Leigh Howard Stevens
by Lauren Vogel Weiss
The influence of Leigh Howard Stevens extends beyond the marimba technique that is forever linked with his name. He is a performer, educator, composer, publisher, and inventor, as well as a successful entrepreneur. Despite his relative youth (53 years old), Stevens fulfills all the requirements of being in the PAS Hall of Fame--and then some!
Born in Orange, New Jersey on March 9, 1953, he graduated from Columbia High School in Maplewood and was voted “most likely to succeed” in his class. As a young drummer, he studied with Gene Thayler, Glenn Weber, and Joe Morello. “Morello explained technique to me in terms of physiology and physics,” Stevens recalls. “It was a revelation.”
Leigh played drumset in various rock and jazz bands in the New York metropolitan area during high school, including one called Tiger Tails--managed for a short time by an upperclassmen at his school named Max Weinberg, who later became the drummer with Bruce Springsteen. “I wanted to rock, and he wanted to become a musician,” Weinberg told New Jersey Monthly in 2004. “Leigh was a very serious kid--very directed, and not distracted.”
Stevens planned to pursue a career as a drumset player when he auditioned for placement in a jazz band at the Eastman School of Music in the fall of 1971. “When I didn’t get into one of the top lab bands, I started to reevaluate what I wanted to do,” he recalls.
His first exposure to marimba occurred when he was a junior in high school and realized he would have to play a mallet-keyboard instrument (and timpani) at his college auditions. In a 1982 Percussive Notes interview, Stevens recalled a series of “mistakes” that became the foundation of his career. “Number one, I had the notion that since many chords required four pitches, all mallet players would naturally play with four mallets,” he said. “The second mistake I made was to sustain the C and G notes with my left hand while playing a scale with the right.” Leigh’s attempt to imitate a pedaled chord on a piano led him to the now-infamous one-handed roll.
“I noticed when I got to Eastman,” Stevens elaborates, “that the techniques I was using--the one-handed roll, rotary strokes, doing Baroque trills with one hand, two-part Bach inventions, things like that--got a lot of attention. Other people seemed to think that I had a lot of talent on the marimba. I gradually began to realize that I had the potential of being a much better marimba player than I had of becoming a world-class drumset player.”
Before he could embark on his vision of making the marimba a professional recital instrument, Stevens decided he needed to study with an experienced marimba performer. Years before, Leigh and his father had listened to a Vida Chenoweth recording on the radio, so he looked her up and found her living on the other side of the globe. “During my freshman year, I sold my drumset to pay for an airplane ticket to New Zealand,” he says of his summer of ‘72.
“Vida’s biggest influences on me had to do with how to practice and how to memorize,” Stevens says. “We did not work on technique but rather very specific details of certain pieces, including the Milhaud and Creston concertos and three Musser etudes--C major, B major, and A-flat major--which she had learned from Musser himself. ‘This note should be louder, this should be softer, accent this chord, bring out the left hand’--six hours a day, three days a week. Vida is one of the most disciplined people I have ever met.”
Stevens was affected profoundly by three influential teachers (all of whom are PAS Hall of Fame members): Morello, Chenoweth, and John Beck at Eastman. “Chenoweth and Morello were trying to get me to be someone who specialized on one instrument,” Leigh reflects, “while John was always trying to get me to be more of a generalist--a total percussionist. Most people would think that I aligned myself more with Vida and Joe in terms of being a specialist, but if you look at what I’ve done over the past quarter-century, I’m more of a generalist. Although it’s all centered on the marimba, it wasn’t just performing. I got involved with the pedagogy of the instrument, composition, design--I know more about machines and drill bits than I ever expected to know!”
As a solo marimbist, he has performed hundreds of recitals around the world in locations ranging from The Netherlands to the People’s Republic of China to Japan to Germany, as well as almost all of the 50 states in the U.S. One concert that Stevens fondly remembers is the world premiere of Raymond Helble’s “Concerto for Orchestra and Marimba,” which he performed with the Denver Symphony (now the Colorado Philharmonic) in May 1982. “That was the first time I played with a major orchestra, which was such a tremendous opportunity for me as a young person,” Leigh says. “It was very exciting to play the same program three nights in a row.” Although many orchestras feature percussion soloists in the 21st century, it was a rare event in the 1980s.
