Memorizing mallet percussion music

Today I got to draw my favorite picture on the board for my students.
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That’s a percussion student standing on a dock and those are the shark-infested waters of memory slips in the water. One must build a dock with at least four pillars of support: (1) kinesthetic, (2) aural, (3) visualization, and (4) analysis.

Most developing mallet players only do 1 and 2, which is why they struggle with memory slips. 1 and 2 are important, but ultimately unreliable, especially when conditions are not ideal (e.g., cold room, no warm up, strange instrument, nervous, etc) 3 and 4 is where the real tedious work begins, but also guarantees a deeper knowledge of the piece, and is critical for preventing memory slips.

These ideas aren’t mine. Great pianists have been doing this for hundreds of years. I also learned this from Leigh Stevens when I attended his excellent marimba summer seminar in 1994. And then I learned it again in 2003 when I went on tour with Keiko Abe. Every day I would sit next to her on the bus as we went from town to town in Japan and she would have her eyes closed, in fierce concentration. Every once in a while she would pull out a score and study it for a few minutes and then put it back. She was visualizing herself playing the piece and whenever she got stuck and couldn’t remember which chunk of wood she was supposed to strike she would double check the score.

These techniques work. I tell my students about a book I read some years back that cited some research where scientists got together a group of people who had never thrown darts before. The scientists had everyone throw darts and they recorded the scores. Then the subjects were divided into three groups: a group that would physically practice throwing darts for a set time every day, a second group that would just visualize themselves throwing darts (and hitting the bulls eye), and a third group that would do a combination of throwing and visualizing every day. At the end of a period of time they all threw darts again and their scores were recorded.

The results were interesting. All of the subjects improved, but the group that improved the most was the group that did the combination of throwing and visualizing. But here’s what is really fascinating: the group that came in second was the group that only did the visualizing! The group that made the least progress was the group that only physically threw the darts.

Marimbas, vibraphones, xylophones, and glockenspiels aren’t much different than the bulls eye on a dart board. If you want to hit the right chunk of wood or metal every single time, no matter how adverse the conditions, you need to spend time visualizing yourself doing it successfully.

You also need to do some analysis of the piece so you have the structure mapped out in your mind. That works hand in hand with the visualization. The kind of analysis will change depending on the language of the piece. Obviously chord analysis won’t apply to a modern piece of chromatic music or a minimalist piece, but it really doesn’t matter how you analyze it or what terminology you use to label the different parts of the piece. What matters is that you have a road map in your head and that you can explain the piece to someone. Only then do you really have it learned.

Some thoughts on anger . . .

All my life I’ve been around people who can’t control their temper. I made a vow when I was young that I wouldn’t be like that. I’ve always felt that showing explosive anger towards other people is unproductive, unkind, and unprofessional. Even now as an adult, I’m still subject to this from time to time from colleagues in various situations. I’ve begun to understand that my role in this world to some extent is to absorb these outbursts. Of course it hurts. It’s offensive and it’s mean, but many people just can’t seem to master themselves. They struggle to see specific situations as part of a bigger picture, and they’re quick to point fingers at others without taking responsibility for their own failings. But we all fail at times. Not one of us is perfect. I’m not perfect, and that’s why I don’t scream at people when they make mistakes.
 
I’ve been criticized as a teacher for not being harder on my students. Some of my colleagues have suggested in the past that I “blast” them and “scream” at them when they make mistakes. But why? I see that as nothing more than arrogance from the teacher, showboating and posturing. How is it productive? In fact, it’s counter productive because then the students are only trying their best out of fear. How is that effective for their long-term growth and ability to solve problems on their own? And then I have to carry around that anger. I don’t want to carry that anger in my heart. I try to be honest with my students, but not mean.
 
It really boils down to the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. I try my best to live by that rule. It works. It’s logical. It makes the world a more productive and beautiful place.

