothing else, all the muscles of the wrist- the “down” muscles, and the “up” muscles are almost in a perpetual state of contraction. This is doable, but can result in a great deal of tension. Only careful practice will get you “over the wall.”

If the main controllable component of our sound is volume, then it is the consistency with which we execute predictable and repeatable strokes that produces the overall effect of good tone. It only makes sense that the player should concentrate on expanding the dynamic range at his/her disposal. It is in the creative use of dynamics to shape a phrase and the creative use of time and rhythm that makes for musicality. I have barely touched on the subject of alternative placement: using parts of the bar other than the “sweet spot” to contribute to palette of timbres we can produce.

Strive for fluidity of motion. Observe extraneous motion: is it counterproductive, or is it a natural result of playing expressively? Work toward efficiency and conservation of energy. That doesn’t mean moving like that robot dance they did in the 1980s. It also doesn’t mean confining yourself to only four inches of stick height (are you listening mezzo piano club?). Quit worrying about how many milliseconds your sticks are on the bar. Hit the damn thing and then get out of its way. See if you can hit it a hundred times the same way. Experience gravity and inertia. Increase your dynamic range at both extremes. Explore crescendo and diminuendo. Discover the optimum speed to roll at various volume levels. Discover when not to roll. Learn to play for recreation. Play in the dark. For sure, play in front of a video camera. Record your playing with decent equipment, and listen critically. Listen non-critically. Pay attention to your teachers, but ask them lots of questions. Get your own answers and revisit them later. Be prepared to change your mind, and it’s OK to sit on the fence and watch others battle it out. It’s silly to battle over this anyway.

Thanks Ted! So many thought provoking ideas here. Which ones interest you? Please leave your thoughts below the post.

Success and Failure

It’s really easy to get caught up in the success and failures of your career.

It’s human nature to identify our worth with the ups and downs of what is immediately happening. Maybe you just performed a piece that didn’t go so well. The result of this has always been for me to feel like I don’t even belong in the percussion world. Or – on the opposite side of the universe – maybe you just composed a piece for your ensemble and they learned it quickly, efficiently and it sounds great. All of a sudden, you feel like you should be on top of the percussion writing world.

What’s important is for us to realize is that if you’re having these ups and downs, it just means that you’re passionate about what you do. Every career runs in to some hard times, and that’s only magnified in the arts fields. But, at the end of the day, we’re all fortunate to know precisely what we’re passionate about. Many people wake up and go to work on a job they don’t really care for because they don’t know what else to do. As percussionists, we couldn’t imagine doing anything else besides percussion. We’re lucky because of that.

Elizabeth sums this up much more elegantly than I do…

Pin It on Pinterest