An Illustrated Look at the Evolution of Four-Mallet Marimba Technique
by David Harvey
(Each display box contains 2 or more images.)
[photos 1 & 2] From very early times, indigenous Central American marimbists playing diatonic gourd marimbas sometimes held two mallets in their right hand to play the melody, and a single mallet in the left hand to sound accompanying bass notes. In time, the Guatemalan and Mexican marimbists improved marimba design, and formed ensembles. In February 1890, a traveling Guatemalan marimba ensemble performed in a theater in Buffalo New York. [photo 3] The graphic depiction of this group in a local newspaper shows the marimbist on the right holding four mallets.
Eventually, the Guatemalans standardized the use of two marimbas played together by up to seven marimbists. It became a common idiom in those ensembles for the bass marimba part to be played with the 3-mallet configuration of two mallets in the right hand and one mallet in the left hand. The left hand would play the strong beats on individual bass pitches, while the right hand played the backbeats in double-notes. Jesus B. Hurtado can be seen on the right [photo 4] with the Hurtado Brothers Marimba Band in 1918, playing bass marimba in this manner. Many Central American marimba ensembles continue this practice today. [photo 5]
As a direct influence of visiting Guatemalan marimbists in the United States, Americans began to manufacture and play modernized marimbas. American xylophonists, who had been following the European tradition, were the first musicians to play these industrially manufactured marimbas. There is no indication of any kind suggesting that, prior to the arrival of Guatemalan marimbists, Americans were employing 4-mallet technique. Interestingly, after the arrival of the Guatemalans, we now see American musicians using two mallets in each hand on marimba and xylophone for the first time. Perhaps this timing is coincidental, but more probably the American xylophonists witnessed the Guatemalans holding two mallets in one hand, and thus got the idea for such a grip.
Louis Chiha (stage name: Lou Chiha Frisco) performed on a 5-octave Leedy marimba-xylophone, accompanied by a Guatemalan marimba ensemble. [photo 6] Chiha is seen in 1925 holding four mallets, while the bass marimba player in the ensemble is holding the typical Guatemalan 3-mallet configuration. This photo illustrates cross-cultural influence, though it is quite a bit later than the earliest Guatemalan marimba groups touring the United States. Louis Chiha also recorded 4-mallet unaccompanied classical marimba music beginning in 1916, and was the first marimbist to do so. [photo 7] The record company notes accompanying Frisco's January 1916 rendition of "Sextet from Lucia" claimed that he was the first person to play 4-mallet repertoire, but that was merely marketing hyperbole, as many Americans were using four mallets in the 1910's.
[photo 8 - above] A 1917 listing for the Dixie Music House of Chicago includes several 4-mallet xylophone solos. These arrangements do not include accompaniment, and the titles suggest slow moving rolled melodies. The investment in engraving and printing this music suggests there was sufficient demand for such repertoire. One can thereby reasonably conclude that 4-mallet playing was not uncommon in the United Sates in 1917. As US xylophonists and early marimbists originally were exclusively 2-mallet performers, it would have taken some years for 4-mallet playing to have increased to the level of 1917. Therefore, in all probability 4-mallet use in America predates 1910. As the Guatemalans who first demonstrated a one handed 2-mallet grip were in the United States by at least 1890, the genesis of American 4-mallet technique could possibly date to the turn of the 20th century.
During the 1910's, xylophonist William Coates [photo 9] (stage name: El Cota,) and marimbist Haskell Harr [photo 10] display 4-mallet cross grips holding the outside mallets between the index and middle fingers, the "standard-cross-grip." From this same period, marimbists, stage name Herman [photo 11] and stage name Jazz-rimba [photo 12] hold the outer mallets between the third and fourth fingers, the "wide-cross-grip." Standard cross-grip became the prevailing approach for many years due to its secure striking leverage, while wide-cross-grip was preferred for spreading to large intervals more facilely than standard cross-grip. It should be noted that Louis Chiha, Herman, and Jazz-rimba played wide bar marimbas requiring large mallet spreads, and they each utilized wide-cross-grip.
