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Playing with Four Mallets: Interval Changes by Emily Tannert Patterson and Josh Gottry

Sep 20, 2021, 08:00 AM by Rhythm Scene Staff

As a reminder, the terminology utilized in installments of this series on 4-mallet keyboard technique were codified in Leigh Howard Stevens’ book Method of Movement. If you haven’t read the first five articles, check for archived articles in Rhythm! Scene. In this particular article, we’ll be addressing movement within the hands to change intervals between mallets, applicable to all four stroke types discussed thus far. 

As mentioned in the previous articles in this series, as you are just starting out, perform your stroke motions and interval changes away from the keyboard first: slowly, 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 and neither are interval changes, but it is important that you are able to execute each with consistency and with a 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. You may apply the interval change instructions in this article to any of the exercises included with the articles on each of the four stroke types.

Once you are ready to move onto a keyboard, focus on being able to maintain the comfortable and consistent motion you solidified on a flat surface. 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.

Once you are able to maintain grip and use the proper stroke motion on static pitches or intervals or on a flat surface, it’s time to learn how to change the distance between the two mallet heads when they strike the keyboard, also known as the interval between pitches. Begin by applying these shifts to double vertical and single alternating strokes, then extend to single independent and double lateral exercises. Keep in mind that the interval changes should happen during the recovery portion of the previous stroke, always allowing your mallets to hover over the new targets at the high set position. Attempting to aim while the mallet is descending is a recipe for missed notes! Remember that you must be proficient with the initial stroke type before adding this extra layer of challenge.

Stevens Technique: To expand or contract the interval between mallets in the same hand, simply extend or retract the index finger. This will move the inside mallet in relation to the outside mallet and increase or decrease the space between the mallets. (The outside mallet is fixed in position and should never move!) Be sure that the inside mallet sits in the crease of the knuckle nearest the fingertip throughout the movement. The mallet should not be rolled or otherwise moved; it is the finger that moves, and the mallet that goes along for the ride. This motion should give you a range of a second or third to at least a sixth; while there are other maneuvers that allow for greater intervals, this motion is sufficient to allow you to play beginning- and intermediate-level four-mallet literature.

Burton Grip: Start with a comfortable third or fourth interval, with a fulcrum on the inside mallet formed between the thumb and index finger and the ring finger anchoring the outside mallet shaft. To decrease the interval between the mallets, move the index finger up and out of the space between the mallets, press the inside mallet closer to the outside one with the thumb, and use the back fingers to squeeze the mallet shafts closer together. For a larger interval (fifth, sixth, or larger), move the thumb between the mallet shafts, forming a fist. Allow the index finger to wrap around and secure the inside mallet shaft, while the ring finger will again anchor the outside mallet shaft inside the hand.

Traditional Grip: Start with an interval of a third, with the side of the thumb resting on the top of the inside mallet and the index finger touching the inside of the outside mallet just between the first and second knuckles. To decrease the interval between mallets, allow the thumb to nestle under a slightly extended index finger and curl the middle finger around the back shafts of the mallets, pulling the mallet heads closer together. For a lager interval, extend the thumb and index finger along the insides of each mallet and allow the ring finger to release the back shaft of the inside mallet, leaving the pinky finger to support the contrary pressure at the mallet crossing point.

As you continue the exploration and development of your four-mallet technique, it is recommended that you seek out assistance from a percussion specialist in your area. While we strive to be careful and detailed in our descriptions, having a second set of eyes review your hands in these grips with these various interval positions is advantageous in ensuring the right foundational habits are established, from which point you can continue to explore advancing techniques and literature.

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 from 2015 till 2018 and at East View High School, Georgetown from 2011 until 2015. 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 the Percussive Arts Society 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 colleges and universities, junior high and high schools, and multiple national conferences, and he serves as editor for Rhythm! Scene.

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