Another project? Well, it can run parallel to my big recording project because most of the music I create with Sonic Peaks ends up getting recorded and then released under my Explorations series of recordings. So, instead of writing about Sonic Peaks here, I invite you to check out the WEBSITE. And, here’s a promo video that explains the project:
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One year completed, 52 marimba recordings
That went fast. Here I am a year later and I finished it. 52 marimba recordings in 52 weeks. I thought that might be enough, but I’ve become so accustomed to the work that I plan to keep going for at least another year. 100 is a better number anyway, more iconic.
Each recording takes on average 20 hours a week. The open improvisation solo recordings go down pretty fast (although it took me tens of thousands of hours of practice and study and 30 years of playing marimba to get to that point). But all the rest of the recordings can be very time consuming. A few of them were over 40 hours, soup to nuts. It’s a lot of time and energy, basically another job on top of my life as a college professor and Dhrupad singer and everything else I’m doing professionally. But it’s worth it, every second of it. Aside from the fact that I feel more connected to the instrument, I’ve expanded considerably my vocabulary as a composer and improviser and opened up whole new territory on the instrument.
Here’s what I’ve done so far:
-expanded the timbral possibilities on marimba through mallet construction, preparations, and digital manipulation
-commissioned several new pieces from different composers
-made the first recordings on marimba of music by Anthony Braxton, Elliott Sharp, and Barry Guy
-made the first ever marimba recording of Hindustani music
-started a new series of jazz standards on the instrument
-created the first body of recorded repertoire for the instrument in the “free” or “open” improvisation genres, with many collaborations, including Weasel Walter, Susie Ibarra, Gideon Forbes, Steven Crammer, Pedro Carneiro, and more
-made a series of recordings for meditation/yoga purposes, which I’m gradually trying to get out to those communities, including a collaboration with handpan master Sean Dello Monaco
-expanded considerably my graphic score work
The self-imposed deadline of a recording a week, every week, has become so second nature that it feels weird not to make a recording every week. During the summer I got ahead by a month, but as school started and my days filled up with teaching and administrative work I’m back to finishing a recording during the week and loading it up before midnight on Sunday. Sometimes the days get a little frenetic, but I never feel like I’m recording just for the sake of recording. I’ll vouch for every note I’ve released to the public.
Of course with this much volume some of the tracks are better than others, but that’s true even for people who only release one or two recordings their whole career. At the time that I release something I’m fully convinced of its value. And even the freely improvised recordings have more editing and curation than one might think. I often delete as many tracks as I end up keeping, and sometimes it’s more like a 10:1 ration of deleted material to what I end up keeping.
So, what’s ahead? More collaborations, and deeper engagement with what I’ve already developed. I’m really just getting started.
What has the reception been so far? It’s hard to say since I’ve only promoted it via local channels like Facebook groups and email lists. Next year I have some bigger events planned to celebrate an upcoming quartet recording with Elliott Sharp, Billy Martin, and Colin Stetson, as well as the 100-week mark. For those I plan to hire a publicist and see if I can build a larger, more global audience for my work.
The percussive arts community’s response has been mostly positive. I regularly get messages from folks who are fascinated by the project and interested in what I’m doing. A few folks have cried foul on my more dissonant and crazy improvisation videos, stating that it’s “not music” or whatever. I don’t take much stock in that since few of them have really studied the improvised repertoire or know the history of that music. Honestly, I’m glad for the arguments those videos create. That pot needs a bit of stirring. I also encourage them to check out my more “inside” playing. When I play with extended techniques, they’re definitely an extension of the fundamentals that I’ve worked hard to master, and continue to practice and refine. But I welcome vigorous discussion.
So, onwards and upwards. I’m just getting started.
It’s a conversation.
Imagine you’re in a big room at a large social gathering. You’re talking with other professional musicians, exploring aesthetics, the mechanisms of survival, and all else related to the field. There are real people in the room, and there are also spirits from the past. Pauline Oliveros comes up in the conversation, as does John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Beethoven, Stravinksy, Led Zeppelin, Max Roach, Hildegard, Machaut, and so many others.
After some time, you tell your friends you want to introduce them to someone new. You leave the room, and return with a young musician. This is one of your students. You spent the last four years preparing them for this conversation. They can keep up. They can talk aesthetics, they have their own creative projects brewing, they have their own relationship with the great masters of the past. They are ready for the conversation.
