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  • Adapting Stone's Stick Control as 4-Mallet Floor Exercises by Jason Baker

    by Rhythm Scene Staff | Sep 14, 2020

    Many of us have found ourselves stuck at home and away from our instruments; this is particularly true in the case of keyboard percussion. The percussion community has had to embrace a newfound resourcefulness in finding ways to practice and perform that will hopefully last well beyond our return to normal access. While the use of new technology has greatly aided in this, I have found inspiration in something old and time-tested: Stick Control.

    Published in 1935, George Lawrence Stone’s Stick Control for the Snare Drummer is considered among the best and certainly most well-known snare drum method books. Percussionists have created their own variations on Stone’s exercises and transferred them to countless other settings. This is due to the genius simplicity behind the book and its universal appeal to performers of all percussion instruments: taking a set rhythm and varying its execution through a wide variety of sticking patterns while striving for a uniform sound throughout.

    I initially developed my “Stone Variations” for 4-mallet marimba as floor exercises. Having studied with Mark Ford at the University of North Texas, I was made familiar with this concept as a way to address the mechanics of various strokes away from the instrument, allowing for focus on movement and grip without obsessing over note accuracy. Plus, you can do them anywhere, from your living room while watching Netflix to the green room at Carnegie Hall. By sitting with your back flat against a wall or foot of a couch, your hands rest comfortably at your side and allow the same angle and upper body relaxation needed when playing at the marimba.

    The variations I am going to share are based on Exercises 1–13 on page 5 of Stick Control (“Single Beat Combinations”), after which applying the ideas to other sections of the book should seem intuitive. The 4-mallet techniques addressed (using the nomenclature from Leigh Howard Stevens’s Method of Movement) will be double vertical, single independent, single alternating, double lateral, and triple lateral strokes. Explanations include the numbering of mallets as 1, 2, 3, 4 from left to right.

    These only demonstrate a handful of ways this material can be adapted to 4-mallet technique; many more can certainly be discovered with a bit of creativity.

    This variation is the easiest to explain. The designated “R” and “L” sticking would be executed by the respective hands with both mallets in each hand, taking care that both mallets strike at the exact same time (no “flams”) and grip/stroke mechanics are used that ensure a fluid motion as the tempo increases. The first three exercises from page 5 are given below. All subsequent examples would be performed in the same manner.

    Exercise 1

    Baker Stick Control F-1

    Exercise 2

    Baker Stick Control F-2

    Exercise 3

    Baker Stick Control F-3

    All the examples on page 5 can also be used to work on single independent strokes, using four variations: inside mallets, outside mallets, odd-numbered mallets, and even-numbered mallets. This is demonstrated with the first two exercises and can easily be applied to variations throughout the page.

    Exercise 1

    Baker Stick Control F-4

    Exercise 2

    Baker Stick Control F-5

    Double strokes (“RR” and “LL”) appear in exercises 3–8. In these examples, single alternating and (in faster tempos) double lateral strokes can be applied. Four variations for executing double strokes are given: beginning each grouping of doubles with the inside mallets, outside mallets, odd-numbered mallets, and even-numbered mallets.

    Exercise 3

    Baker Stick Control F-6

    Exercises 5–8 combine doubles and singles in a “paradiddle” fashion. Below, doubles are given starting on both the inside and outside mallets. While the single strokes in these examples are indicated with the inside two mallets, they can also be played with the outside mallets or a combination of inner and outer.

    Exercises 5–8

    Baker Stick Control F-7

    The next four exercises (9–12) are played using single alternating or triple lateral strokes, beginning on either the inside or outside mallets.

    Exercise 9

    Baker Stick Control F-8

    The same approach can be applied to the rest of the exercises in this subset.

    Exercise 10

    Baker Stick Control F-9

    Exercise 11

    Baker Stick Control F-10

    Exercise 12

    Baker Stick Control F-11

    In addition, these can be performed by alternating between inside and outside mallet lead within each measure, helping achieve fluidity at a faster tempo and building the motion needed to develop one-handed rolls.

