The terminology utilized in the next four installments of this series on four-mallet keyboard technique were codified in Leigh Howard Stevens’ book Method of Movement. Regardless of the grip or technique used, however, these terms for the four types of stroke motions — double vertical, single independent, single alternating, and double lateral — have become widely used. The double vertical stroke resembles its name: both mallets (double) move in a vertical manner.
A DELIBERATE APPROACH
For each stroke type introduced, 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. Practice a little each day by playing along to your favorite music, using a pad, pillow, bed, or other soft surface, but not yet applying it to the keyboard for several days. 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 double vertical 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 fourth or a fifth, keeping the wrist low to the keyboard and aiming from the top of the stroke. 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.
To execute the double vertical stroke using Stevens Technique, the wrist (and only the wrist!) flexes along the side hinge while the hand remains perpendicular to the floor. It is important to remember that range of motion is less than with a matched grip stroke; don’t try to achieve the same stroke height! Make sure your hand remains in the perpendicular, “karate chop” position and does not twist at the top of the stroke or during the stroke.
To perform a double vertical grip using one of the two cross grips — Traditional or Burton — the wrist (and only the wrist!) will bend in a knocking motion, with the back of the hand facing the ceiling at the moment the mallets strike the bars. Unlike in the Stevens Technique, the range of motion for this stroke is quite significant, provided that the keyboard is at a height where the wrist is in a neutral position when the mallets hover just above the instrument.
From the first time you attempt the double vertical stroke, be very careful to avoid mallet “flams.” This occurs when the mallets strike the keyboard (or practice surface) at slightly different times, usually caused by either the mallet heads not starting at the same vertical position or the hand turning slightly during the stroke motion. Check your grip in the mirror to make sure the hand is properly positioned and that the mallet heads are resting at the same height.
There are three common causes for poor accuracy when executing double vertical strokes: excess arm motion, a loose grip, or starting with the mallets in a down position.
While double vertical strokes may incorporate some arm motion, it will greatly improve your technique and accuracy if you focus solely on the wrist at first. Attempting to use too large a range of motion (playing “too high”) and using the arm once the wrist has hit its top can cause fatigue and poor accuracy. Be sure to keep the arms still when building muscle memory, and allow for a smaller range of motion as you are learning. There is plenty of time to add arm after the correct motion has been solidified.
If your grip is not secure and allows the mallets to wobble during the stroke, they may strike the keyboard at different times or potentially strike the wrong bars. Make sure your grip is firm (but not tense) and that the mallets are not moving around in the hand during the stroke or impact.
A proper full stroke will start from an “up” position and execute a “down-and-up” motion. Placing the mallets directly above the keys to be played and aiming from the top of the stroke (so that you only have to push straight down to hit the keys) takes some practice, but is a more accurate approach in the long run. If you are instead starting low (at the keyboard), then attempting to rapidly raise the mallets and bring them back down to perform the stroke, it is easy for your aim to go awry in that fast up-down process.
Playing with Four Mallets: Double Vertical Strokes by Emily Tannert Patterson and Josh Gottry from Percussive Arts Society on Vimeo.
Emily 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 the Percussive Arts Society and serves on the PAS Education Committee.
Josh 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 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.