The Scourge of Medium Yarn Mallets

One of the aspects of my career I enjoy most is performing and giving master classes at  universities and colleges.  I meet fabulous people and I like engaging with the next generation of composers and percussionists.  However, it seems that no matter where I go students have been afflicted with the scourge of medium yarn.  That is, when it comes to mallet playing, especially marimba playing, most of the time they default to medium yarn mallets.  Soft yarn comes in second and hard yarn a distant third.  In eighteen years of traveling all over the globe I have yet to hear a student use anything else.

But why not?  When I play marimba I use all manner of mallets, most of them home made.  This includes rubber, wood, plastic, paper, and regular yarn mallets that I cover with all sorts of different materials, including Tyvek, paper and plastic bags, Styrofoam, duct tape, flip flops, string, bags of bells, etc.  Sometimes I will also cover the marimba with bubble wrap or cloth or whatever else is on hand.  I frequently drop the upper manual of bars upon the lower manual; they then chatter away as I move around the instrument.  Sometimes I throw loose bundles of small dowels on the bars.  I’ve also experimented with preparing the instrument by taping various things to the bars that then rattle and buzz with each stroke or mute the bars, including plastic spoons, pieces of rubber, and cotton balls.

None of this damages the instrument.  Even wood mallets can be used in the low range of a marimba if one’s technique is sound.  To date I have not cracked a single bar and sometimes I play very, very hard.

I’m not the first marimbist to explore a broader timbral palette.  Keiko Abe used big, soft cluster mallets for many years.  My mentor at University of Michigan, Michael Udow, also used a wide variety of mallets, depending upon the situation.  But few percussionists of my generation or younger have explored a more wildly creative approach to sound when it comes to mallet instruments.  When I propose a more dramatic approach to mallet selection in master classes I’m frequently met with incredulity or even outright hostility.  There are many reasons for this.

First, I’ve observed that most developing percussionists are primarily concerned with their own physical comfort.  Medium yarn mallets feel good.  They sit nicely in the hands and they produce warm, resonant sounds across most of the instrument.  But while medium yarn mallets might be appropriate for some solo repertoire, they rarely sound good in ensemble situations.   They’re generally too soft and inarticulate, even when the players are amplified.  For most ensemble situations the player will need mallets that are much harder.  Unfortunately these are not nearly as comfortable.  Hard mallets reveal rhythmic imperfections in one’s passage work.  It is much harder to create the illusion of sustain when rolling.  Double, triple, and quadruple stops require greater precision to avoid flamming.  The trick to getting used to them is simply to practice with hard mallets.

Second, more than any other instrument save electric guitar, the percussive arts are subject to intense industry influence.  Part of the reason for this is that we play so many different instruments.  Between the different instruments and the actuators used to make them sound, there are hundreds of opportunities for companies to make something that they can sell to you.  No other instrument allows for someone to get up before a concert and thank five or six sponsors before performing.  This is especially true with mallet companies.  The bulk of their income comes from drum set sticks and marching band sticks and mallets, but they do make some money from selling marimba mallets.  And their primary output is yarn mallets.  There is nothing wrong with this, of course.  These companies make a great product and undoubtedly the majority of marimba parts call for yarn mallets, but the result of all this yarn-mallet-making activity is that students are led to believe that yarn mallets are the only option.

Part of this has to do with the number of percussion teachers who have sponsorships.  I’m one of them.  I enjoy a Malletech sponsorship and the folks there have been incredibly supportive of my artistic activities.  And Malletech makes quite a few mallets that I couldn’t make at home. They have patents on some of their designs and even if I could get the materials I doubt I could make the mallets as well as they do since they have an entire infrastructure built around making great mallets. I’m not arguing to do away with beautiful mallets made by great companies like Malletech, I’m only suggesting that these be part of the entire picture.

The problem with developing percussionists is that after being subjected to a barrage of yarn-mallet advertisements and sponsored artists, most young students conclude that indeed yarn mallets are the only way to go.  And then the tail is wagging the proverbial dog.  Instead of artists dictating the direction and shape of the musical landscape it is the companies.  As a friend pointed out to me, the situation then becomes ever more circular, spiraling down into a vortex of materialism and convenience.  The companies influence the players on their mallet selection, the players then commission pieces for that sound world, the composers write the pieces and then the mallet companies respond accordingly.  The circle is complete.

