In 2016 I received a request from marimbist Greg Giannascoli to answer a series of questions for an upcoming publication. Greg’s questions and my answers are below.
GG: Hi Bob, I am writing a book with a series of interviews with the important marimba and xylophone artists of the 20th century and I would be honored if you would please answer the questions below. It is some biographical information but mainly about what you studied to get better and, as time went on, what you use with students to get them to play well. I teach at the Juilliard Pre-college, and our young students need a document of what the great players did to play so well and what they do with their students.
GG: What got you started in music? Did you play percussion/xylophone first or another instrument?
BB: My initial impulse to study a musical instrument was based on a random circumstance. My uncle owned a furniture store, and he had accepted a small marimba in partial trade for something or other. While visiting with my parents one day I saw the instrument folded up and leaning against a wall in his living room. I was seven years old at the time, and I can remember being curious about the geometry of the keyboard. Uncle Dave saw me tapping on the wooden bars, and he just said, “OK, Bobby can have it.” My parents put it in the trunk of the car, and when we got home my mother said, “If you want to keep that marimba, you’ll have to start taking lessons”. So the marimba was my first instrument.
GG: Who did you study with?
BB: James S. Betz in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
GG: What was important to that teacher regarding what you had to practice to get better (scales, exercises, method books, etudes) regarding accuracy, tone, speed, memorization, improvisation, reading, and any other aspects they may have discussed?
BB: Technique was all about mechanics: keeping the hands low and using a good wrist action. Exercises were scales and arpeggios. My first method book was G.H. Green’s Elementary Studies, although after that I didn’t see a single other publication of Green’s until I was about to graduate from college. Additional technical studies were primarily things written by my teacher. His approach, almost from the start, was to assign many pieces every week – more material than I could possibly learn. It was unpleasant feeling unprepared all the time, but I was a dutiful kid, and after around five years of that I suddenly found I could sight-read anything. Memorization was not stressed, but I needed to do it to play in public. During my early studies there was no explicit instruction about improvisation, but later I found the technical material my teacher composed, which always had some kind of harmonic structure, was a great foundation for improvising on chord progressions.
GG: What repertoire was assigned and was there a logical order of things? What repertoire did you cover before college?
BB: I took my lessons in a local music store where my teacher had his studio. At almost every lesson he would go out into the store and browse through the files for violin, flute, trumpet and clarinet, and then bring back three or four new pieces for me. I never saw anything specifically composed for the marimba. I can’t remember any particular logic to the styles of music I was given, but over time there was a certain progressive approach to the length and difficulty of the pieces.
GG: Did repertoire relate directly to technical exercises… were etudes or exercises assigned that related directly to problems in specific repertoire?
BB: No, however Mr. Betz did give me several collections of violin etudes – Kreutzer, for example – and each etude focused on a particular difficulty. Often they had to do with bowing techniques, and sometimes multiple-stop playing. Interestingly, those issues that are characteristic of string instruments make useful exercises for keyboard percussion instruments too. The same can be said for piano fingering exercises. I still have that Kreutzer book, and each etude has very exact stickings written in by my teacher.
GG: What early repertoire turned you on and kept you interested? Did you find it or did your teacher assign everything?
BB: I enjoyed playing everything my teacher gave me. Eventually I found myself searching in those same music store bins where he was looking for new pieces every week. My sight-reading became very strong, and I played through a great deal of material without trying to memorize or thoroughly prepare much of it. Sight-reading was a very marketable skill during the early part of my professional career, before synthesizers and digital sampling eliminated most of the commercial work in studios connected with radio and TV jingles, as well as the very lucrative film score industry. In a studio environment you don’t see the part more than a few seconds in advance. Then the tape rolls and it is expected it will be perfect on the first take.
GG: Did you move on to any other teachers before college? Was their teaching method different, similar?
BB: No, Mr. Betz was my only teacher until I went to college. Along with marimba, I eventually studied rudimental snare drum, piano and music theory with him too. He was a very accomplished musician who was at home on many instruments. During my last three years in high school I became quite interested in jazz music, and I played drumset a lot, both in my school big band and with local combos in Allentown. Around that time I mostly listened to Joe Morello, and attended several of his clinics. The finger control style he and his teacher George Stone used became very influential for my playing, and I incorporated the ideas into my technique with mallets on the keyboard percussion instruments.