[photo 13] A 1915 review of a George Hamilton Green xylophone recital cites Green using 3-4-6 and 8 mallets simultaneously. The slow moving musical titles "The Rosary" and "Silver Threads Among the Gold" suggest that Green's “multi-grip” mallet use seems to have been confined to rolled chordal textures. In about 1926, Green published an illustrated primer on 4-mallet grip, [photo 14] wherein he illustrates the standard-cross-grip. Interestingly, Green also demonstrates an unusual position he calls the "turn," [photo 15] whereby the outer mallet of the left hand strikes a chromatic bar while the inside mallet strikes a natural bar of a lower pitch.
One year later, Green published a folio of classical solos for 3-mallet technique, [photo 16] where the melody is played with slow rolls using a single mallet in the right hand while two mallets in the left hand play harmonies. A photo of the Collegians Marimba Band from this period [photo 17] includes a young Red Norvo, second from right, playing 4-mallets. The two members on either side of Norvo, however, use this 3-mallet technique, which continued in popularity for many years.
4-mallet performance can be categorized according to three levels of textural complexity:
chordal, which is simplest, such as Creston, Concertino Op 21, Mvt 2.
rhythmic, which is more active, such as Musser, Etude in B Major Op 6 No 9.
contrapuntal, which is most complex, such as Stout, Mexican Dance No 1.
Throughout the 1910's, 4-mallet technique generally was chordal, with slow moving melodies played in rolled four-voice chords. Perhaps some musicians were also using four mallets rhythmically, but the earliest documented instance of rhythmic 4-mallet music is 1921. In that year, Joe Green [photo 18] recorded the popular song, "Little Girl" with a jazz trio consisting of xylophone, alto sax, and piano. [photo 19] Green plays the opening verses with 2-mallets, but for one chorus he picks up two additional mallets and plays a driving rhythmical 4-mallet passage that is unlike any technical execution evidenced to that time.
[photos 20, 21, & 22] During the 1920's and 1930's, Sammy Herman and Harry Breuer each displayed vibrantly rhythmic 4-mallet music both in performances and their published compositions and arrangements. Breuer, seen on the cover of his jazz composition "Four Stick Joe" and later at a Deagan Imperial marimba [photo 23] uses standard-cross-grip in the right hand, but wide-cross-grip in the left hand. Perhaps Breuer's preference for this duel grip is because graduated xylophone and marimba bars are wider in the bass register on the performer's left. Sammy Herman is shown in 1924 holding six mallets, [photo 24] though that may merely have been a photo-op pose. During the 1930's, classical xylophonist Yoichi Hiraoka [photo 25] used standard-cross-grip to play chordal music such as Saint-Saëns' The Swan.
Professional marimbists playing 4-mallet music at this point include Edwin Gerhardt, [photo 26] John Baumann, Joseph Young, [photo 27] Frank Austin, [photo 28] Cliff Keys, [photo 29] Marielta Huron, [photo 30] Billy Woods, [photo 31] Val Eddy, [photo 32] and many others. The majority of marimbists utilized standard-cross-grip, which was then prevalent. Chordal textures and occasional rhythmic playing were typical of 4-mallet marimba music of this era, along with a 4-octave keyboard range that was by now standardized. Classical, popular, and jazz music were stylistic genres being interpreted on marimba with four mallets, as an adjunct to 2-mallet repertoire that remained predominant.
[photo 33] Marimbist Clair Omar Musser is seen in 1927 using a new 4-mallet grip: the "independent-grip." In a 1938 method book, Musser demonstrates this grip, [photo 34] explaining that the mallet handles should not touch or cross one another. Musser also includes a photo of standard-cross-grip [photo 35] as an example of the "wrong method" of gripping the mallets, stating that the handles "must be controlled independently for artistic musical expression." This is an early case of pedagogical partisanship over grip preference. Interestingly, Musser does not seem to have played contrapuntal music, which is a forte of the independent grip. Nonetheless, during the next two decades Musser's new grip would gain plenty of traction with his many marimba students.
