About Playing The Xylophone (lecture delivered at PASIC 1995)

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I have to say, it’s becoming more and more difficult for me to think of things to say about playing the xylophone these days. Even though it’s an instrument that I still play fairly regularly on NEXUS concerts, it’s not something that I spend much time with outside of that context. It’s interesting to me because the xylophone is an instrument that I was into pretty heavily for a period of about ten years back in the early 70s. It was a very exciting time in my life, when I also was getting started with instruments like tabla, gamelan, mbira and various kinds of African drums. The funny thing to me is that, at that time, I was receiving really top-level training from master players on everything except the xylophone, and yet that seems to be the instrument that I always get asked to talk about. In a way it’s the instrument that I’m least qualified to discuss. I’ve never in my life had a formal lesson on the xylophone as it was conceived and played during its golden age in the middle of this century, which is, of course, the style that interested and attracted me so much. Naturally I had lessons on orchestral excerpts when I was in school, but we always practiced all of that stuff on the marimba anyway. I don’t remember a single practice room at Eastman when I was there that had a xylophone in it. The only time we ever saw one was when we actually had to play one of those excerpts in the orchestra. And then I never felt comfortable playing on those skinny little bars with plastic mallets.

It’s curious how we become drawn to music and musical instruments. My first instrument was the marimba, and I still love that sound. The first time I heard tabla on a recording back in 1969 I was totally knocked-out by the sound of the instrument. I couldn’t understand what was going on in the music at all – it was the sound alone that got me involved. On the other hand, the sound of the xylophone still gives me fits. What initially drew me into the ragtime musical style and repertoire was the music itself, not the sound of the instrument. In fact, when I first began playing that music I just played it on my marimba and didn’t question the sound at all. That was because, at the time, all I had to go on was a bunch of sheet music – pieces by George Hamilton Green and a few other people. I could remember two LP records by Harry Breuer that I had in high school, but even though I was very impressed by his playing, the style of music he was playing really didn’t interest me.

So it wasn’t until sometime in 1972, when Emil Richards sent me a tape with about a half dozen cuts of George Green playing his own pieces, that the instrument itself became a big issue. Suddenly it all made sense – the solo part floating on top of the accompaniment instead of buried inside it, and of course Green’s incredible technique and style. I had never heard anything like it, and then about six months later I was on tour in L.A. and found an old Deagan Artists’ Special for sale at Drum City. I bought it, had it shipped back to Connecticut where I was living then, and began to try to figure out how I could relate to this alien monster. For a long time it didn’t go very well. I couldn’t find mallets that felt or sounded good and everything I played seemed out of control – I mean playing legato on any percussion instrument is a challenge, but the xylophone is just ridiculous. My salvation turned out to be the hundreds of recordings that George Green and a handful of other great players made during the 20s and early 30s. These recordings became my teachers, and my colleague Bill Cahn and I put a fair amount of time into amassing a huge library of xylophone records. (Well, Bill has the library – I have everything on tape, which is far easier to work with when you’re trying to steal licks.)

Repertoire turned out to be the easy part, once I started looking. The Library of Congress was a great source, as were the US military band libraries. I discovered older players who either knew, or had studied, or even played with Green. People were often surprised by my interest in this music and many of them gave me incredible collections of sheet music and lesson books. It got to be almost overwhelming. As Emil Richards once said to me: “When I was a kid, people used to give me shit. Now that I’m older, people give me shit.” But my real interest all along was to be able to play this stuff, not to be an historical expert, and so I gradually stopped collecting things, and tried to focus on how to bring this music to life for myself – a person living here and now. Looking back on this, I’m aware that it is really the heart of the matter for playing any music, period. How do you bring it to life for yourself and for others every time, no matter what the situation? And I’ll go a step further than that. If you are able to commit to playing music in this way, you then have to live with the consequences of doing that: what it does to other people, what it does or doesn’t mean to them, and, of course, what it all ultimately means to you. It may seem obvious that we have to live with the consequences of what we do in life, but music is an interesting microcosm. It often allows us to focus on universal questions at a level where we can relate to them very directly. Unfortunately, it doesn’t necessarily make the questions any easier to answer.