GG: Did you go to college for music and, if so, where? Why that school/those schools? What did you use for keyboard percussion audition music to get into college (each degree program)?
BB: I did both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the Eastman School of Music. I decided rather late, during my senior year in high school (I graduated from Parkland High School in 1965), that I wanted to study music in college, and I didn’t do much serious research into university music programs. I don’t remember how I heard about Eastman, but it was a well-known name in music. I applied to Northwestern University, probably because I knew Clair Musser had taught there in the past. I also applied to Ithaca College because I was familiar with the concert band program there, having played under Walter Beeler several times in regional and state bands. I sent audition tapes with my applications to both Ithaca and Northwestern, and was accepted to both schools, but Eastman asked for a live audition, and so my grandfather drove me to Rochester to play for William G. Street. Seeing and feeling the atmosphere at Eastman, and basically getting a private lesson from Mr. Street at my audition was enough to make my decision an easy one.
The only keyboard piece Mr. Street asked to hear at my audition was Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee, which I played on the fabulous Deagan Imperial marimba in his studio. My taped auditions included my teacher’s four-mallet arrangement of Debussy’s Clair de Lune for solo vibraphone, and a short marimba solo piece that had been commissioned for me to play with the Allentown band, accompanied by piano on the tape. I wasn’t required to play an audition for the master’s program at Eastman, since I had recently finished my bachelor’s degree there under John Beck.
GG: Who were your main teachers in college (each degree program)?
BB: My first two years at Eastman were with Mr. Street. When he retired in 1967 John H. Beck succeeded him as Professor of Percussion, so I studied under him for the last two years of my bachelor’s program and then during my master’s. During the summer after my freshman year, I studied with William J. Schinstine in Pottstown, PA, mainly to work on orchestral snare drum technique.
GG: What was important to your college teachers (each degree program) regarding what you had to do to get better (scales, exercises, method books, etudes) regarding accuracy, tone, speed, improvisation, memorization, reading, and any other aspects they may have discussed?
BB: Mr. Street emphasized sound (tone) and phrasing (sticking) on every instrument. He was not dogmatic with me, although he had a profound concept of “lift” that he encouraged me to use in all of my playing. We worked from the Carl Gardner series of instruction books for snare drum, timpani, and keyboards. For marimba study he assigned mostly violin repertoire by Vivaldi and Corelli. Mr. Beck used the Goldenberg book with me. During my time at Eastman (from 1965 through 1971), neither of my teachers assigned any original music composed for the marimba or xylophone. The only exception was a piece by Earl Hatch for marimba and piano that Mr. Beck told me to play for my Performer’s Certificate jury. He knew something, because I passed the audition and then played the Creston Concertino for Marimba with the Rochester Philharmonic the following year. I was never assigned the Creston by my teachers, but I had learned and memorized it on my own during my sophomore year.
GG: What repertoire was assigned and was there a logical order of things? What repertoire did you cover in college? Were you artistically fulfilled in the college setting? Did you have adequate access to chamber music and/or concerti involving the xylophone?
BB: There is a big difference between what was assigned by my teachers and what was covered by me while I was in college. As mentioned in my previous answer, I wasn’t assigned any music composed for solo marimba or xylophone during my study at Eastman. However, the repertoire that I explored (and transcribed by myself) included all of the Bach sonatas, partitas and suites for solo violin, ‘cello and lute; some Bach keyboard repertoire including the two-part inventions and some other contrapuntal music; a great deal of solo guitar repertoire, mainly from the classical era through Sor and Giuliani; and all of the existing marimba repertoire that was known at the time, including the suites by Fissinger and Ulrich, the compositions by Clair Musser and his students, concerti by Milhaud, Creston, Kurka, Basta and Hovhaness, and many things I arranged and composed myself. None of the revolutionary marimba repertoire created during the 1960s in Japan found its way to the Eastman school while I was there. If it had, it would have been a major revelation.
