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DIY Timpani Gauges 2.0

For years I’ve been making DIY gauges on different sets of timpani.  I usually do it for drums provided to me at gigs where I need to tune quickly, quietly, and on drums in less-than-ideal condition.  Frequently I make sure the gauges are there so I can quickly eyeball pitches and keep my focus on intonation with the ensemble, which is especially difficult on old heads and Standard Collar drums.

Until just recently my gauges looked like this:  mostly made up of different kinds of tape and fishing line.


These are certainly operational, but not a good long-term solution, and they run the risk of buzzing on the head at a time when you may not have a moment to fix it (like in a concert, bad)

My new version of gauges cost $25 to make with a few things from the hardware store, and are a dramatic improvement.  Obviously, this is for drums I have myself, I wouldn’t do this on a gig.


I used 1×2″ boards, in my case, poplar wood, and bolted them to the struts with a 3/8″ metal cutting drill bit and steel bolts. Getting the top level was easy, I used a block to raise the head level, then a bubble level on the board to get the cut angles.  I had to do it with a hand saw to get it just right.  Good news, when you cut one, the opposite piece is a mirror image, so it’s only one cut per drum.


Top plates were a bit more work.  I used an old set of heads to trace the rim then added a bit and cut the arcs out with a band saw.  That could be done by hand with a coping saw, scroll saw or jig saw if you had to.  I measured a good place for the string to go, put in 3/16″ holes and dropped 5/32″ grommets in them to protect the wood and get smooth motion on the string.  I mounted the top plate with wood glue and a single 1/8″ screw on each side.


I tried a few materials for the string but so far found that 30-40lb fishing line is still the best.  A piece of masking tape on the wood to write pitches and a darker piece on the string to show pedal position completes the plate.  I use 5oz fishing weights to keep tension on the line and tie to the weights and pedal with a double loop through and 4-5 half-hitches.  I ask about putting holes in people’s pedals but almost always do since it’s better than trying to tape or clamp.  1/4″ metal cutting bit goes through like butter.


I’ll be using the new gauges in an upcoming production of Young Frankenstein and I can’t wait to see how they work out!  Please share any ideas you have about how to improve this system or modify other types of drums.  I’d love to link to your pages and posts as well!

Iowa All-State Auditions 2016

It’s that time of year again!  All-State audition materials are posted and I have a series of videos and brief thoughts on preparing the materials this year.

Video performances of all the material can be found here.

Snare Drum: Cirone, Portraits in Rhythm #39

This solo is all about meters and roll subdivisions.  Many of the sections look far more complex than they truly are, and present an intellectual challenge more than a technical one.

Dynamics:  There are four dynamic levels in the piece. ff, f, mf, pp.

  • ff: a clearly larger resonance than f
  • f: comfortable, a little lower than I use in other etudes
  • mf: 3/4 of the way to the edge, lower than I use in other etudes
  • pp: about 1 inch off the edge.  Not the softest I can play, clear snare response.

Roll Speeds:  Triplet subdivision on each 8th note, 32nd note subdivision on single 16th notes.  Dotted 8th notes are a combination of these: Two 32nd notes followed by a triplet.  I practiced all rolls without buzzing first, so I could be completely certain of my timing, then added the buzz strokes in after.  In lines 6 and 7 the dotted roll rhythms took some work, and I ended up “flexing” the subdivisions a bit to keep the sound smooth.

Meter changes:  Generally the meter changes in lines 3, 6, 9, and 11 are more visually confusing than anything else.

  • Line 3: write in the sticking of each accent and ignore the bar lines.
  • Line 6: The 3/8 and 3/16 bars are a triplet rhythm repeated three times.  Use a sticking like (L RL R) and repeat three times to get through it with consistent time.
  • Line 9: Write out the sticking of the this whole line and ignore the bar lines unless they help you.  I personally stick the first measure (R RL R L) and then proceed alternating RLRL the rest of the way.
  • Line 11: Show the audience/judge the pulse by bobbing a bit on counts 1 and 3 of each bar.  |1 … 3… |1… |1… 3…|1.  This helped me maintain my consistent time and leaves no doubt about where YOU know the beat is.


Marimba: Etude #1 by Stan Dahl

This piece looks very complex but a bit of analysis will reveal a few harmonic tricks that make the solo fairly easy to conceptualize and memorize.