As a performer and/or educator, Stevens has appeared at a dozen PASICs. His first PASIC was the first PASIC, in Rochester in 1976. “I was very much aware of the fact that this performance was either going to have a very positive--or very negative--effect on my career,” he chuckles. “Many of the prestigious teachers, scholars, and performers of the time were there in Kilbourn Hall.”
By the following year his schedule increased from three to 30 concerts and he was invited back to PASIC in 1978 (Tempe, AZ) and again in 1979 (New York, NY). “The most stressful PASIC for me was my New York debut at Town Hall because I very foolishly programmed two world premieres: Serry’s ‘Night Rhapsody’ and Helble’s ‘Toccata Fantasy’--two of the hardest pieces written for marimba,” he recalls.
Stevens’s innovative methods, mallets, and repertoire drew attention from marimbists all over, and he began teaching private lessons, first to fellow students in Rochester and then from his Manhattan apartment. “Some students asked whether we could get together in a master class format so that everybody could listen to each other’s lessons, as well as perform for one another,” he remembers. “Fred Hinger [timpanist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra at the time] advised me to get students to commit to a minimum of ten lessons. ‘That’s how long it will take them to learn the basic concepts you have to teach,’ he told me. Those two factors resulted in my first Summer Marimba Seminar in 1980.” From his first class of six students, the Seminar--now in its 27th year--currently averages 30 students each summer, drawing on attendees of all ages from around the world.
“I would estimate that 80 to 90 percent of marimbists worldwide use the technique that Leigh created,” says Gordon Stout, Professor of Percussion at Ithaca College and frequent guest artist at the Seminar. “He has consistently demonstrated the highest ideals and professional integrity to the world of marimba. The years since 1976 will never be the same because of his efforts.”
In addition to private students and his annual Seminar, Stevens served as Professor of Marimba at the Royal Academy of Music in London, England from 1997-2004. He also encouraged students to push the boundaries of their performance by establishing one of the first international solo marimba competitions. “I began organizing it in 1993, and in the summer of 1995, people from 21 countries came to Asbury Park, New Jersey. It was like the Woodstock of the marimba!” Stevens grins. “It was one of the most exciting and exhilarating things I’ve ever done. At that particular competition, two world-renowned marimbists placed in the top three: Éric Sammut (from France) received First Prize, and She-e Wu (from Taiwan) was the third-place winner.”
Sammut recalls that his teacher, François Dupin, often spoke about the man who “revolutionized” the marimba. “The technique Leigh created is more than a new grip--it’s a philosophy: the mallets are free in the hands, so the musicians who use this technique can discover a profound awareness of the sound through all the different movements. Most importantly, his teaching enables students to develop the most essential aspect required to become a good musician: listening.”
Stevens held his second competition and festival in 1998 in Rochester, NY. “By that time,” he says, “other people had gotten on board and there was Keiko’s [Abe] World Marimba Competition in Japan and another one in Luxembourg. In a way, it’s similar to commissioning new pieces; now there are so many people involved that there’s no longer such a need for me to do it.
“In the beginning,” Stevens continues, “commissioning was necessary because there wasn’t original music being written for the instrument. The marimba was not taken seriously as a concert instrument. There were no consortiums and few performers/composers writing music.
“The first piece I commissioned was Raymond Helble’s [first] ‘Prelude.’ I didn’t know that it would be historic, but if you look at that music carefully and realize it was written in 1971, it’s pretty mind-blowing. In the first measure you have not only a one-handed roll that is notated by the composer, but also ‘reverse stickings.’ Helble wrote many other pieces in the years to come that I still have in my repertoire.”
Stevens’ first “composition” may be one of the most popular marimba books of all time: Method of Movement for Marimba. The book, now in its sixth (25th anniversary) printing, is an accepted curriculum for studying marimba all over the world. It is a compilation of all the exercises Leigh customized for his students over the years, plus a detailed description of all aspects of his grip and strokes. Readers shouldn’t be scared off by the “textbook-like” approach; Stevens interjects ample doses of his humor throughout the pages. “I prefer to call it ‘Stevens technique’ rather than ‘grip’,” he says. “It can’t be fully described as just a grip because it is a method of movement--a whole system of technique and musicianship.”