But the truth is you can hit a marimba (or any percussion instrument) with virtually anything.  Yarn mallets are only option among many, and a rather new one at that.  In fact, for years marimbists preferred rubber mallets.  (Early vaudeville xylophonists even used wood mallets on occasion.)  If get your hands on early recordings of Vida Chenoweth or Claire Omar Musser you’ll hear that much of the time they were using rubber mallets.  And their playing was expressive and technically accomplished.

So what happened?  Leigh Howard Stevens happened.  Leigh took the marimba world by storm in the last 1970s and completely revolutionized the approach to playing it as well as the construction of the instrument itself and the mallets we use to play it.  Leigh advocated using longer birch shafts and yarn wrapping around the ball of the mallet.  This approach allows the player more accuracy and helps produce a sweet, mellow sound with a pleasing blend of the fundamental and overtones of each bar.  Leigh is not only a consummate artist, but also a savvy businessman and he was able to convert his vision of marimba playing into a thriving and innovative company that makes some of the best marimbas, vibraphones, xylophones, and mallets available, especially yarn mallets.  What people missed, though, is that Leigh’s approach works for Leigh’s style of playing and for the repertoire he has commissioned and championed, but it’s not the only way to play the instrument.  It is a testament to Leigh’s artistry and business acumen that he was able to influence several generations of percussionists the world over.  There’s a reason why he’s in the PAS Hall of Fame. But in blindly following him we have become like lemmings running off a cliff, jumping to a death of timbral conformity. I say all this with the utmost respect as Leigh is a friend and a mentor.

I bring this up to articulate a third point, which is that the present yarn-mallet culture is historically new and was preceded by a very different aesthetic.  Just because most people use a type of mallet now does not mean it was always the case.  Styles and attitudes change.  Nothing is set in stone, not even the hallowed medium yarn mallet.

If we don’t explore radically different mallet options then we limit our range of expression on the instrument.  Violinists have all manner of expressive devices literally at their fingertips (or bow), including sul tasto, pizzicato, sul ponticello, different vibrato speeds, spiccato, etc.  Our choices are seemingly much more limited.  But in fact we can explore dead strokes, playing with the shafts, playing on nodal points, and different beating spots on the bars.  Few marimbists do this, but those sounds are available with little effort.  Combined with different mallet changes and even preparations of the instrument, the sound possibilities are truly limitless.  We actually have more color available to us than said violinists.  (Though admittedly switching between them is a bit cumbersome.)

With all the problems in the world it may appear petty for me to be griping about mallet selection.  After all, if someone prefers manufactured mallets it’s their own business, right?  Sure, but these details matter because they bespeak of larger issues.  When one reaches into a bag and grabs a pair of mallets one is making a political statement whether one wants to or not.  It may be a statement that only fellow percussionists fully appreciate, but it still ripples out and beyond the specific activity of tapping wooden bars and the community that surrounds that activity.  This is why I make so many of mallets.  Besides the fact that it is cheaper, it gives me total control over the sound, the sound that is appropriate for that specific musical situation. I would love to see mallet companies follow suit and offer more variety of mallets made with a greater variety of materials.

I admit that much of what I’m saying follows my predilection that when it comes to interpretations I lean towards the fringe.  Glenn Gould is my favorite pianist and always will be.  I’ve always thought that in the pantheon of great pianists there’s a whole bunch of them swarming around together in a bubble—and they more or less sound the same—and then there’s Glenn Gould.  His output wasn’t complete (one needs Horowitz for Liszt, for example), but he’s still the most unique and creative pianist of the last 100 years.

