Bob’s interview with Gene Koshinski (re two-mallet performance)

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My name is Gene Koshinski, Professor of Percussion at University of Minnesota Duluth. I am currently finishing a document as my final step to completing my doctoral degree at The Hartt School in Hartford, CT. The title of my paper is: “From West Africa, through Vaudeville, to the Concert Hall: The Evolution of Two-Mallet Keyboard Percussion Solo Performance.” Would you be willing to take a few minutes of your time to put into words your approach to two-mallet technique and performance? It would be very helpful to have your valuable comments. If you are able to help, below are a few example questions which prompt the type of information I am interested in.

September 28, 2009

GK: Can you describe your two-mallet grip? Where is the fulcrum, what is the job of each finger, what parts of your hand/fingers are in contact with the stick, etc.?

BB: When I hold two mallets for keyboard playing, as opposed to timpani or some other kinds of playing with two sticks, my grip is similar to the “finger grip” described by George Hamilton Green in some of his publications. The thumb and index finger are opposed on the shaft, and the other fingers curl naturally around it. Green, like many other performers, specifies that the little finger does not touch the shaft or handle of the mallet, and so is essentially unused in his grip. I don’t follow that aspect of his method – I generally use the little finger as an equal contributor to controlling the stroke, and so I keep my little finger on the stick most of the time.

GK: Can you describe your general two-mallet stroke?

BB: Although I don’t use Green’s finger grip when playing snare drum (whether I’m using matched or traditional grip), my use of fingers and wrist in making and controlling strokes on the drum and the xylophone is similar. I have always felt an alliance in percussion playing between snare drum and xylophone on one hand, and timpani and marimba on the other. When playing the xylophone, my hand position is generally palms down, with the hands no more than an inch above the keyboard, and the stroke is made almost entirely with the wrist. The stroke height is also kept to only two or three inches, no matter what the dynamic. It’s described in detail in all of George Green’s lesson books. This technique can still produce a good and a big sound, but it requires a lot of forearm strength and endurance, and is not easily mastered. Even so, it is very useful on all of the percussion instruments. Furthermore, as I always point out to students, this is a great way to play the xylophone, but it is not the only way. I believe any serious performer should be in command of many grips, stroke types and wrist motions, and be able to use them freely for creative expression.

GK: What other types of strokes do you use?

BB: All other types of strokes.

GK: What is your approach to rolling (single notes as well as double stops)?

BB: I am often asked about this, both regarding my own playing and the performance practice of early twentieth century xylophonists. From a historical perspective based on the recorded archive, we know many roll speeds and articulations were used between, say, 1905 and 1930, and most all of them are persuasive in their way.

George Hamilton Green’s rolls had a distinctive and uniquely beautiful quality that I have tried to emulate for my basic approach when playing in that style. Green used a comparatively slow speed for tremolos on both single and double notes, and so the sound is always clear, resonant and never choked. Furthermore, Green followed a consistent rule in his playing, always commencing tremolos with the left hand. This sticking is clearly marked throughout the exercises in his lesson books and in many of his published solo pieces. Although he was left-handed, Green’s approach makes sense on a number of levels. His stick position was consistently left in front of right, which was the standard two-mallet set-up taught for decades (all of my teachers also preferred this position). His approach to tremolos on the upper manual was to consistently lead with the left hand, which played in the center of the bar, while the right hand always played on the extreme near end of the bar. This method makes for a very secure and consistent feeling, even though it may seem counter-intuitive at times. I should also mention that tremolos are the only case where Green suggests playing in the center of the upper manual by either hand. His method was always to play the upper manual on the near ends of the bars.

Green always used a left hand lead when playing double notes as well, and in this context the technique makes musical sense. Obviously, when playing rolls with two notes, whether the player is holding two mallets with two hands or with one, there are three possible ways to begin: 1) both notes together; 2) starting on the upper note; and 3) starting on the lower note. In addition, 1) is simply a particular way of playing 2) or 3), since the initial double stop must be followed by either the higher or lower note. Commencing the tremolo with both notes together produces a mild sforzando attack, which can be very useful in certain situations. Each of the three options produces a distinctly different effect, but Green always used the third method. In his musical style, double stop rolls were usually used when playing a melody, with the left hand accompanying the right with a lower, harmonizing note. In this circumstance, a roll started on the upper melody note always communicates a slight sense of intrusion when the lower note suddenly appears a split second later. When the roll is started on the lower harmony note, the later entrance of the melody note is accepted more quickly and naturally by the ear. The result is a rounder, more legato effect.

When discussing trill and tremolo effects on percussion instruments, an important question to consider is: Do rolls truly give an illusion of sustained sound, or are they rather a rhythmic and/or expressive effect? Percussionists usually are taught early on that rolling (on any instrument) is the way to produce a sustained sound, and this notion becomes an ingrained part of our technique and conception, even though the tremolo effect may not be perceived by non-percussionists in this way at all. It can be difficult for percussionists to step back and listen objectively to some basic aspects of their playing – especially techniques that are taught as fundamental to the instruments.

When using tremolos, I try to stay aware of all the expressive possibilities of attack, sticking, speed and voicing that are available. I always want to incorporate a variety of approaches in my playing in order to maintain interest and help create a feeling of spontaneity and life in the sound and phrasing.

GK: What is your approach to sticking? 

BB: Sticking is one of the most expressive tools in percussion playing. It also can be a very personal means for interpretation, on drums just as much as on keyboard instruments. Many performers, perhaps most notably the late Fred D. Hinger, have pointed out a natural tendency for double strokes to bring out the “leading sound” – that is, the second stroke in a double receives more weight in order to achieve clear articulation. I use this idea a great deal in all of my playing. On the xylophone, many of the special ragtime sticking effects developed by George Hamilton Green involve linked double strokes in both hands. When the leading sound idea is applied in these patterns a very exciting rhythmic intensity can result.

The options for including both single and double strokes in patterns and phrases quickly become very large as the total number of strokes involved increases. In my opinion, having options is desirable in all areas of musical performance, and so an awareness and understanding of sticking possibilities is extremely valuable. If you’re interested in a detailed analysis of this aspect of sticking patterns, take a look at my recent book Rudimental Arithmetic.

GK: What is your approach to mallet choice?

BB: I own lots of sticks and mallets, many of them custom made for me. Like most professional percussionists, I also own lots of instruments. Mating a specific mallet to a specific instrument for a specific sound in a specific passage to be played in a specific acoustic is a very creative and interesting aspect of percussion performance. Again, I’m interested in having options. In general, I try to keep my mind and ears open to special or unusual sounds and articulations, but finally, I make selections based on what I hear and feel in the music. Of course, if I’m playing in an orchestra, the conductor’s opinion may also carry some weight.

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