    Exercise 9

    Baker Stick Control F-12

    This idea is continued in Exercise 13 with four-note groupings.

    Baker Stick Control F-13

    In addition to serving as floor exercises, these variations can also be useful in developing permutation exercises at the instrument and serve as a basis for improvisation. Below are two examples using the sticking in Exercise 5 (RLRR LRLL): one using open fifths in each hand and the other with interval changes determined by voice-leading in a I-vi-IV-V chord progression.

    Baker Stick Control F-14

    Baker Stick Control F-15

    As previously mentioned, the concepts listed throughout this article can be applied to other sections of the book, such as “Triplets” (pgs. 8–9), “Short Roll Combinations” (pgs. 10–13), and “Short Rolls and Triplets” (pgs. 14–15). I hope that these ideas serve the percussion community well during our current context of limited access to instruments, but also provide additional inspiration for creative problem solving for the lack of instrument access that we all face occasionally as percussionists, regardless of outside circumstances. Happy practicing!

    Jason BakerJason Baker is a percussionist, author, and composer/arranger living in Starkville, Mississippi. He serves as Professor of Music at Mississippi State University, Associate Editor for New Literature Reviews of Percussive Notes, and Chair of the PAS University Pedagogy Committee. You can contact him at

  • Free Improvisation for Percussion Ensembles by Ryan Lewis

    by Hillary Henry | Sep 08, 2020

    The Percussive Arts Society COVID-19 Task Force recently published a document titled Managing COVID-19 Protocols in Administering Percussion Performance Curriculum, which includes the following recommendation for creative music making within percussion ensembles this fall:

    In these challenging times, many educators have been rethinking the traditional repertoire for the percussion ensemble…In addition to selecting chamber percussion repertoire, educators may want to consider adding new opportunities for free-style improvisation to their curriculum. In free improvisation sessions, students learn to make on-the-spot musical decisions and perform spontaneous gestures, which turns the music into a conversation between the performers…Developing this kind of skill set is essential to training the 21st century musician.”

    There are myriad benefits to be gained from participating in free improvisation sessions—for students, educators, and audience members. But if you have never participated in free improvisation sessions, much less led a session, you may be asking: What exactly is free improvisation? How does it work? What are the benefits for my students? How do we get started?

    This article serves as a quick-start guide and introduces a specific and accessible style of free improvisation, the many benefits of the experience, guidelines for leading a free improvisation session, and a collection of effective ideas to get percussion ensembles making creative music as quickly as possible.

    Many percussionists are familiar with the ground-breaking percussion group Nexus, but most do not know that their first concerts in the 1970s were made up of two 45-minute sets of free improvisation, often featuring non-Western instruments and found instruments from their personal collections.

    According to Nexus member Bill Cahn, the players would simply go on stage and play whatever they liked, but, perhaps because of their classical backgrounds, the improvisations often (but not always) followed a loose ABA pattern—an opening free section that presented sounds and ideas, an energetic middle section with a pulse or groove (that appeared and disappeared on its own) in which ideas were developed, and a closing free section that wound down and ended whenever the players decided to stop.

    This Nexus method of free improvisation is just one of many, but it is an accessible and enjoyable entry point for new improvisers, as well as being significant within the history of the modern percussion ensemble.

    Discussions regarding the benefits of free improvisation typically begin with the profound aesthetic, artistic, musical, intellectual, and personal benefits (and rightly so), but presently, perhaps the best justification for percussion ensembles to try free improvisation this fall is its flexibility.

    For the foreseeable future, percussion ensemble directors and students will be expected to adapt to constantly changing health guidelines and unexpected personnel changes, including the possibility of students becoming quarantined, potentially for weeks at a time. This state of unpredictability makes programming a percussion ensemble concert with one-on-a-part chamber works a risky venture because no one can know for certain which players will be able to attend which rehearsals or even be present at the concert.

