Bob’s interview with Leigh Howard Stevens

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The following interview was conducted at the request of the Percussive Arts Society, and appeared in the August, 1996 issue of Percussive Notes.

LHS: Let’s get this important question out of the way in the very beginning. Everybody who knows anything about xylophone knows you are not only the greatest living xylophonist, but also the greatest xylophonist who has ever lived. Everybody who knows anything about “ethnic” or “world percussion” knows you are a black-belt on tabla and African hand drums. Anyone who has heard you perform the Toru Takemitsu From me flows what you call Time with Nexus knows you have a golden touch on steel drums. Anyone who is familiar with your performances with the Steve Reich Ensemble has to admit that you are a hot marimbist and vibe player, and anybody who knows you well, also knows that you are a superb all-around orchestral percussionist and timpanist who can read road kill on balding tires. Now, having said that, what is most important (considering this interview is for the readership of Percussive Notes Magazine) is this: how are your drum set chops?

BB: Well, the older I get, the better they used to be. Truthfully, the last time I played set seriously was in 1978 when Nexus premiered Carman Moore’s percussion concerto, Hit, with the Rochester Philharmonic. The last movement calls for three drum sets, and each one gets a big solo. Since then, I’ve played occasional sessions – I think the last one was a couple of years ago for (electric violinist) Oliver Schroer. I’m on a couple of tracks on his CD Whirled.

LHS: Were you always drawn to the chamber music aspects of percussion, or did you go through a period of wanting to be a symphonic percussionist?

BB: When I was in high school I wanted to play jazz! I spent as much time listening to Morello and Philly Joe as I did the Philadelphia Orchestra. When I got to Eastman, I pretty much paid my way by playing be-bop and R & B in the Rochester clubs. There was a great scene there in the late ’60s when I was in school – Steve Gadd was a class ahead of me at Eastman and Joe LaBarbara, Roy McCurdy, Ron Davis and Vinnie Ruggiero (just to name the drummers) were all living and playing in the area. It was very inspiring, and I learned a lot, but I also realized very clearly that I wasn’t in the same league with those players, and that the only way I might get there would be to leave all the other aspects of percussion behind and concentrate like mad on drumset. I decided it wasn’t what I really wanted to do, and so I gradually wandered away from that world. I still love the music, however, and the coordination skills that you develop playing drumset are incredibly valuable in all other areas of percussion.

By the time I graduated, I think my goals were split between playing solo marimba and playing in a symphony orchestra. Back then, the thought of being in a percussion ensemble never entered my mind. I had a large marimba repertoire and I felt I could handle anything in the symphonic literature. Of course, if I had known all of the literature, I probably wouldn’t have been so cocky, but I still think it’s necessary to have a bit of an attitude to play in a symphony orchestra. You need it to survive. My first job out of school was with the U.S. Marine Band in Washington, D.C., and that, coupled with the political climate of the early ’70s, changed my feelings completely regarding being a member of a large and regimented musical ensemble. Not long after that I heard tabla for the first time, performed together at the Marlboro Music Festival with the players who ultimately became Nexus, and had a few other life-altering experiences. Before I knew it, I was playing in small ensembles – Nexus, Steve Reich’s group, the Paul Winter Consort – and the chamber group has kind of become my home. Perhaps in the near future I’ll even have my own ensemble to play the music I’ve been composing.

LHS: So, do you think of yourself as a free-lance chamber musician, a soloist, an oenologist, or what?

BB: Yes, yes, yes and – yes.

LHS: Who were your principal percussion teachers, and if possible, could you try to single out a concept or important lesson you learned from each?

BB: I grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania and my first teacher was James Betz. I began studying marimba with him when I was seven years old and stayed with him until I graduated from high school. He taught me snare drum, piano and theory as well, and he basically gave me my technique. He was a fabulous player and a very direct teacher. He made me use my wrists and hands correctly and he made me learn to sight-read. I remember auditioning for a regional band one time when I was in high school, and one of the auditioners said out loud: “Look at those wrists! You can always tell a Betz student.”

My next teacher was William Street at the Eastman School of Music. He was already a legend when I met him, having taught some of my heroes in the Philadelphia Orchestra, Dan Hinger and Alan Abel, so I was kind of in awe of him. He turned my head around any number of times, but I think the main thing he made me do was listen to my sound – really listen, closely and carefully. He was always more concerned with the sound than with the notes. The sound and the line. I could have used about another ten years with him.

Mr. Street retired before my senior year, and so I studied with John Beck for a year as an undergrad and then again when I did my Master’s. John was very encouraging to me at a time when I was struggling to find a direction for my career. He’s very down-to-earth, and he provided a great balance, because I was close to going off the deep end with many of the things I was doing at that time. He never forced me to do things his way, but he always made me look very hard at what I was doing. I also have to mention Warren Benson here, who was my composition teacher at Eastman, but who taught me a lot about performance as well. He’s one of the most generous teachers I know and he opened doors for me into musical areas I wasn’t even aware of.