GG: Did repertoire and technical exercises have a direct relationship… were etudes (which etudes) or exercises assigned that related directly to problems in specific repertoire?
BB: No. Most of whatever technical ability I have on marimba and xylophone comes from playing music, not from practicing exercises (except snare drum exercises, which did have a big influence on all of my keyboard playing). I include extensive daily sight-reading as part of “playing music”.
GG: What early repertoire turned you on and kept you interested? Did you find it or did your teacher assign everything?
BB: I found it. Early in my freshman year at Eastman I heard Vida Chenoweth’s LP record for the first time, and also found the music to the Creston Concertino in the music store across the street from the school. Both were completely unknown to me until then. There seemed to be some exciting but slightly hidden keyboard repertoire around, and I just set off like an explorer to find what was out there. Some significant works composed for the marimba were either unpublished or out of print at that time. I learned many pieces from photocopies of photocopies that were in underground circulation.
GG: How was your progress gauged and how much repertoire did you cover each semester?
BB: I don’t know. I played as much material as I could. I gave a full marimba recital in each of my sophomore, junior, senior and master’s years, along with the usual juries and required percussion recitals. None of my teachers told me to play a marimba recital, and I can’t remember they came to any of them either. My marimba recitals were not adjudicated, but I took them seriously. I made them formal events and performed, using Mr. Street’s Imperial, in Eastman’s Kilbourn recital hall. I believe I was the first Eastman student to perform, using four mallets, any of the Sonatas and Partitas by J.S. Bach, or major marimba works like Alfred Fissinger’s Suite for Marimba.
GG: As degrees advanced was xylophone more and more a part of your studies?
BB: No, xylophone was part of my formal studies only in relation to orchestral excerpts. I bought my first xylophone in 1972, well after I had finished my master’s degree at Eastman. It was a vintage Deagan #262 that I found in Los Angeles.
GG: Did you move on to any other teachers/coaches after college? Why and what was accomplished?
BB: After graduating from Eastman I began researching seriously the xylophone repertoire created in the U.S. between 1900 and 1935. By 1973 I had found all of George Green’s published solo music, a great deal of never-published manuscript material, as well as copies of his four major instruction books (and at least an equal quantity of music and instruction manuals created by lesser-known xylophonists). In addition, my colleague Bill Cahn was well on the way to assembling his very comprehensive collection of acoustic recordings featuring the xylophone, to which I also had access. So, through all of this material, I feel like George Hamilton Green was one of my teachers/coaches after college, even though I never met him. Additionally, being a member of the percussion group NEXUS gave me a forum in which I could explore both improvisation and performance practice in the virtuoso xylophone styles of the early 20th century.
GG: Before you commissioned/composed/arranged anything what older/contemporary repertoire became important to you?
BB: I became deeply involved with a number of major non-western world music cultures, and studying and performing their repertoire was profoundly important to my personal development. In a few cases (e.g., Ugandan amadinda, Shona mbira, and Javanese gambang) there was direct technical influence on how I play certain things on keyboard instruments. In general I experienced an expansion of the conceptual possibilities for how to feel and express many of the most basic aspects of music.
GG: Did you enter any competitions? What repertoire did you use? If you won did it help your career?
BB: As far as I know, marimba competitions did not yet exist when I was a student. I have not taken part in competitions (other than auditions) myself, except as a jurist for a few in Europe. I completely stopped my involvement in all juries over 15 years ago. I couldn’t find any comprehensible connection between my own responses to the performances and the outcomes of the competitions. In general I find it distasteful to grade or judge other musicians, including students.
GG: What contributions/commissions/arrangements of yours are you most happy with? What was your experience with commissioning? How did you raise the money needed?
BB: I have commissioned a few composers here in Canada. Both the federal government of Canada, and the province of Ontario where I live have government-sponsored commissioning programs. The percussion group NEXUS, also based in Canada, has commissioned many composers, sometimes through the programs just mentioned as well as through other means, including using our own funds. My experience has been that commissioning compositions for instruments like the marimba, and possibly percussion in general, is a bit of a lottery in terms of the quality and/or usefulness of the resulting pieces. It’s helpful to have a personal relationship with a composer, and critical to work directly with him/her during the writing of the piece.