Stevens was unable to find a publisher for MoM, so he decided to publish it himself, and thus Marimba Productions was created (later registered with ASCAP as Keyboard Percussion Publications). “There was a need for a marimba specialty publications company,” he states, so in addition to being a performer and educator, he became a percussion entrepreneur. “There was a natural connection between commissioning music, writing transcriptions, and publishing.”
In the 1980s, Stevens began writing what he called a “demonstration piece” to show composers possible techniques and sound effects. “I wanted a virtuosic, bring-the-house-down kind of piece, so I performed for every composer who would listen,” he says. “I never got that piece, so I ended up writing it myself.” Leigh’s “Rhythmic Caprice” was premiered in 1989 and continues to be one of his most popular encores. His other published solo is “Great Wall,” written after an emotional trip performing in China.
He has recorded two CDs for major labels: Bach on Marimba (Music Masters) and Marimba When... (Delos), which are now available through Resonator Records. “I thought the best way to put the marimba on the concert circuit map was to do serious music, like Bach,” Stevens recalls. “Thankfully both recordings still get airplay in the U.S., especially on NPR.”
Stevens is also a successful businessman. Following his appearance at PASIC ‘76, he was approached by Vic Firth about selling Leigh’s unique line of marimba mallets. “They had a number of different features,” Stevens explains. “Longer handles of wood, rather than rattan or plastic; a fine, soft white yarn that was loosely wrapped; less stitching--all things that should have worked against the success of the mallets. However, they turned out to be a very successful product, and I worked with Vic for five years before I decided to start my own company. He was a perfect gentleman and actually helped me go into business.”
Malletech Mallets was established in 1982 and soon carried not only Stevens’s signature mallets but also those designed by leading keyboard players including Bob Becker, David Friedman, and Dave Samuels. Stevens also got involved in designing marimbas. “The first marimba I designed was for Musser,” he states. “The M-450LHS Grand Soloist Plus One, the original ‘low E’ marimba, came out in 1986. My first two patents, which are still used by Musser, were for height adjustment and tunable resonators. After five years, I decided that I would like to work on my own. Had I known how difficult making marimbas was at the time, I probably would not have started!”
Malletech began making marimbas in 1992 and gradually added xylophones and glockenspiels. Stevens was awarded his third U.S. patent in 1993 for an expanding resonator tuning plug, and his fourth for a suspension system for tone bars (used on Malletech glockenspiels).
Zildjian bought Malletech in late 1997, but Stevens reacquired the instrument portion in 2000, followed by the mallets in 2005. “Humpty Dumpty is back together, and I’m in control once more,” he smiles. “Malletech again resides with the publishing company in a building in Neptune, New Jersey.” Keyboard Percussion Publications has also acquired the libraries of Studio 4 Music, M. Baker Publications, and CMP (Contemporary Music Project), more than doubling the size of its keyboard publications catalog. The recording division (Resonator Records) was founded in 1998.
Stevens has been featured in several “mainstream” publications, including Time magazine (January 4, 1988), The Wall Street Journal (August 10, 1990), and New Jersey Monthly (October 2004)--as well as many music magazines such as Percussive Notes and Rhythm. He won the Classical/Mallet Percussionist category in the 2004 and 2005 Modern Drummer Readers Poll.
What advice would Stevens give to young musicians today? “Read--and listen. The limitation of most people who claim they want to be involved in the field of music is that their experience is extremely narrow. Too many students today don’t know the standard orchestral literature. It’s absolutely essential to your evolution as a musician to know the Beethoven symphonies, the Bartok string quartets, all the major works of Bach. The only way you can really do something interesting and new is if you know music history--by ear and by heart.”
Summing up his own career, Stevens jokes that he had to overcome his natural instinct of being a loud drummer! Turning serious, he says, “I had to be more thoughtful--about how to play, how to teach, how to express music, and how to design the instrument in such a way as to make it sound better. And,” he adds with a smile, “if I’d known I was going to be elected into the Hall of Fame, I would have practiced more!”