The following excerpt is from an interview with Shannon Wood, originally published in the Artist Insight section of the July, 2005 issue of Mallet Shop Quarterly.
MSQ: Two names come to mind when one thinks of virtuoso xylophone playing: the late George Hamilton Green and Bob Becker. Bob has raised the bar of xylophone soloing and music making to a new level. His hands are beautiful to watch as he gracefully whirlwinds around the instrument with ease. Bob takes a moment to sit down with us and share his stories and beginnings.
BB: I was born in Allentown, PA, and began studying the marimba in 1954 when I was seven years old. At that time, southeastern Pennsylvania was an area full of marimba activity. Claire Omar Musser was born and raised in Lancaster, PA and left the area to join the Deagan Company in 1930. During the 1940s, 50s, and 60s the neighboring towns of Reading, Bethlehem, Allentown and Pottstown were home to quite a few wonderful teachers and performers, including Evan Hallman, William Schinstine, Edythe Hoffmeier, Lucille Breunig, and my own teacher, James S. Betz. They produced excellent students, many of whom played together in marimba ensembles of various sizes.
My first marimba was a 4 octave Musser Century, a used instrument purchased by my parents from my teacher. At first, my grandfather had to build stacking platforms that I would stand on in order to reach the keyboard. As I grew, first one and then another were removed until finally I could play standing on the floor. Platforms were not uncommon among young players in those days and I still remember carrying mine to concerts in schools and churches. That Musser was my only keyboard instrument throughout high school and college, and I remember the sound and feel of the keyboard fondly.
When I auditioned for William Street at the Eastman School of Music in 1965, I played on his beautiful 4.5 octave Deagan Imperial for the first time. I know the intensely dark and resonant sound of that instrument set the standard for marimba tone for many of Mr. Street’s students. It was a challenging instrument to play in the low register, with very large resonators requiring extra space between the bars. Even so, that was the instrument I used at Eastman for all of my recitals and on my concerto program. I didn’t replace my own marimba until the 1980s when I found the Musser Canterbury that I still own. I have one other vintage ‘marimba’ – a 4.5 octave Deagan #4726 Marimba-Xylophone that is in absolutely mint condition.
While I was still an undergraduate at Eastman, Mr. Street retired and generously gave me a collection of old sheet music, which included many of the xylophone solos from George Hamilton Green’s Jazz Classics series. I had never seen or heard any of these pieces before, and when I finally got around to playing through them they were a technical and musical revelation. Learning about the repertoire and performance styles of the xylophone’s ‘golden age’ during the early twentieth century has been a great adventure, and part of that has concerned the instrument itself.
I realized, through listening to old recordings, that the marimba was an inappropriate sound and range for most of the solo pieces I was learning. I had never owned a xylophone, nor had I been attracted to the sound or feel of the modern instruments I heard and played. However, I soon began to understand that there had been a time in history when some quite different, and very beautiful, kinds of xylophones had been manufactured. In particular, I discovered the Deagan Artists’ Special series, and was able to purchase my first xylophone – an Artists’ Special #262 – in Los Angeles in 1972. The Artists’ Specials were numbered based on the overall range of the instrument, so #262 was a 3.5 octave instrument, #264 was 4 octaves, #266 was 4.5 octaves, and #268 was the rare 5 octave instrument. I’m often asked how many xylophones I own, and the answer is presently six, and five of them are Deagans: that original #262, two #264s, one #268, and one model #882 (which is the 4 octave instrument in the Professional series made from the exceedingly hard wood that Deagan named “klyposerus”). My sixth xylophone is the Malletech Bob Becker Soloist model, which I helped design based on the unique keyboard geometry of the Artists’ Specials.