Don Skoog

Choosing a Percussion Program. Part 1

Choosing a Percussion Program. Part 2

Five Ways to be a Bad Drummer

Music and Place

Time Limit

Six Ways to be a Bad Teacher

Ethnic Drumming for Fun and Profit

Old Politics, New Technologies, and the Price of Mac & Cheese

How to Pay for that Mac & Cheese

Teaching Lefty Drummers

Art, Politics, and an Education in Havana

ENA Update 2005

The Problem with Critics

Music and Change

Music in Another Place: Vizcaino in Mexico

ENA Update 2006


The Mallet Heritage Archive:

Sound Made Visible

by Don Skoog

     CMP is proud to announce the opening of The Mallet Heritage Archive, a project dedicated to:

     1) preserving the legacy of America’s xylophone, marimba, and vibraphone traditions,

     2) ascertaining the copyright status of these musical treasures, and

     3) making them available to musicians and scholars when copyright allows.

Here’s how it came about:

     Years ago, while nosing around in my teacher’s studio, I came across a dusty file cabinet filled with old xylophone, vibes, and marimba works: ragtime tunes, novelty pieces, opera overtures, and classical transcriptions––sheet music by George Hamilton Green, Red Norvo, Harry Breuer, José Bethancourt, and a dozen others only a history geek like me would recognize.
     I felt like the guy who cracked open King Tut’s tomb. I felt like the guy who walked up a jungle mountain and discovered Macchu Picchu hiding under the vines. I had discovered the mallet-player equivalent of the lost treasure of the Incas! In an old file cabinet, I had stumbled across our lost history––the missing foundations of mallet civilization. You couldn’t buy this stuff anywhere. Most of it was (and still is) gone, unknown.
     Yes, I know that some of the Green and Breuer classics are in print, but they are the proverbial tip of the historical iceberg. In that cabinet were handwritten arrangements by Clair Omar Musser, transcriptions from Franks Drum Shop, and other treasures which had never been published. While at the time I thought I was a pioneer, I’ve since learned that others also collect this music. But I also know that much of it has been lost.
     I offered my teacher a deal: I would file and catalog all the music if he would allow me to photocopy it. He laughed, telling me that if I wanted to waste my time on music no one was interested in, go ahead. I don’t know where the originals are now, but my copies are safely housed and protected by guard dogs (well, cats, actually).
     While I was sorting through them the other day, I was thinking about all the research being done on the history of language and the development of the alphabet, and our growing understanding of how recording the world has shaped it. I was struck by the realization that the system we use to transcribe sound into writing––the notation itself––is a record of the evolution of the art, and the key to understanding the music of western civilization. I hunted through my grainy old photocopies again, painfully aware of what I was holding in my hands. I was a little scared my students might never know that this legacy even existed, so I began to wonder if there was something I could do to help.

     Many musicians have a love/hate relationship with sheet music. On one hand, written music allows us to access hundreds of thousands of pieces written over a five-hundred-year period––far more than we could ever memorize or learn by ear. The ability to write music allows us to record what we hear and share it with others. Music notation extends our grasp far beyond what we could learn or create for ourselves, and the notes left behind by others enable us to both share in their legacy and add to it.
     In short, our music has become what it is because we could save and build on it through notation. Can you imagine a symphony orchestra where each musician had to learn all the parts by rote and play everything from memory? It would really limit their repertoire, not to mention that without the authority of a written score the music would change and simplify over time. The orchestra as we know it would be unthinkable. However, today’s orchestra is sitting on a mountain of paper. The thousands of method books, teaching pieces, chamber music, and solo works for each instrument represent its specific history and tradition, a story that is separate from the others, a legacy that each player brings with him/her when he/she walks into rehearsal. This is way more information than one person could retain. Notation makes our music possible.
     On the other hand, it’s a bitch to learn.

     Fact is, all those dots, and symbols, and weird Italian abbreviations are a language––and a tough one at that. And unlike Chinese, whose symbols are simplifying over time, music notation is becoming more complex, more specialized. The act of writing down music fundamentally changes it, defining it exactly by restricting the performer’s choices. As the music itself becomes more complicated, composers strive to control a growing web of variables: dynamics, tempo, meter, tone color, instrumentation, rhythm, improvisation, special effects, and instrument-specific techniques, just to name a few. Not to mention the many standard vocabularies and instrumentations whose combinations have come to represent various traditions and musical styles. And western musical notation is only one system among many. And we are expanding our notational conventions to include nonwestern music. Ethnomusicologists create new symbols to record tonal languages, nonstandard scales, polyrhythmic and polymetric drumming, and improvisational structures, which are being adopted back into western music as well.
     Why is this important now?