When a whole generation of percussionists relies solely on manufactured mallets their range of expression narrows considerably.  Manufactured mallets produce a manufactured sound.  Most of the young men and women I’ve coached in the last 15 years are in their late teens or early 20s.  Typically this is a time of searching and discovery in one’s life.  The most important aspect of going to a college or university is to learn to think independently, analytically, and creatively, and to question systems.  If there’s one time in one’s life to really think about giving it to The Man, this is it.  But I’ve found a curious lack of rebelliousness among young people.  (This is as true in New York City as it is in Idaho.)  I don’t know if it’s the mind-dulling deluge of Netflix, reality shows, internet, advertising, and pop music, or the addiction to processed fast food, of the pervasive lack of exposure to nature or all of the above, but something seems to be preventing our young people from taking a more creative approach to interpreting music on the marimba.  The points I’ve discussed above only exacerbate the problem.

At any rate, it is time to move to another stage in the evolution of marimba playing.  And it is time to encourage the next generation of percussionists to approach their mallet selection with more creativity and faithfulness to the essence of each piece. With the world at our fingertips through the internet we have unprecedented access to more music than any other time in recorded human history.  It is an exciting time to be a musician.  In mere seconds we can traverse the globe, listening to master musicians from many diverse cultures.  When we zoom in on different kinds of mallet playing from different parts of the world we hear a cornucopia of color blasting from our speakers.  Why not let that us inform and inspire us?  Why settle for only medium yarn?

Cars are the problem, bikes are the solution

I put up a lot of posts about how great it is to commute to work on a bicycle. In general they’re quite upbeat and positive because I figure people have enough struggle in their lives that they don’t want to read a negative post, but what I hide from you Dear Readers is the frustration I feel living in a country that values cars more than people. Riding a bike to work is more than an effort to stay fit, it’s a giant middle finger to a culture that values automobiles over people’s lives. Everything proves this to be true: our laws, our infrastructure, our civic planning, our budget allocations, our attitudes towards driving, everything. We care more about cars than people. Cycling to work for me is a celebration of human potential, of the vast potential we all have inside of us. It’s a way of walking the walk and proving that it can be done and that the first thing we need to do is change our attitudes towards transportation.

Yesterday a man high on opioids plowed into a gas station and killed three people right here in Wayne, NJ. He survived and guess what? This was his SECOND conviction for driving under the influence of drugs. Why was he allowed back behind the wheel after that? Because it’s more important to us as a society that he be allowed to drive a car than the safety of anyone else, and because we’ve created a culture where other forms of transportation are not available or ridiculed. Guess what else? You, Dear Reader, can go out right now and kill as many cyclists and pedestrians as you like with your car. As long as you say “I didn’t see them” when you get to court you go scotch free, no matter that you may have been texting or half asleep or applying makeup. THIS ISN’T RIGHT. Of course, I’ll be the first to point out how many cyclists I see riding poorly, with no visibility and in dangerous ways. They too, should be subject to traffic safety laws, just as we are with seatbelts. But they’re not because bikes are not recognized as viable forms of transportation in most American municipalities.

In our neighborhood, every day I see parents driving their kids to school, and they live ONE BLOCK from the school. One block! It takes them more time to drive their kids than it does for Jessica and I to walk our kids the four blocks. And what have those kids learned? They’ve learned to be lazy, to be afraid of the elements, and they’ve learned that cars are the only viable source of transportation.

And yes, I’ve written letters to our elected officials, and I’ve donated money to organizations that work to improve the legal system. These things help, but I also think it helps to point out once in a while that the best way to beat a system totally dependent on cars is to opt OUT OF IT as much as possible. Despite what our culture tells us, cars are NOT the only form of transportation, and they are in fact one of the most dangerous and destructive forces of modern society, the cause of much of our country’s woes. This is why I ride as much as possible and why I encourage other people to do the same.

It’s very simple: cars should only be used as a last resort, when there is no other option for getting somewhere safely or if one needs to move large objects or the distance/time ratio doesn’t work. They should never be used as a form of primary transportation. Never. Cars are the problem. Bikes are the solution.