    The inherent flexibility of free improvisation makes it a terrific option for percussion ensembles this fall because it can be done well regardless of the number of players involved, levels of musical experience, access to instruments, and number of rehearsals before a performance.

    The primary goal of free improvisation is to deepen the experience of music making and create meaningful improvised, spontaneous, free-form music that is capable of engaging the attention of both the performers and listeners. Additionally, the following are some of the many benefits of free improvisation, which may be included in percussion ensemble syllabi as learning outcomes and used to justify its study to administrators.

    • Improved listening skills that transfer to making music in other contexts (especially symphonic music and composed chamber music).
    • Increased focus upon and awareness of musical sounds (made by one’s self and other ensemble members).
    • Improved sense of making appropriate musical responses in collaboration with other musicians.
    • Deeper knowledge of one’s instruments and its sound-making capabilities.
    • Increased personal confidence in musical expression, risk taking, and creating musical ideas.
    • Decreased personal fear of being judged and of the misconceptions surrounding improvisation.
    • Increased ability to not judge others and be accepting of the sounds produced by others (there are no “wrong” sounds).
    • Increased inclusive participation by students regardless of their musical experience (expression is the focus, not reading musical notation or technical ability).
    • Improved and deepened musical friendships as participants share a mutual willingness to go beyond the musical restrictions we have been taught.
    • Renewed connection with the excitement we first felt about music early on in our lives (both as educators and students).

    As its name suggests, there are no rules for performing free improvisation; however, Nexus member Bob Becker suggests the following guidelines for leaders and participants to create an effective and enjoyable music making experience.

    • Leaders should keep the number of players in a group limited to small group (ideally six or less), the total number of instruments relatively small, and each improvisation to around eight minutes (more or less, as they end when they end).
    • Leaders should encourage the participants to do their best to relax (as they are often uncomfortable at first), be willing to free themselves from printed music, and not force the music in any set direction (instead, to go where the music leads).
    • Participants should listen deeply to the sounds around them (colors, rhythms, expressions, moods, etc.) and strive to be fully aware of the sounds as they occur.
    • Participants may play whatever they want on any instrument at any time (there are no mistakes), but instead of “going crazy,” the absence of a plan should be seen as a responsibility to listen carefully and create meaningful, interesting musical moments.
    • Participants should listen to each other and to themselves as deeply as possible, but there is no penalty for breaking this rule. Becker suggests that sometimes incredibly interesting music can occur when individuals or small groups are “doing their own thing” at the same time, often with remarkable results.
    • Participants have essentially three options: play with what you hear, play against what you hear, or do not play at all (silence is acceptable). In other words, participants may play something that blends with or complements something they hear, or they can intentionally play something that goes against and does not mesh with what they hear, or they can choose not to play, listen carefully, and add to the musical conversation when they have something to say.

    Following the Nexus method, there are four components to every free improvisation session: play, record, listen, and reflect.

    RECORD: As the participants improvise, the performance should be recorded on a device (e.g., phone, video camera, laptop with audio editing software, etc.) that can be immediately played back on speakers for all to hear. Be sure to keep a copy of each recording with the date and performers’ names for future reference, which is helpful if you intend to share recordings with participants later on (e.g., via email, a weblink to an online storage drive, or posted on a learning management system). Recording performances is important because participants will perform differently when they know that “the tape is rolling” and their creations will be listened to and discussed by their colleagues.

    LISTEN: After the performance is completed, lead everyone in listening to the playback of the recorded improvisation. This step is extremely important for the participants because they are often amazed to hear their own improvisations and how interesting the music is that they have created, as well as how proud they find themselves afterward. In fact, participants accustomed to using printed music are often surprised to hear the coherence of their improvisations, even if they felt uncomfortable during the performance. Additionally, both performers and listeners will often hear moments in the playback that they were unaware of during the live performance.

    REFLECT: Following the playback, ask each participant and listener, one by one, to share their observations about what they heard and initiate a group discussion. Help participants analyze what occurred and to do so in a non-judgmental manner by asking questions about ensemble, instrumentation, timbres, dynamics, silence, etc., or by asking some of the following discussion questions.