Marimbist Jimmy Namaro performed 4-mallet jazz, and was recorded in 1933 displaying strong rhythmic 4-mallet jazz style. Earlier that year, Namaro had been concert master of Musser's Century of Progress marimba orchestra in Chicago. Jimmy Namaro is shown in 1960 [photo 36 - above] using a 4-mallet grip not seen before, the "fulcrum-cross-grip," which was later popularized by vibist Gary Burton. Unlike standard-cross-grip, the shaft of the outside mallet rests over the shaft of the inside mallet. This creates strong fulcrum leverage for using the outer mallet alone while holding two mallets in one hand. Perhaps this is the grip Namaro used on marimba in the 1930's, but that is speculative. Nonetheless, Namaro is probably the first documented mallet percussionist using fulcrum-cross-grip.
[photo 37] In 1929 Red Norvo began playing contrapuntal 4-mallet marimba music, consisting of piano transcriptions and his original compositions. With standard-cross-grip, he performed unaccompanied works such as Golliwog's Cakewalk by Debussy, Second Hungarian Rhapsody by Liszt, and piano pieces In A Mist and Flashes by Bix Biederbecke, as well as jazz pieces that Norvo wrote, including Dance of the Octopus. [photo 38] Norvo's unprecedented 4-mallet independence in this type of advanced solo marimba repertoire represents a stunningly innovative moment in marimba history.
[photo 39 - above] Red Norvo included performance notes for Dance of the Octopus, an acknowledgement that 4-mallet independence was unknown to other marimbists. Those notes, published in 1935, illustrate Norvo's mallet numbering, and also explain the mechanics of rotary strokes that are necessary to perform that piece. These simple guidelines, titled "Instructions for Hammering," represent the earliest text on the subject of 4-mallet independence.
Two years later, Rudy Starita recorded Dance of the Octopus on marimba using wide-cross-grip. [photo 40] Starita was an American musician based in London at the time. Though the work is scored with piano accompaniment, in that 1935 session Rudy Starita used a small ensemble including bass clarinet, flute, violin, guitar, and upright bass. This scoring is almost identical to Norvo's 1933 recorded quartet including bass clarinet, guitar, and upright bass, with certain musical lines played by the same instruments in both recordings. [photos 41 and 42] Interestingly, Norvo's recording was published by Brunswick Records not only in the United States but also in England, where Rudy Starita would have heard this work. The arrangement used by Starita leaves no doubt that this is a case of contrapuntal marimba music spreading internationally by means of the recording and publishing industries, at a time when 4-mallet independence would otherwise have been unheard of.
In 1937 Howard Peterson authored Xylophone and Marimba Studies for Three and Four Hammers, [photo 43] which is probably the first full method book exclusively for multiple mallet playing. In addition to 4-mallet standard-cross-grip, Peterson illustrates the standard-cross-grip in the left hand for 3-mallet technique, [photo 44] with a single mallet in the right hand. Photos and exercises were included for beginning 4-mallet technique, as well as discussion of arranging music for 4-mallets, since published 4-mallet arrangements were not too numerous yet. 4-mallet music in the Peterson Studies is strictly chordal, which is somewhat anachronistic for 1937 considering the commonplace use of rhythmic playing and even the beginnings of contrapuntal textures by then.
During the 1930's, Clair Musser organized both the Century of Progress Marimba Orchestra and the International Marimba Symphony Orchestra. Although Musser did not yet have a university faculty appointment, he coached countless young marimbists through these and other ensembles. Young marimbist Eddy Kozak [photo 45] is pictured at his Century of Progress marimba, displaying wide-cross-grip 4-mallet technique. However, about a decade later, [photo 46] a now mature Eddy Kozak uses independent-grip. Dorothy Yoder [photo 47] poses at her Century of Progress marimba and, like Eddy Kozak, exhibits independent-grip. Surely, these marimba ensemble participants, and many more like them during this period, were influenced to use independent-grip due to Musser's tutelage.