Dynamics:  There are four dynamic levels in the piece. ff, f, mf, p.

  • ff is only the last note and has an accent.  I hit both notes together and roll comfortably for the duration, more like a wind player might sustain a long accent.
  • f is mostly in the beginning and has accents.
  • mf is the top of a lyrical line and begins the final passage with accents
  • p is the starting dynamic for several falling runs and the base level for the lyrical section.  I set it at a “lowest fully resonant” level where I can hear the resonators responding to the bars.  It’s possible to play below this level and I make sure not to in this case.

Opening Section (m1-19):

  • m1-2, 5-6 are diminished triads.  I use 2 mallets and stick them LRRLRRLR
    • I learn the note patterns at mf with no accents for a smooth sound
    • then bump the level up to f with no accents for smooth sound
    • THEN I add an arm push on each accent and focus on that smooth sound after
  • m3 is a series of whole-tone runs.  Right hand starts each grouping.
    • Get the starting notes first, all right hand F/E/Eb/D
    • “Puzzle-Solve” without staying in time to accurately find all the notes
    • Play each grouping from the 5/16 bar back to the beginning at quarter = 110
  • m7-12 is the same speed 16ths, but in triple meter.
    • I use the same LRR sticking concept from before, but now there are no accents
    • m9-10 have a “pull” motion down from Eb to F
  • m13-19 long Eb Major line rocking down from G/Eb to F/D
    • Play an Eb major scale all Left Hand from Eb down two octaves to D
    • Do the same thing all Right Hand from G to F
    • “Puzzle solve” without staying in time, notes as written
    • Set metronome to 440 for the 16th note speed.  Count each grouping of three notes as you play to get the timing of the last 3 notes.
    • Final roll is only three 16ths long.  Fermata is on the REST, not the ROLL.

Lyrical Section (m20-27):

  • Switch to 4-mallets.  Any grip will do.  Something soft, as noted.
  • Learn the whole section at the marked tempo of quarter = 75
    1. Play all rolls as 16th note block chords, all 4 notes at once
      • Focus on tone, phrasing and timing as if it was the final product
      • Lowest p level comes up and falls away from mp and mf smoothly
    2. Play all rolls as alternating 32nd notes, left hand first
    3. THEN relax the hands and alternate the rolls freely, maintaining the pacing with the metronome
  • m23 play the rolls with the lowest three mallets

Final Section (m28-29):

  • Switch back to 2-mallets
  • The notes are an F13#11 chord… thats just every other note from F to D.  No flats.
    • The starting pitch of each set is F,A,C,E
  • I learn the notes all at mf, no accents
  • then add the crescendo, still no accents
  • THEN add an arm push for the accents as before, listening for the smooth crescendo
  • The final note is a heavy accent, with a relaxed roll after.  Check the tempo, it’s short.


Timpani: Etude #6 by Barry Dvorak

A typical assortment of cross-sticking and rhythm changes, but with the added challenge of producing a clear tone with brushes and wood mallets.

Drum Sizes: I recommend the top three drum sizes, 29″, 26″ 23″.  This is will put the pitches in the low range where they will be more resonant with the brushes and wood.

Tuning: Starts F C E, goes to G C G.

  • Set C first.
  • Sing that C into the low drum and pedal from the bottom, the 5th harmonic will sing back at you and then it’s mostly in tune.
  • Sing the C again and use a song like “3 Blind Mice” to get the high drum
    • C is “mice”, E is “Three” in the song.
    • A Major 3rd needs to be 14 cents flat to be truly in tune.  Be very careful not to set it too high.
  • For the second set of pitches keep the C and sing a G into it.  That 5th harmonic will sing back when it’s exactly right.
  • Keep singing that note and move to the top drum, then the bottom.

I strongly suggest marking gauges with these pitches.  They are not allowed for the audition but you can use the markings to memorize pedal positions as you practice.  Go back and forth and double check the tuning over and over until you can quickly hit the changes without needing any extra reference pitches.  At most tap with your fingers to confirm the pitches as if you were trying to stay silent in a performance.

Brushes: I recommend a “Steve Gadd” type of brush, with the last 1.5 inch bent slightly.  This can be bought from Vic Firth or made from straight metal brushes by pinching the ends with a needle nose pliers and pressing them gently on a table.