Once you bring them in and make introductions, you step back and you give them the space and the support they need to speak. And you enjoy watching them not only become part of the conversation, but begin to shape how the conversation develops. You see them developing new friends and you see new relationships blossoming. And thus the conversation is deepened, expanded, and enriched.
Sometime later there’s another social gathering. This time you’re not introducing the person you brought in last time, but standing next to them sharing your recent experiences with the other guests in the room. After a while your former student says, “Hey everyone, I want to introduce you to someone I’ve been working with.”
And the conversation continues.
3 Months in the Marimba Project
I’m now three months into my massive marimba recording project, and I have released 13 new recordings, one per week. Those plus the few I have in the hopper and my previous recordings put me up to 23 solo marimba recordings.
This project has changed my life in many ways. That sounds melodramatic, but I mean it seriously. For the last few years I’ve found my energies spread too far. After leaving Alarm Will Sound to focus more on my solo work, I was making films, singing Dhrupad, running a college percussion studio, playing in NJPE and various freelance gigs, etc. It was intoxicating to allow my creative powers to blossom in so many directions, but also exhausting, and at the end of the day I found that I just couldn’t keep up. In a burst of inspiration last October (partly from reconnecting with my long-time visual artist friend Beeple, AKA Mike Winklemann, who has created an original work of art every single day for 14 years), I decided to launch this massive marimba recording project.
So, it puts me behind the instrument about 20-30 hours a week, which in its own way is exhausting, but the extreme focus has been a welcome change from being too spread out. And what I’ve found is that there is so much to do. There are so many things I’ve avoided doing for a long time, and I realize now I was avoiding them by bouncing from one thing to another. It’s easier to stay busy than it is to solve problems, especially artistic ones.
Having a weekly deadline is important. Does quantity beget quality? In many ways, yes, I would argue it does, especially if one is already at a high level of musical and technical accomplishment. At the very least, the act of creating music has become more normalized for me, like brushing my teeth or making breakfast. The practicality of getting a recording out every week quickly overrides the conservatory-induced paranoia about producing masterpieces. Is every track going to win a Pulitzer Prize? No, but every track is part of an overarching journey that is deepening my relationship to the instrument, and expanding the expressive possibilities of the instrument, in all dimensions. I will vouch for every note that is on every recording. Nothing gets published if it isn’t the best work I can do at that time, but I also recognize that the recording I release this week may in some ways be stronger than the recordings I released two months ago. My playing is perhaps a touch better, I’m more confident with my creative powers, my vocabulary has expanded, and my skills with recording, mixing, and mastering continue to improve. And, for the first time in my life, I’m allowing myself to reflect in a more sustained way about my creative work.
Will I eventually cull some of this massive output of work? Probably not. It’s a zero-sum game to constantly look backwards and see only negativity. The true act of courage for an artist isn’t obsessing over an unattainable notion of perfection, but rather embracing the asymptotic process of discovering the most necessary and personal contribution to the field.
To be sure, I delete nearly as much material as I release. Many days I go in my studio for several hours and create and record music, only to hit delete at the end of the session. No matter. Sometimes knowing the right road is a matter of going down the wrong one for a little bit. I still manage to finish a complete recording each week.
Does anyone listen to this music? Does anyone care? So far, there’s been little engagement, only in the hundreds. I’m no different than any other artist. I would love it if my work was well-received and spread widely. However, I also realize that much of the work I’m doing is extremely intense and requires the listener to expend some time and energy digesting it, as well as an open mind about different parameters of sound and of what music is and can be. It has crossed my mind that I would gain a bigger following in the percussive arts community and beyond if I released material that is more directly connected to the standard repertoire or popular music, but that’s not what inspires me. And, why do that when so many other artists are already doing it so well? Besides, I’ve already worked through most of the standard rep. As much as I enjoy playing it, I view it as more of a stepping stone to my creative work, not a final resting place for me.
I think there is room for all of us, but it’s important that we each be honest about how we can best contribute to the conversation. I’ve always tended towards the experimental and the avant-garde. As Lou Harrison once said, I’m in the R&D department of music. Certainly, it has less commercial appeal, but I do believe that those of us working in that area are contributing something meaningful to the art form. We’re asking “what if?”, a question that ultimately keeps the art form vital, and protects us from falling into musical and marimbistic solipsism.