[photo 48 - above] Former Century of Progress Marimba Orchestra member Ruth Stuber premiered Creston's Concertino for Marimba and Orchestra, Op 21 in 1940. This solo work includes chordal 4-mallet writing in the second movement, and Creston collaborated with Stuber in regard to the marimba technique required. This is a meaningful detail, because by that time Ruth Stuber had studied first with Clair Omar Musser and later with George Hamilton Green. From the fact that Creston included neither rhythmic nor contrapuntal 4-mallet textures in Opus 21, we can plausibly infer that Ruth Stuber was not taught those styles by either Musser or Green during the 1930's.
[photo 49] During the early 1940's, British marimbist Jack Simpson played standard-cross-grip 4-mallet marimba extensively with his jazz group, the Jack Simpson Sextet. Simpson's rhythmic marimba playing was featured in live performances, recordings, radio broadcasts, and film shorts, making him and 4-mallet marimba music well known throughout England. Blanche Margate was another stage marimbist in England using standard-cross-grip. [photo 50]
Norwegian marimbist Tourni [photo 51] performed 4-mallet repertoire on a 3.5 octave Deagan #352 marimba with standard-cross-grip. New Zealander marimbist Walter Sinton [photo 52] also used a Deagan #352, playing standard-cross-grip 4-mallet repertoire on radio and television. In Finland, marimbist Eino Katajavuori [photo 53] played rhythmic pop music using 4-mallet standard-cross-grip, as well as 6-mallet and 8-mallet "multi-grip" textures rhythmically. The Russian Alexei Ogorodnikov played rhythmical 4-mallet marimba using standard-cross-grip. [photo 54]
[photo 55] Germany's jazz marimbist Kurt Engel displayed smooth rhythmical 4-mallet technique. His finely detailed mallets featured tapered hardwood shafts that include a tenon extending completely through the ball for balanced weight distribution. These mallets are similar to those with hickory shafts produced earlier by the Leedy company for George Hamilton Green. Kurt Engel is pictured with a 10-mallet “multi-grip,” [photo 56] which was more of an entertainment stunt than a serious idiomatic approach. However, Engel was quite capable of playing with up to twelve mallets at once, performing exuberant rhythmic marimba music with this “multi-grip” of five and six mallets in each hand.
[photo 57 - above] Marimbist Wolfgang Pachla, an Estonian based in Germany, used standard-cross-grip to be the first to record the complete Creston Concertino Op 21 with orchestra. The rolled 4-mallet chordal textures in the second movement are executed by Pachla very smoothly with a non-percussive rolling style. Many British and European marimbists during the 1930's and 1940's, including Simpson, Engel, and Pachla used level mounting of the accidentals. For 4-mallet playing, this keyboard layout eliminates two bar heights within one hand's posture, when one bar is a natural and another bar is in the chromatics. The European preference for level mounted accidentals indicates that 4-mallet technique worldwide was no longer a peripheral aspect of marimba performance, but enjoyed equal prominence to the 2-mallet approach.
[photo 58 - above] English marimbist Frank Goodfriend is seen during a 1935 radio broadcast playing a Leedy wide-bar marimba using two different 4-mallet grips. He has standard-cross-grip in the right hand, but in his left hand displays a grip not seen before: the "spread-cross-grip" where the outer mallet is held between the 4th and 5th fingers. The idea with this grip is that instead of holding the mallets close together and spreading them apart for large intervals, the mallets are positioned in spread position initially and then closed for smaller intervals. Goodfriend undoubtedly used spread-cross-grip singularly in his left hand due to the wider bars in the bass register requiring large spreads.
[photo 59] Marimbist Salvy Cavicchio is seen in 1940 also using 4-mallet spread-cross-grip, but in both hands. Cavicchio, a Boston musician, had been using this grip as early as 1929, as had another Bostonian before him, xylophonist George Lawrence Stone. [photo 60] As Stone, who was older than Cavicchio, was a well-known pedagogue in Boston, it is possible that Cavicchio learned spread-cross-grip from him. Salvy Cavicchio himself taught marimba and xylophone at Boston's New England Conservatory of Music for about 30 years beginning in the 1930's, making him the first marimba teacher at a college program in the United States.