Wood Mallets: I recommend the smallest mallet heads possible.  I recorded with very small headed mallets from Tom Freer, but the Haas wood mallets from Promark would be a good option as well.

First Half – Brushes:

  • Dynamic is mp.  The brushes will basically take care of the dynamic, as they will not be very loud.  There are no phrase indications, so to add line and direction a good option is to give the subdivisions differing weight and character.
    • 8th notes and larger are the heaviest
    • Triplets are lighter and flow more smoothly
    • 16ths are lighter still and have a choppy feel
    • 32nds are the lightest and are basically grace notes
  • Stickings are all over the place.  Check the video for specific solutions, don’t hesitate to use crosses or doubles anywhere as long as the tone is consistent.
  • I recommend dampening the last measure as follows:
    • Dampen the top drum as you play the last note /w Right Hand
    • Dampen the bottom drum right away after /w Left Hand
    • Dampen the middle drum on the 8th rest as indicated /w Right Hand

Second Half – Wood Mallets:

  • Dynamic is f.  Wood mallets will again take care of the dynamic, just play light and consistent.  Same phrasing ideas as in the first half.
  • Stickings are still all over.  I start this LR LRLR, with beat two as a cross over.  The rest is pretty negotiable, many ways to do it as long as the tone is steady.
  • I recommend dampening the last measure exactly as before.


Tambourine: Etude by Aaron Williams

A collection of techniques.  Lots of solutions.  The limited dynamic range of some tambourines makes clarity the big challenge.

Dynamics: There are three dynamic levels in this piece. ff, f, pp

  • ff: arm weight added
  • f: wrist mostly, the weight of the hand
  • pp: play with fingers, dampening the head with the heel of the hand or on the knee

Techniques: Finger roll, Shake roll, knee/fist (or similar), knuckle (marcato accent)

I won’t go into the details of how to do each technique.  Simple guidelines:

  1. Practice the techniques you use apart from the music
  2. Practice the isolated moments in the music until they are exactly what you want
  3. String the different parts together, maintaining the level of execution


Crash Cymbals: Etude #2 by Aaron Williams

Dynamics and rest interpretation.  Hardcore stuff.  Lots of preparation needed before learning the actual notes.


Dynamics: There are five dynamic levels in this piece. ff, f, mf, mp, p

  • ff is only one note and is accented
  • f appears throughout and is both accented an non-accented
  • mf appears throughout and is both accented and non-accented
  • mp is the last note and begins a crescendo
  • p begins a crescendo
  1. Practice 5 dynamics of non-accented crashes, using mostly the top hand only.
    • Sets up a base level for dynamics in the piece
    • Develops physical control of the cymbals
    • Improves listening to the tone at each dynamic level.
  2. Add the bottom hand to the f and mf levels for accents.
    • Resonates differently than “top hand only” notes
    • Sounds and looks like accents, not new dynamics
  3. Practice isolated moments like with tambourine, cleaning and listening for tone.
  4. Connect each moment together, maintaining the level of execution.

Dampening: It’s not 100% clear, and not 100% advisable to dampen everything.

  • I recommend dampening everything on the rests with the following exception.
  • m6 dampen the first rest from f and then do NOT dampen on the crescendo.

Having a clean, clear sound is a huge challenge with cymbals.  This etude is a great way to develop that.

The audition seems large, but if taken methodically, can be completed long before the auditions.  I’m always available to answer questions, so leave comments and questions and I’ll do my best to help!

Thanks for reading!  Good Luck!



Flams and Spacing and Taps, Oh My!

Recently I’ve been amusing myself by playing “Concert” style flam spacing with “Marching” style parts…. but I’ve been doing it with the grace notes on the beat like in a one-hand exercise.  The result is a displaced accent similar to the “grandma” rudiment, but utilizing the same mechanical motions as in regular flam rudiments. Teasing all of that apart has been very entertaining.

Flam Grace ex1

I figured out a while ago that “Flam Triplets” have three consecutive taps and “Flam-Paradiddles” have four.  I extended that out all the way to eight consecutive taps, and now I have a series of interpreted rudiment combinations to develop my taps and challenge my timing and placement.