    • What stood out as you were listening? What did you like the most? What was the most interesting part?
    • What did you hear in the playback that you did not hear during the performance?
    • Was the same performer always leading throughout?
    • What were the main musical ideas?
    • How were the musical ideas developed?
    • What did you think about when you were improvising/listening?
    • Were there any moments of “consonance” or “synchronicity,” when communication among the players peaked?

    An effective format for the first free improvisation session with a percussion ensemble is to start by giving a brief introduction that summarizes the above information regarding the Nexus method, the benefits and guidelines, and the play-record-listen-reflect procedure.

    Then, begin with a demonstration improvisation session performed by you and a few musically mature percussion students (or faculty colleagues, if needed). Keep the demonstration group small (just two to four players), use only keyboard instruments positioned close together so that the players can make eye contact, and keep the session to around five minutes or so. (Though one of the most exciting components of free improvisation is not knowing what will happen, it is a good idea to meet with the demonstration group prior to the first session to practice improvising together so that the performers are informed and the demonstration is effective.)

    After the demonstration performance, if time permits, listen to the playback as a group and ask some of the discussion questions above so that students know the kinds of questions that will be asked following each performance, which will inform and guide their own improvisations later on. If time does not permit, mention that during future sessions, the performance will be recorded, and the group will listen the recorded playback together, and be sure to ask some of the reflection questions.

    Next, do as many free improvisation sessions as time allows, preferably using groups of no more than five or six players using keyboard instruments, but do your best to allow everyone to participate at least once during this first session, which may necessitate larger groups. Plan for at least 15 to 20 minutes for each free improvisation session, which includes the performance, playback, and discussion. A 50-minute session can include the introduction, demonstration session, and two sessions, while a 90-minute session could include up to four or five sessions.

    After the initial session and perhaps a few more introductory sessions, students will become more comfortable with improvising freely. Their performances will likely become increasingly creative, experimental, and imaginative, and their discussions more thoughtful and insightful, even profound.

    Once a level of understanding and comfort is achieved using keyboard instruments only, use the following list of options and parameters for future free improvisation sessions or create your own or allow the students to determine parameters.

    • Keyboard and accessory.
    • Keyboard and drum.
    • Keyboard, accessory, and drum.
    • Metal, wood, and skin.
    • Keyboard, metal, wood, and skin.
    • Non-pitched instruments.
    • Accessories or hand percussion.
    • Hand drums.
    • Found sounds within the rehearsal space.
    • Found sounds brought in from outside the rehearsal space.
    • Recyclable materials.
    • Body percussion.
    • Assign instruments students are comfortable playing.
    • Assign instruments students are uncomfortable playing.
    • Students choose their own instruments.
    • Non-traditional sounds from traditional instruments (do not disrespect or damage the instruments).
    • Non-traditional implements on traditional instruments (do not disrespect or damage the instruments).
    • Players may move around the room and play on each other’s instruments.
    • Determine a title for the performance after listening to the playback.
    • Determine a title or inspiration for the performance before it begins by asking for numbers, colors, animals, places, natural objects, manmade objects, celebrity names, pop song titles, famous composers, important social issues, etc.

    If you decide to expand the learning outcomes of your percussion ensemble this fall “by adding a component of free improvisation,” as the Percussive Arts Society suggests, there are many ways that you can quickly and easily implement these activities.

    A session of free improvisation can be performed during percussion ensemble rehearsals at existing instruments as a warm-up, an ensemble listening exercise, or as a way to refocus attention during rehearsals.

    One or more free improvisation sessions can be included on a percussion ensemble program (whether intentionally or added at the last moment), and these may be stand-alone performances or serve as prelude introductions to other works on the program using the same instruments.

    Presenting an entire concert featuring free improvisation can be a novel, exciting, and effective experience for students, as well as audience members if they are engaged in the creation of the music and participate in an open dialogue with the musicians.