However, if you’re considering biking to work, call me first. In order to survive you have to know what you’re doing. It takes FAR MORE SKILL than driving a car to stay safe. Many cyclists are killed each year because their skills are poor and they don’t know what they’re doing. And you need a basic set of gear. I’m happy to help and if you live in North Jersey I’ll do the commute with you a few times to show you the ropes. Safety, safety, safety!

To Hell With it, I’m Going to Make More Experimental Art.

Over the years I’ve gotten used to many of the people around me thinking the music I love is strange. Most of my family, friends, a lot of the percussive arts community, even some of my students and colleagues. Forget about the American public as a whole; if they pay attention to what I’m doing at all it’s only to ridicule it.

But it’s a newer and tougher pill to swallow to see how much my daughters dismiss my work. I knew I wouldn’t be the center of their universe forever, but still it came up faster than I anticipated how marginalized experimental and Hindustani music is in their world view. I’ve had a privileged life so I don’t publicly complain much about things, but it does get tiring having to justify my existence over and over again. People seem to understand that my teaching has value–and my daughters do see that my university job translates to money which translates to a roof over their heads and food on the table–but beyond that I think they’re at a loss as to why I spend so much time and energy composing music that few people listen to, making films that few people watch, practicing pieces that most people dislike, and singing a style of Indian classical music that most people find tough sledding.

Maybe they’re right. I could quit it all tomorrow and the world would keep spinning just fine. I wouldn’t even get fired from my university job. Nothing would happen at all. Except I’d rather die. Seriously, if I can’t make experimental music I’d rather not be on this planet. It’s what I was made to do.

So, to hell with it. I’m going to get up tomorrow and make more experimental music. The world needs it, even if it doesn’t know it. And more importantly, I need it.

Motorcycles, part 2

Well, reading over that previous post it would seem that I would have those bikes forever. But dear readers, the fact is that there are a lot of great bikes out there for a good price on Craigslist.

As much as I liked that CB750 Nighthawk I decided to modernize my touring bike. I sold the Nighthawk and picked up a 2009 Kawasaki Versys 650 with only 8K miles for an excellent price. It came with the engine guards and side luggage (I purchased the rear luggage and the hand guards).

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In three months I’ve already put over 2K miles on it. Unfortunately I’ve been so busy with work stuff I haven’t been able to get out for a longer trip, but I’ve got a big one planned for next summer. That bike is amazingly capable on any road. It slices up twisties with ease, but on the interstate it will cruise at 80 mph without breaking a sweat. It’s a beautiful bike.

I don’t need that much bike for running around town, though. The Suzuki TU250 was a fun little bike, but after a few months I decided I wanted something with more power, so I sold it and picked up this 2016 Yamaha YZF R3 for a very good price. It had 2,600 miles and not a scratch.

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Wow, that little bike rips. Although it’s only 321cc with about 40 horsepower it’s more than enough for around town. Even on the interstate it will hit 80 without working too hard, though I definitely prefer the bigger bike for interstate trips.

I thought about getting an R6, but it’s just way too much power for public roads, plus the insurance is super expensive. It’s frustrating enough having to putt along at 40 mph on the R3. On the R6 it would be downright aggravating. Also, the ergonomics of the R3 make it much more suitable for daily commuting. I’ve already put over a thousand miles on it in just two months.

Are these the last motorcycles I will ever buy? I doubt it, but I’m very happy for now. I got both of these bikes for cheaper than a new one at the dealer and they’re basically in showroom condition. They’re reliable, fast, fun, and practical.

Motorcycles!

I love motorcycles. I’ve been riding motorcycles off and on since I was six years old, and they’ve always loomed large in my consciousness. Seeing America on a motorcycle is an inspiring experience. Motorcycles connect one with the road, the elements, and the vehicle in a way that isn’t possible with a car. On a motorcycle you feel the gear shifts, the Gs on the turns, the speed. You’re literally sitting on the engine, and every firing of those pistons reverberates in your body. Riding a motorcycle is visceral, energizing, and centering. It requires tremendous concentration, and tremendous skill. In its own way, it’s very musical: the sound of the engine purring, the rhythm of the turns, the whistle of the wind.