Flam Grace ex2

Here is a list of combinations based on Flams, Flam Drags, Cheeses, and Flam-5s.

Flam Grace Note Timing and Tap Control

I wrote out the Flam-5 spacing as 5-tuplets, but it could be played as the Cheese Triplet followed by a two 16ths double as well.

Happy drumming!


Floor-Mallet Marimba

Practicing 4-Mallet marimba on the floor or other “non-instrument” surface is something many professionals recommend to their students.  The concept appears in books and articles as well as clinics and handouts by Mark Ford, Gifford Howarth, Jeff Moore, and others.  Beetle Percussion even recently released a marimba “Practice pad” designed by Matthew Coley, which adds a more realistic dimension to this concept.

I recently began developing some of my exercises and expanding my use of floor practice for marimba.  I’m organizing my new materials under the heading “Floor-Mallet Marimba”.  My influences are mostly those of the artists above, and also of Kevin Bobo, his Book, and many years of teaching Stick Control.

It is generally understood that this approach does not develop a sensitive musical ear. The goal is improving mechanical facility, strength, and control of the sticks.  It’s also great at times when an instrument is difficult to obtain and chops need to be maintained.One final note:  There are fundamentally 3 ways stickings can combine with 4-mallets

  1. Mirrored Patterns: Inside/Outside combinations
  2. Parallel Patterns: Left side/Right side combinations
  3. Oblique Patterns: when two or more elements are present, one element can be Mirrored and the other Parallel.  Example: Paradiddles can be Mirrored on the doubles and Parallel on the singles (3144 1311, etc.)

There’s a lot of math and permutation ahead, but the benefits of these exercises can be completely realized in even the most basic versions.  What I have printed here is a tiny fraction of the possible variations.

Floor-Mallet Rudimental Roll Builders

My work sheet “Rudimental Roll Builders” is designed to develop single- and double-stroke rolls.  Here it is modified for Floor-Mallet practice.  The beginning focuses on the Single Independent and Double Vertical strokes, and then adds the Double Lateral stroke in the place of “Diddles”.  The tempos are adjusted for the sticks and feel of the floor.  The complete range of tempo is intended to be covered in each practice session, and where the tempo of two exercises overlap, exercises may be played back to back with out stopping (Ex: 16th Single-Double and 16th Alternate-Double from 90-100)

Lateral permutations come from both the 4 stick motions (I/O Mirrored or L/R Parallel) and the starting stick of each pattern (1234) for a total of 16, shown below.

16 permutations

16th Double:Laterals and Rolls has an enormous number of possible permutations.  Rather than writing them out, there are two things to manipulate.

  1. The first measure singles can be played 4 ways (I/O Mirrored or L/R Parallel)
  2. Each “diddle” can be played either Inside or Outside on each hand.

These two elements account for the different numbers under the endings.

Download/Print Worksheet: Floor-Mallet Rudimental Roll Builders

Floor-Mallet On Off A  Floor-Mallet On Off B

The companion worksheets, “On/Off 16th Timing A and B” are about developing Multi-Lateral motion and control of Independent Rolls.  Repeated notes are to played with a Single Independent technique and alternating notes are to be played with a rotary technique (NOT Single Alternating).  This is based on the principle of “Natural Sticking” and is great for refining timing and subdivision, and for balancing the weight of each stroke.

The written version is Mirrored starting on the Outside mallets.  The other 3 versions are: Mirrored starting Inside and Parallel starting Left and Right.

Download/Print worksheets: Floor-Mallet On Off A  Floor-Mallet On Off B


Floor-Mallet Exercises

“Floor-Mallet Exercises” is a collection based on pu-du-dus and paradiddles.

DL-SI/SA Triplets is in 4-2-1 form with a Double Lateral in one hand and alternating single notes in the other.  The structure is the same as Pyramid A from “On/Off 16th Timing A”.  Each single note is played 4 times, then 2 times, then once each as written.

The rest of the exercises are based on paradiddles.  There are two elements, each of which can be played 4 ways (I/O Mirrored or L/R Parallel).

Paradiddle Multi-lateral on Doubles: The sets of 4, 5 and 6 are all Multi-lateral rotary motions.  The final 5-tuplet pattern in each line goes over the down beat of the bar. The actual down beat lies between the 3rd and 4th notes, where the break in the beams is.