Two works that I commissioned personally, and which I think are significant pieces, were composed for percussion quartet featuring the marimba as a solo voice: Dance Variations by John Hawkins; and Clos d’Audignac by Bruce Mather. Both were premiered and recorded by NEXUS.
GG: How did you begin to set up recitals, solos with orchestra? Did you start to perform chamber music involving the xylophone professionally? Did you feel that presenting a debut recital (or other type of performances for you particularly) (in NY or elsewhere) was important? Did you ever/do you have management?
BB: Most of my marimba and xylophone solo opportunities came about as a result of performing as soloist with NEXUS, or following collaborations with other musical colleagues. To quote Charles Owen, “It’s not who you know that counts, it’s who knows you.” NEXUS has had professional management, and occasionally has used publicists throughout most of its career. I have an agent who handles my personal clinic/workshop/performance engagements at American educational institutions. I usually take care of any other solo engagements myself. I also have endorsement agreements with several instrument manufacturing companies.
GG: What do you generally perform for a recital? Is the repertoire vastly different for different audiences or presenters?
BB: I rarely play entire recitals solo. Usually I appear with student or professional percussion groups, and mix solo pieces with ensemble works that feature me as a soloist. Most times the compositions and/or arrangements are my own. This approach to a keyboard performance career has become rather common among marimba players who also compose, but I think I was one of the first to pursue it in North America. For a number of years in the 1990s I managed my own group, The Bob Becker Ensemble, which performed exclusively my own compositions.
When a presenter asks for something specific, I try to comply. Often the biggest constraint is my ability to bring, or ship, the instruments I want to use for the repertoire I would like to play.
GG: What concerti do you offer to conductors and why?
BB: Strangely, I feel that most marimba concerti are not well orchestrated, and don’t allow the instrument to sound in the way that I hear it, or want to hear it. The problem is even more pronounced in relation to the use of the marimba in the symphony orchestra or concert band percussion section, where the instrument is virtually inaudible. I’m not interested in playing amplified marimba, or using mallets and technical approaches that I find offensive. I feel the marimba is not a percussion instrument in the same sense as the standard drums, cymbals and accessories, which colour orchestra sounds superbly. If marimba is going to be scored in the orchestra or wind ensemble, then it should be used in a section, the same as violins or clarinets, and there should be at least four or five marimbas played unison. Then there could be a real marimba sound heard as a complementary voice in the ensemble. Otherwise, the marimba, especially as it is played today, doesn’t fit well with the sound of full orchestras or concert bands. Or rather, it blends too well, especially in its mid and low registers, and therefore doesn’t project effectively as a solo voice. My feeling is its proper home is the recital hall, or in chamber music, including keyboard ensembles.
Using the xylophone in bands and orchestras, either as a solo instrument or in the percussion section, is a completely different orchestrational situation. I’ve played many ragtime style xylophone solos with symphony orchestras and concert bands. I’ve also played William Cahn’s In Ancient Temple Gardens with orchestra – that’s a kind of xylophone concerto. Alan Hovhaness’s Fantasy on Japanese Wood Prints is another xylophone piece I’ve enjoyed playing.
GG: Do you perform transcriptions?
BB: Yes. When I do, they are usually ones I have made myself.
GG: What do you think is important:
– First in how to get better (scales, exercises, method books, etudes) regarding accuracy, tone, speed, memorization, reading, and any other aspects you feel are important? What works as far as you are concerned?
– Second, what repertoire do you use to build up a younger student’s hands and mental skills before going on to harder, more substantial works?
– Ultimately, what is important repertoire in chamber, solo and concerto settings for the advanced student and/or professional?
Do you teach transcriptions and why or why not?
BB: I don’t teach privately or institutionally, so I can’t answer these questions. Most of my teaching, such as it is, is in clinics and workshops on special topics that I know something about.
Bob Becker, February, 2017