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Playing with Four Mallets: Single Independent Strokes by Emily Tannert Patterson and Josh Gottry

Jun 21, 2021, 08:00 AM by Rhythm Scene Staff

As a reminder, the terminology utilized in installments two through five of this series on 4-mallet keyboard technique were codified in Leigh Howard Stevens’ book Method of Movement. If you haven’t yet read the first article, “How to Hold Them,” or the second, “Double Vertical Strokes,” please check back for archived articles in Rhythm! Scene. Regardless of the grip or technique used, the terms used here for the four types of stroke motions — double vertical, single independent, single alternating, and double lateral — have become widely used. Unlike the double vertical stroke, in which a bend of the wrist moves the mallets up and down, the single independent stroke is a rotational stroke, in which the wrist spins along an axis. The objective is to move one mallet while the other spins in place, making the non-moving mallet the axis of rotation.

As mentioned in the previous article in this series, as you are just starting out, perform these isolated strokes away from the keyboard: single iterations, out of time, on a floor, couch, or pillow. Once you can do the motion correctly without any breakdowns in the grip, try playing whole, half, quarter, and then eighth notes to a music track (whatever sort of music you enjoy listening too), still away from the keyboard. None of these individual strokes are particularly difficult to master, but it is important that you are able to execute each with proper grip and hand position. Allowing yourself to build muscle tone, comfort, and skill without worrying about note accuracy is an essential part of maintaining motivation and confidence with this new technique. Accompanying this article are 16 single independent stroke permutation exercises that can be used on a flat surface or utilizing any selected pitches on the keyboard.

Once you are ready to move onto a keyboard, focus on being able to maintain a comfortable, moderate interval between the mallets. Once you’re able to keep your grip steady and maintain accuracy for multiple strokes in rhythm, you’re ready to start moving around the keyboard. As with any percussion stroke technique, practice in front of a mirror to watch your motion and hand position, whether you are practicing on a pillow, the floor, or on a keyboard instrument.

In executing the single independent stroke, it can be useful to visualize a ball or globe. The one moving mallet travels from the equator (or midpoint), around the outside of the sphere in an arc shape, then back again, all while the unused mallet remains at the center line/equator. For all three grips presented, the motion for single independent strokes is relatively consistent.

It is often easiest to begin with the outside mallet. Start away from the keyboard (floor, tabletop, music stand, etc.) with mallets only in one hand. (Always begin by checking that your grip is correct!) To start, put your hand in low playing position (e.g., just above where the keyboard would be). Hold the mallet head of the inside mallet, twisting it gently while holding on, and allowing the hand to turn as the mallet turns. The entire forearm should rotate as you perform this simple motion, causing the outside mallet to rise and fall. Notice how the mallet takes an arc-shaped pathway and that the inside mallet spins in place. 

Once you have a feel for this in your hand, attempt the same motion without controlling the stationary mallet, rotating the arm so that the outside mallet lifts in an arc away from and then back towards the floor. It is vital that the inside mallet spins in place and that you keep your grip stable; the fingers should not contribute to the motion, but should rather hold the mallets securely. Please note that as the forearm spins and the outside mallet rises, the hand will rotate, causing the palm and back of the hand to face in different directions towards the floor. This is proper, and the hand will return to its original position as the mallet strikes the instrument.

Once you can correctly create this motion with the outside mallet, you should be able to replicate it fairly easily using the inside mallet. As before, start by controlling this motion with your free hand spinning the stationary mallet until you can maintain the stable position of the unused mallet as you rotate.

The basic motion, when done slowly, is fairly easy to master; when you start to move faster and make strokes continuous, flaws become apparent. Focus initially on slow-motion, repeated strokes and single, isolated, full-speed strokes to build muscle memory in isolation before attempting to chain quicker strokes together and apply the technique to the keyboard. Playing quarter notes, four per mallet, in a 2314 cycle, along to some kind of pop music or practice track, is a great way to practice when the technique is brand new. Practice this on a non-pitched surface for a couple of days before applying it to the keyboard.

Work to maintain a firm grip at all times, but not squeezing too tightly so as to cause unnecessary tension. In all three grips, the fingers act as “shock absorbers” for the mallets, so they need to stay relaxed as they hold on to the mallets (relaxed, not slack; still keep hold of the mallets). Squeezing too tightly will transfer the impact of the mallet head on the playing surface into the non-moving mallet.

Throughout this motion, the wrist should remain static. If the wrist flexes at all, the stroke will be pulled off course, causing the mallet head to draw a small circle in the air at the top of the stroke and resulting in accuracy issues. This often happens as part of an attempt to get more height. Ensure that the wrist and hand stay aligned with the arm, and don’t break the plane of the wrist at the top of the stroke.

Similarly, the fingers should not be instigating this stroke motion. If the fingers are moving during the stroke motion, the smooth arc path can be disrupted, again leading to accuracy issues. Keep the fingers still and allow the rotation of the arm to do the work of moving the mallet.

4-Mallet Single Independent Strokes

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Emily Tannert PattersonEmily Tannert Patterson
is a percussionist and online educator in Cambridge, UK. Previously she was a percussion educator, arranger, clinician, and consultant in the Austin, Texas, area, serving as the percussion director at Rouse High School and Wiley Middle School in Leander from 2015–18 and at East View High School in Georgetown from 2011–15. Her ensembles garnered numerous accolades, including winning the 2016 PAS IPEC. Patterson holds a master's degree in Percussion Performance from the University of Texas at Austin, where she studied with Thomas Burritt and Tony Edwards. Patterson earned her bachelor’s degree in Instrumental Music Studies, along with an undergraduate Performance Certificate in Percussion and her Texas teaching certificate from UT in 2008, and received her bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Political Science from Northwestern University in 2004. Patterson marched with the Glassmen Drum and Bugle Corps in 2003 and was a member of the 2004 Winter Guard International world champion indoor drumline Music City Mystique. Prior to her move to the UK, she was active in judging around the country. Patterson holds professional memberships in the Texas Music Educators Association and PAS and serves on the PAS Education Committee. 

Josh GottryJosh Gottry is a respected educator, accomplished percussionist, and internationally recognized composer who has been working with, and creating music for, the next generation of percussionists for over 20 years. He has served as part of the music faculty on college and university campuses around the Phoenix metropolitan area, works regularly with ensembles and students at all grade levels as a clinician and within his private lesson studio, and his performance record includes professional orchestras, musical theater, worship teams, jazz combos, community and chamber ensembles, as well as solo performances and recitals. Gottry is an ASCAP award-winning composer whose works have been performed at universities, junior high and high schools, and multiple national conferences, and he serves as editor for Rhythm! Scene.

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