6-tuplet Paradiddle Multi-lateral is like the above set, but with the rhythm warped into 5 even notes instead of two 16ths and a 16th triplet.  Mathematically there are six rhythm permutations but two of those break up the 3-note Multilateral so in practice there are four.  The under-bracketed measures below do not fit the pattern.

6-Tuplet strike throughs

The warped rhythm makes the location of the middle note of the Multi-lateral questionable for the final permutation in each set.  It can be placed before or after the bar line while maintaining the appropriate start and end of the rhythm.  In these permutations an additional two patterns are listed in ossia.

Ossia example

Download/Print: Floor-Mallet Exercises

There are limitless ways to apply these concepts, but I find these to be especially engaging, challenging, and developmental.

Do you practice on the floor?  What exercises do you use?  How does it help you?  Leave comments below so we can share practice strategies together!

Inner Peace and Lightning Speed Through Slow Practice

Lots of people talk and write about slow practice.  There are many good reasons to use it, and many reasons not to.  This week I seem to be teaching a lot on one thing in particular:

Slow practice makes you THINK differently

When I learn a piece fast, I conceive of it as fast.  I move fast, think fast and get kind of twitchy just thinking about it.

When I learn a piece slow, I conceive of it slow.  I move slow, think slow, and feel mellow in performance… no matter what the metronome might say.

Here’s a typical list of things practicing at slow tempo gives you:

1) Note Accuracy.  More time to do the right stuff.

2) Confidence in execution.  Lots of correct repetitions because it’s pretty easy.

3) Relaxed physical gesture.  Which generally means “better” tone, whatever you’re going for.

4) Well-established playing spots.  Even more consistency and tone.

5) Refined sense of time.  Mastering time and placement at many tempos develops your time sensitivity.

More than the above though, you develop a way of THINKING about a piece.  Once you master a piece with slow motions and lots of processing time, increasing the speed just causes you to simplify information within that perspective to keep up.  In other words, your brain tells you it’s “slow” when the metronome tells you it’s really fast.

In any kind of music, technique creates tone.  Slow practice allows space for you to hear your tone, and adjust your technique to what you want to hear.

Here’s my winning formula:

1) Slow Down.  50-75% marked tempo is usually good.

2) Use big gestures.  Make big tone.  Focus on your sound.  Refine your timing.

3) Speed up a little and do it again.  Allow yourself to adjust back to how you felt before.

4) Win.

Over time, you will feel calm and focused, and will be shocked to see how fast you REALLY play on recordings.

YOUR Award Speech

I’m watching the Tony Awards right now and just had an idea.

When I was in college with my friends, learning to be a teacher, several professors shared the following axiom with us:

“If your students succeed it’s their fault; if your students fail it’s your fault.”

That’s a mindset which may help you protect yourself from parents who absolutely believe their children’s failure is your fault, but that kind of defensive posture is a two-edged sword.  Not only do you give up ‘playing to win’ for ‘playing not to lose’, you also send the message to your students that they are perfect and every set back is someone else’s fault.

I have an alternate axiom for you:

“If a person succeeds, it’s because a LOT of people wanted them to, and helped.”

Assignment: Give yourself the greatest award – real or imaginary – you could ever receive and write the Thank You speech you would give on stage.  Rehearse the speech and make sure you don’t leave anyone out, because they ALL helped you in ways you saw and ways you didn’t, and they ALL deserve credit for your success.

Post your speeches below if you like.  Use them to stay humble and to ask for more help, because no matter your level of talent, determination, grit, or anything else, true success will always require the support of others.

Precision AND Lyricism

Lately I find myself working in two musical modes: Lyrical and Precise.

What I mean by that is I’m usually focused on the phrasing and shaping of material, with a sense for pulse and pacing but without aligning to a metronome, OR I’m “cleaning” to subdivisions and/or executing mechanical motions, and total precision is the goal.

The more time I spend back and forth this way, the more I realize how many styles of music have these elements, to the point where I can list basically anything and see how it emphasizes one or the other.