After Eastman, I spent four years in the World Music program at Wesleyan University, where I worked with many great teachers – Prawotosaputro, Sumarsam, Ramnad Raghavan and Freeman Donkor to name a few. Probably the most significant teachers for me at that time were my tabla teacher, Sharda Sahai and my African drum teacher, Abraham Adzenyah. Abraham has performed a lot with Nexus over the years, so we have an on-going professional relationship. He led me into an amazing perceptual world – he’s the Heisenberg of rhythm and meter. He’s also the Fred Hinger of the atsimevu – biggest sound you’ve ever heard. And Sharda Sahai is someone who continues to be enormously important to me, both in my music and my life. He taught me about things that go far beyond music – commitment, trust and love.

LHS: Did you ever study or play any instruments other than percussion?

BB: When I was a junior in high school I won a music contest sponsored by a major instrument company. My prizes were a tape recorder and my choice of any instrument they made. Unfortunately they didn’t manufacture any percussion instruments, so I chose a saxophone because my sister said she would like to learn to play that. She quit after a few months, so I started playing it. After a while, I found it was more fun playing sax in my high school band and jazz band than playing snare drum parts in unison with three other guys in the back row. Besides, more girls played reeds than played drums.

LHS: How many xylophones do you have?

BB: Six. Four of them are Deagan Artist’s Specials – a 3 1/2 octave, two four octaves, and the monster five octave (#268). I also have the new Malletech Becker Model four octave instrument, which I play most of the time now. One of my most beautiful instruments is sort of a xylophone – it’s a mint condition 4 1/2 octave Deagan Marimba-Xylophone (#4726). Kind of a hybrid – it’s not quint-tuned, but it’s got a gigantic sound and the bars are hard as iron. My most recent acquisition is a pristine Deagan four octave #882, the so-called “klyposerus” wood keyboard. In my opinion, those instruments are by far the best orchestral xylophones ever made.

LHS: Do you have any idea how many percussion instruments you own, and if not, would you at least give us some interesting tabloid-type information about them, like how much they are worth or which is the biggest?

BB: That question would take a lot of space to answer. I’ll just say that all of my instruments are much better than anyone else’s – especially my mallet instruments, snare drums and cymbals (laughs).

LHS: Have you ever thought of selling them all and putting the money into a mutual fund?

BB: Would you sell your kids? OK, you don’t have any. Would you sell Monica and Louise?

LHS: Almost 15 years ago you designed mallets for Malletech that are still among the most popular xylo mallets on the market: “Becker Blues” (BB34’s) as well as the first, and still the only, two-tone xylophone mallet (BB32’s). This was the sound you preferred when Nexus made the first “Ragtime” album, but recently you have been using more rubber mallets. Why?

BB: Well, partly it’s because the arrangements we’ve been playing lately are scored differently, and the xylophone isn’t always meant to be dominating the sound, so the rubber mallets blend a little better. They also record better. But I think the main reason I use them most of the time now is that I’m playing differently than I did fifteen years ago. Rubber mallets are a lot heavier, and at the same time a bit softer, than the synthetic ones, so they require more physical strength to use. Especially if you play fast. I like to play hard, and I enjoy the deeper fundamental sound that these mallets produce, especially on the old-style wide bar instruments.

LHS: Will the rubber mallets you use ever be available?

BB: We’ve been working on that for a long time and I think maybe by next fall.

LHS: You have almost single-handedly resurrected and made popular the ragtime music of George Hamilton Green. Now that your Nexus arrangements of these xylophone solos with marimba accompaniment are published, many colleges have started up ragtime bands to play this music that you and Bill Cahn have arranged. How do you feel about hearing these xylophone solos performed on narrow bar, “non-quint-tuned” modern xylophones, or with orchestral xylophone mallets?

BB: How I feel when I hear other people play our arrangements usually depends on how they play them, not on what sticks or instruments are being used. I have a concept of the sound I want to achieve when I play this music, and I have a very general sense of the sound that George Green and his colleagues got on their recordings, but I’m not a snob about it. Anyone who plays this music has to find their own way to bring it to life.

LHS: There is a story going around that you practice while watching television. Say it ain’t so, Bob!

BB: I love TV! I think anyone who spends as much time as I do in hotel rooms learns to love it. But I got into using TV for practicing tabla back when I was doing what Indian musicians call riaz. That’s a very intense and extended kind of practice – usually in big chunks of time. I found it was easier for me to sustain full-out, high-intensity technique practice for, say, four or five straight hours if I had something to keep my mind off the fatigue.

LHS: These interviews usually end with a question like “What advice would you give to a young percussionist?” When I naively asked this of my teacher, Vida Chenoweth, she retorted, “I don’t give advice. Amateurs don’t listen and geniuses don’t need it.” That pithy come-back was 12 words. Can you top that? We have room for no more than 11.

BB: Make dust or eat dust!

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