One thing that I think all performers have to come to terms with early on in their careers is the huge, maybe even unbridgeable gap in personal realities. This is a commonly discussed philosophical issue, of course – can the self ever have an awareness of the “other”? Are we utterly alone in the world, or can people really communicate in some meaningful way? It may seem terribly abstract, but for a performer it’s a critical concept to engage, because artists are generally perceived to do what they do because they have something to say. If you think you have something to say, and you decide to try to say it (through a musical performance for example), it implies two things: 1) that you assume someone will be listening and 2) they will understand something of what you are “saying”. You may even spend a great deal of time and emotion trying to interpret what a composer may have been trying to say in a composition, shading the meanings in your own personal way. But what happens after the sounds take off from your instrument, or go flying out of a loudspeaker? There have been countless times in my life when I have walked off stage after a concert feeling completely humiliated – nothing went the way I wanted, thousands of licks totally screwed up – one disaster after another. I’m standing there trying desperately to think of what else I can do in life now that my career in music is over when people from the audience suddenly crowd around and someone says something like, “That was the most incredible thing I’ve ever heard. You’ve changed my life!” Sure, it’s nice, but this has also happened to me: I walk off stage after a concert that was just dynamite – I nailed every note, felt in the pocket all night, new ideas, no hesitation, and then someone comes up and says, “Uh, yeah, too bad about the (name any piece on the program) – what was the problem?” It forces one to question the entire issue of judgment. Human beings will, by nature, discriminate, but the reality seems to be that things (including musical compositions and musical performances) are what they are, and individual humans may relate to them or not, like them or not, be profoundly moved – or not. So, we are not only responsible for living with the consequences of what we do and don’t do on our concerts, in our careers, in our lives. We are also responsible for determining the meaning of what we do – creating for ourselves the one and only reality that we can know.

Tonight NEXUS is performing Takemitsu’s percussion concerto From me flows what you call Time with the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra. I want to tell you the story of the premiere of this piece, because I think it illustrates the issues I’ve been talking about in a provocative way. I won’t belabor the details of the ten years that led up to finally getting a major piece from a composer of this stature, but our good fortune was that Carnegie Hall commissioned the piece for NEXUS and the Boston Symphony to play on the Hall’s 100th anniversary series in 1990. In almost every way, this event could be viewed as the high-point of a musician’s career: the premiere of a major work by an internationally acclaimed composer, the Boston Symphony, Seiji Ozawa, Carnegie Hall for God’s sake. I certainly looked at it that way. Toru Takemitsu is a composer whose music I love, and, at that time, he was someone whom everyone in NEXUS had known for over 15 years. You couldn’t ask for a better prospect for a new piece. Takemitsu had heard us perform many times in Japan. We had spent long hours together – often in various stages of inebriation. We had discussed truth and art. We had eaten some of the strangest things known to man. We were all confident that, since he was writing specific parts for each individual in the group, we would all get parts that reflected our personal abilities. I felt pretty confident in myself – I was ready to show the world what I could do.

OK, so we received the finished score about six weeks prior to the premiere performance, which, as many of you know, is not uncommon in professional life. But what Toru had written for me (and he wrote my name on the part, so there was no way out) was an elaborate solo part for double lead tenor pans. I had never played steel pans in my life – I didn’t own any and had no idea where to get some. When I finally obtained a set, it was truly bewildering, since, as you all know, the notes are not laid out as they are on any instrument I had ever been taught to play. To various degrees, this kind of thing happens to percussionists all the time, but it would be like going to a pianist and saying, “Hi – here’s the music for the concerto you’ll be premiering next month at Carnegie. Oh yeah, you play harp this time.” You’re all probably familiar with some version of the musician’s nightmare. You know, the dream where you walk out on stage and stand behind the marimba, the conductor gives the downbeat and the orchestra starts playing the Milhaud or something, and you realize you haven’t played or looked at the music for over ten years and don’t even remember how it starts. This is an image I will never forget: standing in front of the Boston Symphony on Carnegie Hall stage, looking out at a full house and thinking, “these people have paid money to hear this, and a few of them are going to write about it in the papers – this is probably the biggest moment in my musical career and I’m performing on an instrument that I don’t know how to play!” I wanted to scream. I played instead.

How does all of this relate to the xylophone? Well, for me, the xylophone and the steel pans are similar because they are both instruments that I was never taught to play, and yet I play them in public all the time. Steel pans are not an instrument that I ever wanted or expected to be a part of my musical life. And yet Michael Colgrass recently wrote a huge pan part for me in a piece that NEXUS premiered last January. My part in our newest concerto by Bruce Mather is mainly for – you guessed it – steel pans. The ragtime style of music that I play on the xylophone is something I was never taught: it’s not part of my history; I didn’t live during the 1920’s; I can’t do the fox-trot or the Charleston. And yet, at least within the percussion world, I have come to be associated with this music and this instrument. People seem to want to hear me play it. That’s the consequence of a decision to do something for which I have to take responsibility. Even though I may often feel uncomfortable playing the xylophone, even though I may sometimes want to scream, “I don’t know how to play this!”, I continue to play. I continue to be asked to give workshops at PAS conventions. Tonight I have to play the Takemitsu with probably hundreds of steel pan virtuosos out there in the audience just looking for trouble. Will I scream or play? You can all come to the concert tonight and find out. And what about all of the instruments that I was taught to play – instruments that I do feel at home on like the snare drum, the marimba, even the tabla? Well I may still get my revenge – I’ve started composing.

Bob Becker
Phoenix, Arizona
November, 1995

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