Stevens’ Technique vs Repetoire:  What a can of worms this is.  I spent some time studying with Leigh Stevens in 2005, and he consistently expressed concern that people take his book and make it a goal unto itself, rather than learn to play music with his toolkit.  Many people I’ve worked with have identified young players who end up playing very rigidly and without musical direction and sometimes blame Leigh for it. I will make the statement that it is BECAUSE of their overemphasis on the PRECISION element of Stevens technique that this happens.  They’re missing half the point.

My personal example (which is slightly embarrassing) was a real wake-up call for me. After I finished my Masters degree I was building a freelance career, but with no school to attend I had a lot of time on my hands.  I decided to play the complete tempo range of the Stevens’ and Bobo books… at least until my freelance work took off enough to fill that time with something more productive.

About a year later I was roughly 75% of the way done, and my technique was PRECISE.  I mean crazy.

Then I picked up the Zivkovic Funny Marimba book 1 and took a shot at a few pieces. Zivkovic is perhaps the most lyrical of any marimba composer, and transfers that approach brilliantly to the instrument.  I hadn’t played any rep in that year since grad school, since no one was paying me for it.

I couldn’t. play. anything… at all.

As soon as I started singing phrases to myself I found my hands were too locked up and my technique was resisting me instead of serving me. Scary.

That day I resolved to stop doing any technical practice and instead spent all my time learning that Zivkovic book.  It became by warmups, exercises and scratch pad for tone, phrasing and lyricism for the next 2 years.

Today I have a blended approach between the two sides.  I have access to very precise technique and continue to develop my capacity there, but I ALWAYS balance my mechanics with some lyrical development and un-structured phrasing time.

Jazz: Now I’m a rhythm section player, so take that for what it is, but I find this element of Lyricism and Precision to be highly relevant in any “band” situation.

On the one hand, if you’re playing rhythm backups or section wind parts with lots of articulations, precision is utterly necessary.  I think of the “Essentially Ellington” program and how it aims to teach that style to students.

On the other hand, when soloing as a feature or improvising, there is an expectation that a quality performer is able to get “out” of the rigid structure and be more expressive.

Each has its place.  It’s not WHICH one to do, but WHEN.

Afro-centric Folkloric Music:  Whether its Cuban, Brazilian, Argentine, West-African or something else, all the music which has African roots employs a very high level of precision in rhythm, BUT also an awesomely lyrical sense of “swing” and unevenness in the subdivision.

It’s incredible to listen to an ensemble which is so uniformly “out” on a piece, and then hear them be just as uniformly “out” but in a different way on the next piece.  The studio bands in Brazil that record the Carnaval Samba Enredo records each year are one example.  Los Munequitos de Matanzas from Cuba are another.  Any great Malinke ensemble from Guinea/Mali does the same thing.

I hear great Jazz ensembles in the United States do this as well.  Listen to the very even triplet shuffle of any Basie recording and then jump to an Art Blakey album to hear how tight to next beat it can get, and how that changes the energy of the groove.

Precision in the ensemble, lyricism in the rhythm.  Very high level groove, very hard to achieve.

Marching Band: Again, can of worms.  Marching is a HIGHLY stylized activity: Marching is like walking… with a style, uniforms are like clothes… with a style, hand position with a style, posture with a style, etc etc etc.

There is a tendency for such a large, spread out ensemble to drift towards more precision than lyricism, especially when scores and competition dollars are involved. However, the players, writers and staff of many of these ensembles are all really good overall musicians, and expect more than pure precision from their groups.

Elements of lyricism in this environment are really valuable and stick out in strong contrast to the precision around them. Soloists “pop” and add an incredible impact when they are placed appropriately, whether they are visual or musical.  I know when I think of awesome moments in marching it’s almost always around those lyrical elements.

Rudimental Solos: Similar to marching band generally but deserving of special mention.  The solos of J.S. Pratt, for example, can be played flat, but the amount of dynamic motion written in makes them highly lyrical.  The accents in a given passage, as well, have a lyrical drive that is emphasized greatly by phrasing them as a melody, rather than a series of executions.

I select rudimental solos on their ability to combine the precision associated with the activity with a sense of lyricism, because it’s about BOTH elements and WHEN they are most effective.


I could go on, but this is enough variety to make the point.  Precision is a great and noble goal, and a critical element in many areas of music, but balancing it with lyricism is the highest goal, giving each its place to achieve the best results.