[photo 61] English marimbist Douglas Maynard is shown in 1938 using cross grip in his right hand, with a 3-mallet “multi-grip” in his left hand. Marimbist Eddie Van [photo 62] is shown in 1946 with this same 5-mallet array, including a “multi-grip” consisting of three mallets in the left hand. Neither sheet music arrangements nor recordings of Maynard’s and Van’s marimba repertoire seem available to illustrate their styles of marimba performance. It is possible that they used the 3-mallet “multi-grip” in the left hand to play triads as accompaniment to right-hand melodic material. [photo 63] Pop marimbist Gloria Parker is shown in the mid-1940's using standard-cross-grip with the outer mallets pulled back further than typical. Perhaps Parker used this mallet alignment to facilitate reaching the accidental bars with the inner mallets, unobstructed by the outer mallets.
While the independent-grip had made modest inroads into practice since Musser's introduction of it in the 1920's, his tenure at Northwestern University in Chicago during the 1940's attracted many marimba students who subsequently elevated independent-grip to almost equal popularity with cross-grip. Doris Stockton, [photo 64] Burton Jackson, [photo 65] Vera Daehlin, [photo 66] James Dutton, [photo 67] Jean Lutz, [photo 68] Carolyn Reid, [photo 69] Rex Brown and Lee Schneider, [photo 70] Genevieve, Dorothy, and Nina Coffing, [photo 71] and Vida Chenoweth [photo 72] were part of the new wave of 4-mallet marimbists who studied with Musser at Northwestern. Each of these university marimbists went on to professional careers after school, including recitals, performances with orchestras, touring, recording, and teaching.
This class of polished marimbists played classical and popular repertoire with chordal, rhythmic, and a limited degree of contrapuntal 4-mallet technique. Advanced 4-mallet independence was not generally part of the marimbistic approach of this generation, as the independent grip is not necessarily synonymous with 4-mallet independence. Musser's students also performed and premiered his marimba compositions, [photo 73] some of which were written specifically for them. Accompanied by members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Doris Stockton premiered Musser's composition Scherzo Caprice, which includes 4-mallet voicing. Vera Daehlin later performed this work with the Kansas City Symphony.
Vida Chenoweth premiered Robert Kurka's Concerto for Marimba and Orchestra Op 34, which includes virtuosic 4-mallet writing. Chenoweth also performed contrapuntal textures such as Fugue in G Minor S1001 by J. S. Bach, as well as a 6-mallet marimba etude written for her by her brother, Robert. Jack Connor [photo 74] who had played under Musser in the Imperial Marimba Symphony Orchestra, played 4-mallet contrapuntal music by Bach, including Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring. Connor, using standard-cross-grip, also premiered Milhaud's Concerto for Marimba and Vibraphone, which was written for him.
During this same period, two Guatemalan marimbists, who began as members of family marimba ensembles, forged independent careers as solo marimbists in the United States. Chicago based Jose Bethancourt [photo 75 - above] played extensive 4-mallet rhythmic marimba music with standard-cross-grip. His musical style was generally Latin music presented in a popular format with various accompanying instruments such as rhythm section and winds. Bethancourt made numerous television appearances, bringing 4-mallet marimba music to nationwide audiences.
[photo 76] San Francisco marimbist Celso Hurtado played classical 4-mallet music, including contrapuntal repertoire and the first documented appearance of one-handed rolls. Hurtado's one-handed rolls were not rotary strokes, but mandolin rolls, where one mallet is above the edge of the marimba bar and the other mallet in the same hand is below the bar. The roll is executed by a vertical oscillating motion, playing both the top and underside of the marimba bar in rapid alternation. In 1947, [photo 77] a New York Times review of Hurtado's Carnegie Hall marimba recital praised his 4-mallet playing as "astonishing feats of execution," though the repertoire in that performance did not likely include advanced contrapuntal repertoire.