I own two bikes. Here’s a photo of my 1992 Honda CB750 Nighthawk:

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And another because, well, it’s cool:

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I’ve put some big miles on that bike, over 8,000 in the last two years. I bought it used from a guy via Craigslist. I had it regeared, got a new petcock, and a few other things. That’s an amazing bike. Even though it’s carbureted, the carbs are of the most refined type at the pinnacle of carburation technology and once it’s warmed up it just purrs. Motorcycle enthusiasts regularly refer to the CB750 as one of the best bikes ever made for all-around general use and although I’m not an expert I suspect they are correct. It just never fails and it is very, very smooth, with an even power band and heaps of torque and power. It’s phenomenally reliable and lasts a long time. I regularly see posts on forums from guys who have put over 100,000 miles on their CB750s. I’m only at 29,000, so I have a ways to go. I plan to keep that bike for a long time and continue doing bigger trips on it.

But as much as I love that bike, it’s a bit much for just getting around town, so I recently picked up a second bike, a 2011 Suzuki TU250x:

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This bike is frequently listed as one of the finest commuter bikes ever made. The fuel injection is buttery smooth, and repairs and maintenance are a snap. It’s bullet proof in the same way that the Honda is, but it’s over 140 pounds lighter and geared in such a way that it excels at lower speeds. The lighter weight makes it much easier to park and deal with traffic around town.

I got the Suzuki just a few days ago from a woman who only put 850 miles on it in the last seven years (but her husband kept it running during the down times and changed the gas and oil, etc, so it wasn’t just sitting). It is literally in show room condition, absolutely perfect. They kept it garaged and on a battery tender the whole time they owned it.

So now I’m riding it, and I hit the 1K mark on the odometer today:

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I took an early morning ride and hit some back roads:

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45 mph was the fastest zone I hit, mostly I was in 35 or 40 mph zones. Even though that bike is only 250cc and just 16 horsepower, the Suzuki engineers did an amazing job at getting every ounce of power out of that thing. It holds its own quite admirably up into the 60s. Of course, it’s not the Nighthawk, which as a 750 and with 75 horsepower excels at higher speeds, but the 250 has more than enough power for what I need around town. And it averages 75 miles per gallon!

There’s nothing better than seeing small-town America on a motorcycle:

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I was all grins, all morning, as I traveled on back roads up into New York state:

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Got to see some cool stuff, like these small planes at a rural airport:

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Smaller bikes are the way to go. With a top speed of 126mph the 750 is very capable well into the 90s (don’t ask how I know that . . . ), and completely rock solid at interstate speeds. And for smaller roads the 250 is more than adequate. Americans like bigger bikes, but that’s mostly just ego and posturing. With smaller bikes you actually feel the bike and you feel the ride. And what a sweet ride it is!

And to finish, yes, I’m very careful out there. I do everything you’re supposed to do: I wear full armor (head to toe), high vis reflective clothing, full-face helmet, I avoid driving during rush hour and dusk and dawn, I never speed, I never drive under the influence of anything, and I always assume people can’t see me and don’t care. I always have an escape route planned, at all times, at every instant. I watch videos every week on how to improve my safety, and I’m taking a second, advanced safety course this summer. I ride dependable bikes that put me in an upright position for better visibility, and I keep them maintained. I don’t ride to look cool or “get chicks” (I already have a super chick, thank you very much), I ride because I love it, and I want to stay alive as long as possible so I can keep doing it.

The statistics about motorcycling look bad on the surface, but once you take out of the equation all the drunk motorcyclists, the ones without helmets, the ones who are speeding, the ones who haven’t had any safety training, etc, etc, the numbers are not far off from cars, and some people argue it’s actually safer because you’re actually paying attention to what you’re doing. Of course, not everything is under my control, but I’m doing what I can to make the statistics work in my favor. At the end of the day, I think the risk is worth it for the immeasurable improvement to my life. Life is short, and I want to ride, and see this amazing country this way.

Thanks for reading, and ride safe!