So, I will continue. And as my engagement with the project deepens, I see how in fact that it isn’t really a specialization at all. It’s an expansion. An expansion of my creative powers, my foundational marimba and percussion playing, and ultimately about placing my creative voice into the vast, unyielding, beautiful, harsh, and wondrous world of creative music and the percussive arts community.
Thanks for reading and listening, much love to you, and best wishes in your own creative work. Please stay in touch.
52 marimba recordings in 52 weeks
52 marimba recordings in 52 weeks. I needed another massive project to focus my energy and this is it. I’m now ten weeks in and it’s rocking. If you want to listen to the music GO HERE.
There are three basic categories of recordings:
- Super Marimba
- one-off projects, usually collaborations
The Super Marimba recordings are focused aesthetically: modal, psychedelic, layered, textured recordings, often groove based and tuneful. The Explorations series is my sonic sandbox, and includes everything from sweet, delicate pieces to music that is completely bonkers, off the charts nuts.
It’s exhilirating and exhausting. The recordings typically take about 20 hours per week, sometimes less, oftentimes much more.
Bike riding was an inspiration for this. The ultra-distance bikepacking events I’ve completed have a lot in common with a project like this. In the ultra-endurance sports community people do these kinds of irrational, arbitrary, soul-expanding events all the time. (E.g., Dean Karnazes doing 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days . . .) This stuff might seem insane, unless you’re wired a certain way, in which case it’s essential to maintain sanity. For me, going insane is not doing some crazy project that pushes me out of my comfort zone. Me and couches don’t get along well. I need to be in motion.
Mike Winkelman‘s art was also an inspiration. He has produced an original work of art for almost 14 years straight, which adds up to almost 5,000 works of art. He hasn’t missed a single day. That’s extraordinary. Fortunately, we’re friends and he’s letting me use some of his art for the recordings. Here are a few examples from the last few weeks:
I’m finally ready for something like this. I couldn’t have pulled this off even five years ago. I didn’t have the confidence, nor was my playing quite ready. The toolkit has to be massive to do this, and the well has to be deep. (Undoubtedly completing my Sonic Divide project also gave me the strength to try this.)
The other development in my music is that over the last six years I’ve become reasonable adept at using Ableton, a music software program for live or studio applications. Indeed, at this point I regard it as a second instrument. It’s a vast program and I’ve likely only tapped about 20% of its capability, but I can do what I need with it. Over the last 20 years I’ve spent many hours in recording studios pestering engineers with questions about mic placement, rooms, EQ, compression, reverb, mixing chains, and more, and I’m now able to handle the recording myself. I don’t anticipate winning any Grammys as a recording engineer, but I’ve held up my recordings to others in the same genre and I feel confident that they’re solid. At the very least, they sound the way I want them to sound, and at the end of the day that’s all that matters.
Having my marimba set up in my office with the mics ready to go and my computer just a few feet away makes it easy for me to lay down tracks at any time of day. Certainly the quarantine has also been helpful as I don’t have any concerts to prepare for.
This project is also possible because the infrastructure for sharing music has finally become user-friendly and affordable. Between Distrokid and Bandcamp I can upload a full recording in less than an hour. Of course, that brings with it a new problem: there are literally millions of great artists uploading great music every second of the day, but how does anyone find it? I’m confident that there are millions of people out there who would like my music (especially the Super Marimba material), but finding those people and building that community is easier said than done. I’m very good at producing work, but not so great at promoting it. That’s something I need to work on. The diversity of my artistic output also makes me a marketing nightmare, but these are solvable problems that I will continue to address.
Quantity can beget quality. There are those rare creators who produce very little work but everything they produce is perfect, but most of the best artists I’ve engaged with in every discipline are prolific. They’re prolific because it’s the work that matters the most. It’s the daily meditation of getting up, finding the flow state, working, sharing it, and then doing it again, day after day, week after week, decade after decade. The creative act becomes reflexive, like breathing. Not every piece is perfect, perhaps, but the act of creating is perfect, and even the less-than-perfect pieces are necessary to build the vocabulary and support the aesthetic intuition that leads to the best work.
Who can say what should be kept or what should be thrown away? Of course I have a baseline. Nothing goes public if I don’t fully believe in it and I end up deleting A LOT of tracks and obsessively reworking and editing tracks before releasing them, but one thing I’ve learned over the years is that if I spend too much time ruminating over things my creative process freezes. Different pieces speak to people in different ways at different points in their lives. So I do the work, I share it, and then I move on. And anyway, once it leaves my hard drive the work takes on its own life.