It should be noted that both Jose Bethancourt and Celso Hurtado used wooden mallet shafts rather than rattan. The Guatemalans typically used Huitzizil wood for their mallet handles, which was selected for this purpose due to its tendency to remain straight without warping. Photos of Bethancourt and Hurtado clearly show long, thin, wooden mallet handles that are very different than American rattan handles. With 4-mallet technique, this is a distinct advantage in that the handles can be thinner for more comfortable placement between fingers, and smoother manipulation during spreading. Additionally, the stiffness and straightness of wood allows Guatemalan mallets to be longer than rattan without flexing. Although Bethancourt and Hurtado each used standard-cross-grip, the extended mallet lengths they were using facilitated wide interval spreads quickly and securely.
The next group of marimbists represents the first post-Musser generation, as they were not Musser students, and became professionally active after Clair Musser's retirement from music. Earl Hatch, shown with his wife Carol, [photo 78] was a professional marimbist, educator, organizer, composer, and publisher in Hollywood California. Hatch played and wrote rhythmic 4-mallet marimba music, and taught an entire generation of young marimbists. His marimba etude Capriccio Marimbata [photo 79] is typical of the 4-mallet textures in Earl Hatch's writing. Jim O'Daniel [photo 80] played 4-mallet independent grip as a soloist and also in duo with Vera Daehlin. Phil Kraus [photo 81] played standard-cross-grip, and wrote and recorded rhythmical 4-mallet jazz music such as Jan. [ photo 82]
Two talented marimbists brought 4-mallet marimba music directly into American homes via regular appearances on the Lawrence Welk television program. Jack Imel [photo 83] and later, Bowen Wagner [photo 84] used standard-cross-grip to perform combinations of chordal and lively rhythmic 4-mallet marimba music in the popular idiom. These well-liked music styles performed on marimba were highly entertaining, exposing the marimba to the American public over many years.
During a period of about one decade, from 1968 to 1978, a handful of upcoming marimbists initiated an entirely fresh approach to 4-mallet use of the marimba; one that would usher in today's worldwide marimba scene. These marimbists are: Keiko Abe, Linda Pimentel, Karen Ervin, Leigh Stevens, and Gordon Stout. Idiomatic characteristics that contributed to the new method are:
4-mallet technique virtually exclusively, with little or no 2-mallet use
Unaccompanied performance as standard
Contrapuntal music as basic repertoire
Complex polyphonic textures, requiring a high degree of lateral mallet movement
One-handed rolls and trills
In 1968, Keiko Abe [photo 85] programmed a marimba recital of entirely unaccompanied works composed for marimba, the first of its kind. Abe used standard-cross-grip to perform such repertoire as Time for Marimba by Minoru Miki. [photo 86] The indication in this score "soft sticks (hard at ff)" is a reference to Keiko Abe's dual-tone marimba mallets, which had never before been utilized. These mallets had a hard plastic ball covered with a loose outer wrapping that provided cushioning at soft dynamics, but allowed the ball to cut through brightly during accents and loud passages. Using a cross-multi-grip, Abe was also the first classical marimbist to perform 6-mallet repertoire as concert rep, rather than a novelty. Working with Yamaha Corporation, she would go on to personally influence the design and development of the first 5-octave marimba, which would eventually become standard.
Linda Pimentel is an inventive and open minded marimbist who explored and actively employed several 4-mallet grips and multi-grips for marimba technique. Pimentel was largely self taught, though she did spend some time under Celso Hurtado's tutelage. She is seen [photo 87 - above] with a 3-mallet multi-grip in the right hand, and a 2-mallet standard-cross-grip in her left hand. The two left hand mallets are Guatemalan, while the right hand mallets are American. This mixed configuration of grips and mallet types is simply what worked in the particular piece Linda Pimentel is shown performing. Pimentel used other mallet configurations as needed.