    If it is not introduced during the semester, the class meetings at the end of a semester following a percussion ensemble concert can be a terrific time for students to experience free improvisation for the first time.

    For more information on how to get started, contact Dr. Ryan Lewis and Dr. Julie Licata


    • Bailey, Derek. Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music. New York: Da Capo, 1993.
    • Cahn, William. Creative Music Making: Four Simple Steps to Cultivating the Inner Musician. New York, Routledge, 2005.
    • Hall, Tom. Free Improvisation: A Practical Guide. Boston: Bee Boy Press, 2009.
    • Higgins, Lee and Campbell, Patricia Shehan. Free to be Musical: Group Improvisation in Music. Published in partnership with MENC, 2010.
    • Snell, James. “Integrating Improvisation into Your Curriculum.” Percussive Notes, Vol. 42, No. 2, April 2004: 38-43.

    Ryan LewisDr. Ryan C. Lewis is Associate Professor of Percussion at Ouachita Baptist University where he teaches Percussion and Music History courses and directs the Percussion Ensemble, Marching Band Drum Line, and Steel Drum Ensembles. Lewis holds degrees from the University of South Carolina, Florida State University, and Furman University. He is a past President of the Arkansas PAS  Chapter and currently performs with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra and the chamber groups Trio di Risata and Duo Matre.

  • University Percussion Studies: Changes to the Percussionist's Venn Diagram by Dr. Steve Hemphill

    by Rhythm Scene Staff | Sep 05, 2020

    With the coronavirus pandemic fracturing the status, structures, and security of many universities, a number of music schools are looking for innovative ways to deliver courses and to re-imagine curricular blueprints. Only time will tell whether new modes of teaching will be temporary, shadowing the timeframe of the coronavirus footprint, or will permanently influence higher education in the way of “best practices” and revamped instructional models.

    Either way, this current context is an extraordinary challenge for students of the arts and teachers of all levels as they struggle to balance this “call to act.” Faculty everywhere are grappling with the hands-on and collaborative components of music making, while debating the issue: is this a defeating crisis or a rare opportunity to examine and experiment? Curriculum redesign may be compulsory to navigate current institutional directives and constraints for the forthcoming academic year, but arguments also can be made for inevitable transformations based on a changing landscape in arts education.

    Imagine a blank slate on which to design a wish-list curriculum for the aspiring collegiate undergraduate music student studying percussion. What might that percussion curriculum look like in terms of comprehensiveness, inclusiveness, and breadth? Is it creative, adventurous, inclusive, diverse, gratifying?

    Perhaps this is an exercise in futility, but revisiting a studio’s offerings and priorities, along with those of the encompassing institution, seems to be a constant expectation in higher education. Without explicit solutions, but with an enterprising spirit, the accompanying graphic (see Example 1: a multifaceted Venn diagram) serves to illustrate the indeterminate set of relationships regarding many of the components often associated with percussion studies. While the illustration surely contains incomplete relationships, it does embrace a kind of audacity in viewing the student’s (or instructor’s) world from a studio-centered brashness, with everything revolving around the percussion instructor’s perspective.

    Hemphill Percussion Study 1

    Most likely, not everyone would subscribe to the cluttered tangle of instructional domains in this particular Venn diagram as their own conceptual outlook; that is quite reasonable. Each instructor’s unique experiences and attitudes are vital in examining the values and intricacies of a percussion program.

    First, you might ask yourself how you would reset the table for your own ideal set of circumstances, if the social landscape was still in a normal state? In comparison to this diagram (Example 1), what would you eliminate or reduce, and what might be missing, for your own programmatic concept? What are worthier priorities and relative correlations of these activities? As an exercise, it can be worth visualizing the components of an “ideal” collegiate percussion world when entertaining curricular modifications. Certainly, it can help to validate your own value system.