     Reason One. While music literacy is still very high among professionals, I’ve been crossing paths with more and more young musicians who’ve decided to bypass the whole notation thing and just play by ear. In an era when the well-written word is becoming rare and true literacy is declining, it is not surprising that written music––a much harder language––is less valued by many musicians.
     The problem is that by choosing to be illiterate they are cutting themselves off from the richest source of information available to any musician, and by doing so they are dooming themselves to be less than they could have been.
     Fact is, reading music makes you smarter. Musicians who read well learn faster, and stand a better chance of surviving in the business. On the flipside, musicians who can’t access this amazing resource are handicapping their future in an already brutal industry.

     Reason Two. I can’t speak for other countries but The United States is developing Musical Amnesia. A few companies dominate our recording and broadcasting industries. They blanket the media with an homogenized pop product that smothers everything else. If they can’t make a lot of money on it, it never reaches the media. Consequently, there’s no room left for independent creativity or for the preservation of our musical legacies. It’s a Starbucks, flavor-of-the-day, culture. There’s no room for heirlooms. The result is that our kids have very little idea of, or interest in, anything that went on before what the gatekeepers call “Classic Rock.”
     As a teacher I’ve noticed this change over the past decade. It’s getting harder to convince my students to listen to Jazz, to read about music, or to try anything new. In their tumbleweed mindset they bounce rootlessly from MP3 to MP3 with no understanding who recorded it, why, or if it’s of value. The internet is killing recorded music’s monetary worth and consequently we have a generation of kids who think music should be free. Why? Because to them it has no value. And no history.
     I just attended the Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC) in Columbus, Ohio. There were herds of high-school and college kids running around the exhibition hall, banging on everything in sight. I wondered if any of them knew that it was the drummer boys from the Civil War who taught the first generation of Jazz drummers, or that it was the xylophonists who became the first vibists, or that the marimba came from Central America. I doubted it. Kids, it seems, are not good guardians of history because they don’t have any yet. So it’s up to us to guard it for them until they are ready to value it for themselves. Here’s the idea:

     For the last thirty years I’ve been adding to The Mallet Heritage Archive, caring for it because it gives me a sense of connectedness to the tradition. Now, I want to make sure others will be able to access this heritage when I’m not around to protect it anymore (although I’m not planning on going anywhere soon). My goal is to convert them all into PDF files (Adobe Acrobat Reader) so that if the originals are lost we will still have the music.
     Here’s the tricky part. Because of the ongoing weakening of our copyright laws, it has become expensive and in some cases impossible to determine if a work is under copyright or in the public domain. While there is a war raging over digital downloads, internet access, and copyright reform, the question of sheet music has been completely ignored. Why? Because there’s no money in it. This leaves the Mallet Heritage Archive in a legal backwater, so it would be risky for me to post these PDFs on my web site without knowing their copyright status. Some were unpublished or released without a copyright notice. These I will assume are in public domain. The others I intend to preserve anyway simply because it’s the one way I can guarantee their survival, but I can’t make them available on the internet without opening myself up to lawsuits.
     So here’s what I need from you:

     1) If you are the copyright holder to any of the works listed here, please let me know. My goal is not to circumvent your rights, but only to establish the status of each work. If you wish to make the work available to others, please let me know and I will post on the site so that people can download it legally.

     2) If you know the copyright status of any of the works listed in the archive, please let me know or direct me to the internet source that would indicate its status.

     3) If you have old sheet music laying around and wish to contribute it to the project I will happily accept it. I will convert it to PDF, making sure that both the digital copies and the originals are transferred to the Percussive Arts Society when I am no longer able to care for them (but like I said before, don’t hold your breath). I can also return the originals and a disk of PDFs to you if you wish.

     4) Some of the works are damaged or have missing parts. These are listed in the archive. If you have clean copies please help me complete the collection.

     5) If you need access to a specific work for your research, please contact me and I’ll make it available to you, especially if you have other heritage works to trade for it.

     Remember, my goal is not to circumvent copyright law or make money on someone else’s intellectual property, but to make available those pieces that are in the public domain (or that having willing copyright holders) so that this heritage will not be lost. If you know of someone who is in a position to contribute either music or copyright expertise please make them aware of the Archive.
     As a demonstration, I’m posting one piece to the web site. Clair Omar Musser used to write arrangements for his students and give them as gifts. Here is a facsimile and a clean transcription of Musser’s arrangement of Estrellita by Manuel Ponce.


My Transcription

     While several arrangements of this music are under copyright, it appears that the original is not (this is difficult to verify) so I’m going to post it up and see what happens. Again, my goal is to make this little piece of marimba history available to those who are interested, not to make a profit.

     So check out the archive. Very few pieces have been converted to PDF, yet. Some are obviously under copyright. Others are so blurry it would be a waste of time. But many, many other fine works are waiting here for someone to release them so a new generation of percussionists can come to love them as I have. I hope you’ll help me make this come true.

Go to Mallet Heritage Archive

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