Using standard-cross-grip, Karen Ervin [photo 88] played fairly typical rhythmic marimba repertoire such as Musser etudes and other marimba compositions from the 1940s - 1960s. However, Ervin also transcribed and performed three Scarlatti keyboard sonatas, which were certainly among the most contrapuntal marimba music heard to that time. [photo 89] These pieces require each hand to play polyphonic lines moving in contrary motion, with double-notes and ornaments played independently. In one spot, Ervin includes an indication to perform a one-handed trill using a mandolin roll between the pitches of C natural and B natural. The 4-mallet independence required of the Scarlatti Sonatas was notable for that time.
Leigh Stevens [photo 90] programed unaccompanied piano music, such as Albums for the Young by Tchaikovsky and Schumann, as well as Prelude and Fugues from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. Stevens used independent-grip, though employing it differently than Musser: particularly a vertical hand posture and also the mechanics of spreading. Whereas Musser placed the thumb inside the inner mallet during spreads, Stevens rolls the inner mallet between the thumb and index finger.
Leigh Stevens uses birch handle mallets to facilitate the independent grip. As a student, Stevens first encountered birch handle marimba mallets marketed by the Deagan company as the Jose Bethancourt model, so this was a case of cross-cultural influence. David Maslanka's Variations on Lost Love, [photo 91] written in consultation with Leigh Stevens, requires one-handed rolls with the right hand to sustain melodic lines while playing rhythmic accompaniment in the left hand. While contrapuntal marimba textures were not new to the 1970's, sustaining lines with one hand was strikingly innovative.
Gordon Stout [photo 92] uses wide-cross-grip to play advanced contrapuntal music and other types of marimba textures. At the time Stout's Two Mexican Dances for Marimba and Etudes were introduced, their level of polyphonic counterpoint, vigorous rhythmical lines, and melodic shapes across a broad tessitura set a new benchmark in 4-mallet virtuosity. In Mexican Dance No 1 [photo 93] the right hand sustains a melodic line over a left hand ostinato. Whereas in Maslanka's Variations this textural combination was facilitated by one-handed rolls using rotary strokes, in the Mexican Dance the right hand sustains the melody by means of repetitive double verticals. Both techniques are equally effective at sustaining a melodic line with one hand. The marimba was now playing rhythm, harmony, and melody simultaneously without accompaniment, and employing ornaments and sustained melodic lines in a single hand. 4-mallet independence was the new standard.
The keyboard layouts of the marimba and piano are identical, as is their grand staff notation. Additionally, they share a similar percussive articulation through the use of piano hammers and marimba mallets. With the 20th century transformation of marimba technique and repertoire culminating in the marimba as a solo contrapuntal vehicle, it is accurate to view the marimba from this point onwards as being played pianistically. This is more than mere analogy. Much of the marimba's idiomatic development directly responsible for its new a-capella stature was directly shaped by piano music, methodology, and pedagogy.
As a student, Keiko Abe studied piano, which surely fueled her inspiration to approach the marimba as an unaccompanied medium. Linda Pimentel was a professional pianist prior to her specialization on the marimba, which undoubtedly oriented her towards newer, thicker textures on the marimba requiring multi-mallet use. Karen Ervin performed keyboard music on the marimba complete with all the original pianistic devices intact. Leigh Stevens has recounted that his first attempts at one-handed rolls were a result of him witnessing his sister practicing piano, and him imitating those piano exercises with marimba mallets. Gordon Stout's marimba workbook, Ideo-Kinetics is based on his prior work studying the method book by Luigi Bonpensiere, New Pathways to Piano Technique.
We have witnessed the marimba's humble yet beautiful origins in native Central American culture; its 4-mallet evolutionary path towards a new virtuosic identity; and ultimately, its standing as an august voice midst the present musical landscape. The story does not end there, as the current marimba community is a thriving global network of musicianship, percussive artistry, and astonishing virtuosity. Today's marimbists are writing the next opus in this drama using rosewood as their font, with a secure grip on their mallets and the world stage.
To learn more from David Harvey and his Marimba and Xylophone History Lecture Series visit VAP media through the link.