I love the marimba. It’s always been my favorite percussion instrument. I love the boom in the low register that fills your gut, the pop in the high register, the color of the bars, the shape of the instrument, everything. I love the way it is simulaneously a percussion instrument and a keyboard instrument, with connections to Bach and Debussy, but also to West African balafon players and Indonesian Gamelan, and in my case, the American Experimental Tradition. But even though I love this instrument through and through, I’ve never allowed myself to dive deep into the instrument. Not like this anyway. Not with this level of intensity, not with the full power of my creativity unleashed.
I don’t know where this journey will lead me, but I’m embracing the process. I feel like I’m gradually getting out of a familiar town. The neighborhoods are getting smaller, the population more sparse, services are dwindling, and dusk is settling in. There’s an anxious, nervous energy welling up inside me. It’s going to be a long night, but only in the darkest and most remote landscapes will I encounter those strange creatures that frighten and awe, both malevolent and quietingly beautiful. When dawn emerges, somewhere deep in the wilderness, surrounded by 52 recordings of my own music, I will feel resplendent with courage, a journey of my spirit etched in 0s and 1s, my soul radiant, energized, and smiling. I hope you’ll join me.
The three pillars of good teaching
After years of thinking about teaching from both the perspective of a student and a teacher, I have come to the conclusion that good teaching is fundamentally comprised of three things:
Without competence the students don’t trust the teacher. Without organization the students get confused. Without passion the students aren’t inspired.
Good teaching is based on trust, clarity, and inspiration, which result from competence, organization, and passion.
A good teacher needs all three. Many teachers have two out of three, some only have one, and the worst teachers have none. For example, when a teacher is organized and passionate but incompetent the students don’t trust the information. Why should they? If the teacher can’t do the thing they’re teaching why would the student trust that anything they say is true?
Likewise, if the teacher is competent and passionate, but disorganized, the student quickly becomes confused. Organized pedagogy moves forward incrementally, without creating gaps or holes that require further repairs, thus wasting time and embedding bad habits.
And, a teacher may be very competent and organized, but if they lack passion for the subject then the student won’t feel inspired. Passion is infectious, and can spark a fire in a student that lasts a lifetime, indeed, many lifetimes if that student eventually becomes a teacher and moves the knowledge to another generation.
Competence, organization, and passion.
I recently revved out of town for a night of motorcycle camping. I’ve dreamed of doing this for years and I finally have the bike for it, a 2009 Kawasaki Versys 650 outfitted with full luggage, windshield, handguards, engine guards, and a phone charger from the battery tender line.
I love that bike. It’s comfortable and easy to see (and be seen), but it’s got a Kawi Ninja engine and it can really rip, even when you’re up at speed. It will carve up twisties with no problem, it handles gravel roads just fine (even with the stock street tires), but even at sixth gear at 85 mph on the freeway it still has plenty of juice to zip away from lousy drivers. With about 64 hp and 61 Nm of torque and a top speed of 124 mph, it’s an awesome machine.
So I headed West, as all young(ish) men do, interstate 80 to Pennsylvania, then back roads to a campground in the middle of the state. I love those lonely back roads. They’re quiet, intimate, and they link one to the small towns in America that are still home to millions of people, worlds away from the urban and suburban trails I usually tread.
I even found a bit of gravel.
Eventually I made it to the campground. I got a fire going and enjoyed some pizza and pop tarts for dinner (yeah, yeah, not so healthy . . .)
It was a sweet spot, with a stream running just a few feet away. It was cool enough to keep the bugs away, but not so cold that I couldn’t sit by the fire and sing Dhrupad for an hour as it got dark.
I slept well and was back on the road by 6:30 a.m. I never leave much later than that. I’m up early and always excited to get back on the bike. I put in my ear plugs and don my fabulous Shoei full-faced helmet and off I go on that intense meditation, not so different than Dhrupad, actually. The feeling of that machine working right underneath me, completely connected to the road, and the undulations of the highway, is beyond description. The stakes are high, and so is my concentration, higher than almost any other time in my life. I was home by noon, refreshed and shiny, glad to be alive and able to ride that impressive bike throughout this diverse and epic country. I’m counting the days until my next adventure.
Memorizing mallet percussion music
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.
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!