    The second question concerns a realistic change in social environments and transforming academic structures. With instrument access a severe, even bleak, issue for many percussion students across the country, how can the percussion instructor adapt to this new environment? Perhaps some instructors will find that local circumstances require only minimal adjustments in teaching content while others may be facing an outright overhaul of both instructional content and delivery.

    Many institutions are bracing for a dramatic change and are frantically attempting to forecast the needs and demands of a student body. Example 2 suggests an alteration where less weight is placed on the large ensemble experience, as well as potentially less keyboard and timpani study due to instrument access issues. New circumstances may require more engagement in chamber music, music listening, creative work (e.g., composition), research projects, business and entrepreneurship training (but with fewer outside teaching and performance gigs available), and technology, with added emphasis on the study of texts and online viewing of performances. Perhaps more focus on ear training and tuning-related activity may emerge. For many, the recital experience will exist without audiences, compelling more students to explore online streaming, scheduled YouTube premieres, or other virtual platforms. At the same time, other opportunities may increase with accessible virtual conferences and workshops. Certainly, focus on the various instrumental areas will necessarily fluctuate depending on individual student access to instruments.

    Hemphill Percussion Study 2

    Many of us can recall Ivan Trevino’s 2014 article “My Pretend Music School” (, where he discussed the reasons why schools of music have not “evolved” and ways to counter this perceived resistance. Trevino suggested a required course in audio/visual production to align with online platforms for reaching new audiences (perhaps requiring one less semester of music history), an increased experience in chamber music (perhaps with fewer large ensemble requirements), advocating for the “practical skills” of composing and arranging (perhaps entailing the removal of that last semester of atonal theory), a class focusing on improvisation and creativity, and a required course in Music Business. Do the Covid-19 issues of 2020–21 unlock an expectation of change?

    Also in 2014 (edited in 2016), the College Music Society’s Report of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Music Major (TFUMM) distributed “Transforming Music Study from its Foundations: A Manifesto for Progressive Change in the Undergraduate Preparation of Music Majors” ( In the report, three concerns emerged: (a) the subordination of the creation of new work to the interpretive performance of older work, (b) ethnocentrism, with its lack of inclusiveness or diversity, and (c) a fragmentation of subjects and skills. In responding to these concerns, the TFUMM group asked: What does it mean to be an educated musician in the 21st century? The outcome of the report was the advocacy of three core pillars for reform that point to new core skills and understandings. The three pillars—creativity, diversity, and integration—suggested a transformation of these institutional tendencies. Perhaps the Trevino article and the College Music Society’s TFUMM report can serve as motivating and aspirational resources toward an open-mindedness for percussion instructors when confronting the challenges set before us this academic year.

    As the academic world speculates on the musician’s job market, and as turbulence optimistically wanes, it is quite easy to see the reactions of creative professional musicians adapting to work in isolation, their reliance on technology and increased integration with online platforms and resources, and creating new opportunities for community connection and outreach. Perhaps this is a time when a curricular re-visioning becomes appreciably more obvious, shining the light on essential talents necessary for emerging musicians: business, technology, entrepreneurial skills, and creativity.

    Comparing two Venn diagrams helps to illustrate an approach to instructional redesign, in light of coronavirus constraints and a changing arts environment, both in content and balance. These diagrams invite experimentation by moving the puzzle pieces around and changing their size. Under extraordinary social and institutional circumstances, perhaps some gratification can be found in the challenge of self-actualization and implementation of an ambitious redesign that will serve the student in the best way possible.

    Steve HemphillDr. Steve Hemphill, Professor of Percussion and Di­rector of Percussion Studies at Northern Ari­zona University since 1991, earned BM and MM degrees from the Eastman School of Music and a DM from Florida State University, where he was a University Teaching Fellow. Steve’s 35-year teaching career has included the University of Wyoming (Assistant Director of Bands and percussion) and Florida State University (as Visiting Professor). He has been a member of the PAS University Pedagogy Committee, Education Committee, and Composition Competition Committee, and he has served as Professional Adviser to the PAS University Student Committee.

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