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

Jul 19, 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 previous articles, 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. The single alternating stroke, like the single independent stroke, is a rotational stroke. However, in this case the mallets strike in alternating fashion: first one and then the other.

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 to), 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 alternating-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 on to 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.

Unlike the single independent stroke, which pivots on the unused mallet, the single alternating stroke pivots on a point between the two mallets. Smooth and efficient single alternating strokes create a linked or dependent motion in which the downward movement of one mallet prepares the next for its stroke by raising it to the proper starting height. In this respect, effort should not be made to isolate the movements of the mallet independently, as was the case with single independent strokes. It is critically important, however, that the mallets are not stiffly locked into a dependent unit such that the motion of one mallet is the strict inverse of the motion of the other.

The single alternating stroke is perhaps best illustrated by imagining a person standing on a trampoline. When someone lands next to that person, the stationary person is launched skyward, while the initial bouncer remains on the trampoline. Then they switch, taking turns. In this way you can imagine how there is a split second where both mallets are in a low position near the bottom of the stroke. The downward motion of one mallet initiates the preparation stroke of the other mallet, but it is not a seesaw motion, in which both mallets move up and down in a linked inverse relationship.

For all three grips presented in the original article, the motion for single alternating strokes is relatively consistent. Both for reasons of sound and physical comfort, it is also necessary that each individual stroke within this technique be allowed to rebound naturally off the bar after striking, in part aided by slight vertical motion of the arm.

As before, any new stroke motion is best practiced away from the keyboard. Find a flat surface and begin by raising the inside mallet using a single-independent-style wrist rotation. Hesitate in that position for a moment and then drop the mallet back to the striking surface. As that inside mallet strikes the floor, couch, bed, etc., the outside mallet should pop up. Pause for a moment again in that position, then reverse the action. Be sure that the arm and wrist twist, but do not sway from side to side. The mallets should each inscribe a similar arc-shape motion as they did with the single independent stroke. The axis of rotation will exist about an inch away from the stationary hand and changes its locations based on which hand is playing.

As you become comfortable with this “trampoline” motion, chain the strokes together into continuous motion. Because each stroke is dependent on the stroke before it, this is one of the easiest strokes to play continuously. Much like a pendulum, most of the energy for the subsequent strokes comes from the initial stroke.

Work to maintain a firm grip at all times, but keep the muscles in the hand and wrist as relaxed as possible. The fingers will control the placement of each mallet on the keyboard, but should not be engaged in the stroke motion.

Throughout the single alternating stroke, the wrist should remain static. If the wrist flexes, the stroke motion will be pulled off course and result in accuracy issues. As with the single independent stroke, this often happens as part of an attempt to get more height in the stroke. Ensure that the wrist and hand stays aligned with the arm, and don’t break the plane of the wrist at any point in the stroke motion.

Keep the wrist position low to the keyboard at all times. An elevated wrist position creates an impact point near the top of the mallets with a glancing blow. This will result in a thin and weak sound.

At no time should the rotation become stiff or the motion of one mallet completely inverse the other. This is not dependent motion like a seesaw, but rather dependent motion in that one stroke initiates or launches the next.

4-Mallet Single Alternating July 21

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Emily Tannert PattersonEmily Tannert Patterson is a percussionist and online educator in Cambridge, U.K. 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, Texas from 2015–18 and at East View High School, Georgetown, Texas 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 U.K., 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 twenty years. He has served on the music faculty at 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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