Defying Gravity - Part 1

[The next 3 posts will be for Gong players, just so you know]

This post comes as a result of my Gong session at PASIC earlier this month. I ended up talking to people about grip and mallet technique. 1st, let me say that these are my ideas developed over years of playing. While I do have a lot of formal percussion training, playing Gongs is a whole other realm (BTW, I suck at mallet playing, like vibes, marimba, etc, so what I did at university in this area, besides the basic 4-mallet grip ideas, had very little affect on how I approached the Gongs). I've developed my grips with trial and error over time, and they are always fluid—things can change, so I remain flexible. 

Those of you who are highly trained mallet players may look at this and say, "Big deal." Well, since a lot of people who are taking up Gongs have little or no formal percussion training, this IS a big deal to them. As with everything I do, I don't claim to be an expert or the last word. I just do what I do, what works for me and the music I make. Take from this series of articles what you want. Also, don't be afraid to comment or ask questions. I'm always glad to answer and might post further mallet/grip ideas based on any dialog.

Vertical vs Horizontal Motion

In playing Gongs, a lot of things change. Let's first look at the typical stick/mallet position and action playing drums/mallets/percussion.

In the typical percussion set up, as in the illustration above, the instruments are horizontal. When we play, the sticks are also horizontal, moving up and down in a vertical fashion. Because of this, we are always working against gravity. The weight of the sticks is always being pulled down towards the instrument (this is even more so with a heavy headed mallet). Thus we are forced to use a lot of muscle in order to lift the sticks and keep them up. The grip between the thumb and fingers is a fulcrum, with the stick being a lever. One advantage of this playing set up is that the arms are comfortably held in a downward direction. Rarely are the arms ever lifted above shoulder height. 

Now let's rotate that same playing set up 90˚. The physics of how we play change dramatically. The biggest change is that the mallet is mostly free from gravity. It now becomes a pendulum, instead of a lever, with the fulcrum becoming a pivot point. In this capacity, it's easy to get the mallet to move back and forth—especially in a repeated motion, like a single stroke roll—and keep it moving (think of the motion of a clock pendulum, or an old fashioned wind-up metronome). Also, the thumb comes more into play helping to counterbalance the mallet's back & forth motion (the pendulum swing). Now this works the same whether you are playing a Gong up above your shoulders, down below your waist, or to the side of your body because your stick motion is always perpendicular to gravity. The one disadvantage I find, is that in my set up, I'm mostly playing at, or above, shoulder height, so I have to hold my arms up in the air a lot. 

For you drummers out there, try mounting a drum or practice pad vertically about 5-6 feet in the air. Then play on it while standing and notice the stick motion and how you have to adjust both your grip, and your hand/wrist/arm motion. Do this for a while and notice the fatigue from holding your arms up. 

Just to be clear, this type of grip I use mostly on larger size Gongs (20" and up) in front of me where I'm playing a sustained sound, as in a single stroke roll, or single strokes themselves. It's a thumbs up grip much like a timpanist would use. If I have to reach and play a Gong to either side of me, the grip changes as my hand naturally rotates to having the thumb at the side and playing with more of a wrist stroke.

When I'm playing the tuned Gongs, I'm holding my hands between shoulder and head level, playing Gongs above me. I tend to use a more traditional thumbs to the side/palm down grip. In both cases there's a trade off: ease of stick/mallet movement vs having to hold your arms up for a prolonged time.

In part 2, we'll look at specific grips I use for different playing styles/mallets.

~ MB


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