Do You Udu?

The Udu drum is another favorite percussion instrument of mine. It comes in all shapes and sizes, and I really enjoy the variety of sounds it can make and the many applications for those sounds in different musical settings. Originally a Nigerian instrument, I have also heard it played in a Latin music setting as part of a Jazziz Magazine CD, gently providing a groove for an acoustic guitar and female singer.

The Udu drum is a unique combination of an idiophone (opposite of a smartphone, try to keep up) and an aerophone. The sound comes from hitting the exterior (usually made of clay) and controlling the air within the resonating chamber(s) by covering or uncovering either of its two characteristic holes. It looks like a water jug/pot with an extra hole in the side (“Udu” translates to “pot” in the Igbo language, I’m told).

Because of the overall teardrop shape of this instrument, the Helmholtz principle of acoustics kicks in and produces a deep low earthy sound when one of its holes are hit and covered by your hand, (forcing the air into the resonating chamber, and out thru the open hole) with the ability to bend the pitch up from there as you release your hand. How low does it go? The larger the resonating chamber, the lower the pitch, and believe me these things could easily pass for an 808/bass drop effect!

The way I use Udu drums in my music varies depending on which kind(s) I believe would fit best with the piece. I am working on a piece now called “Footprints” which features all three Udus playing back and forth and “complimenting” each other’s rhythms and pitches to make it sound like its played all on one instrument. After that, the piece develops and picks up speed which calls for an adaptation of Indian tabla techniques to be played on the Udus – first on one drum, then doubled on another, and then switched up a bit to bring in the third Udu for a more straight-ahead groove to bring the piece to a fiery close. A demo with scratch tracks was previously released of this piece, but I have reworked much of it with only a bit more to go at this point. Look for the final version soon!

I have also featured the Udu drums in a few pieces with The Gathering Mist – see if you can pick out their unique sounds:



About “Ceramics”

In “Ceramics,” I used the Udu pictured below to bring in some low-end to support the tuned flower pots, shekere, tambourine, and melodic HAPI Drums for much of the middle section.
Lots of very interesting layering combinations and rhythmic/melodic concepts in this piece…

…as well as little subtle parts in many other pieces across both albums – bonus points for recognizing those too!


My Experiences With The Marimba

Paul Orsulak and me practicing for our percussion recital, late 2009 - this same instrument heard on The Gathering Mist albums!

The marimba used to be a sore subject for me until a couple years ago. The high school I went to is well known for their show-style band and drum line, aka no pit band/front ensemble/indoor drum line/weekend tournaments. Friday night is game night – and you won’t be able to hear much afterwards. Our drum line was always right around 25-30 deep, usually with 8 snares, 6-8 bass drums, 3-4 “squints,” and 6-8 cymbal players. Like I said, no mallets. More on the Rolling Thunder Drumline later though…

Concert season would include mallet parts for most pieces – and as I was one of the few percussionists there who could read music, I would sometimes play these parts while everyone else would get the cool drum parts. I would try to make the best of it though, especially on Robert W. Smith’s epic piece for concert band, “Africa,” for which I was on chimes with 2 mallets – a difficult part in itself with 8th note triplets while the rest of the band played with a straight 8th feel. I remember a couple other pieces where I was “stuck on bells” or some other “lame mallet instrument.” Great. But then I went to college…

To audition for the college I would eventually graduate from, I needed to perform a snare drum piece, a timpani piece, and a mallet piece, along with whatever else was involved (sight-singing, yada yada yada). I spoke with Nancy Zeltsman (before I really knew who she was) and she gave me a 2-mallet marimba solo called “Hegira” for my audition that one of her students, Carrie Magin, had composed, along with a CD for reference which helped a lot (Thanks Nancy!). I spent every night in a practice room learning that piece in addition to the famous timpani piece “March” by Elliot Carter – turns out its a really fun piece with stick-flipping, quintuplet and septuplet phrasing, and polyrhythms – my favorites!

These were the most difficult pieces for those instruments I had ever done, and I was really on my own learning them for an audition. But long story short it went well. Got in, did my time, graduated, here we all are. Studying with the percussion teacher there was very beneficial to my own playing as well as for my solo project The Gathering Mist. I had written a piece which I wanted to feature fingerstyle acoustic guitar on, but it was a difficult part. The rest of the album was just about finished when I remembered that the one track still had programmed MIDI guitar scratch tracks on it – unacceptable for the finished product after so much work on everything else. Since my fingerstyle acoustic guitarist search came up dry, I said “screw it, I’ll just play it myself on marimba.”

At that point I was comfortable enough playing with 4 mallets, and the recording went pretty smoothly after a bit of practice. Hearing the playback of the two tracks on my first solo album, Rhythmic Epiphany and then on the one track from my second album Reservoir that feature the marimba, it made me a little more self-confident with my mallet playing. Proof that the best way to improve is to (practice a lot first) record yourself, listen back, and be your own biggest critic with regard to timing, tone, etc. The way I think about it is similar to voice-leading on 4-part choral-style music – Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass – you have 4 mallets, two in each hand – yes there’s 5 octaves worth of possible notes to play, but wherever your next note is, one of those four mallets is going to be closest to it, so you don’t have to work as hard as you would with only two mallets (this goes for linear playing only – thicker chordal textures have more notes, so yes more mallets.)

So I got more and more used to it, and ended up playing the huge 5-octave marimba with 4-mallets for two pieces in my senior recital (another piece only required 2 mallets but was WAY more difficult, go figure), as well as a few other pieces for other recitals here and there. My experience with the marimba happened at a good time too – right as I was getting into other forms of melodic percussion – especially the Kalimba and HAPI Drums.

Anyway, why I’m posting this: I ended up overcoming some difficulties I guess and now I’m proud enough of the results to include it on a few tracks for The Gathering Mist – Enjoy!




Kalimba Techniques

Iʼd like to start off this blog series with the lighter side of my percussion arsenal, so this post will focus on one of my favorite little instruments, the Kalimba. Iʼve been playing kalimba for about five years now and I own four of them, each different in some way. The kalimba is classified as a “lamellophone” (a type of idiophone) – raised metal notes (tines) are attached to a piece of wood or a gourd, and vary in pitch by the length of the tines. Itʼs played by plucking downwards on the tines with your thumbs and in some cases other fingers.

A Few Different Kalimba Techniques

I’ve also been using three other main techniques in my playing – they just come naturally when I pick it up, and then I developed them further from there.

 1. The 3-Finger Style

In addition to the downward plucking by your thumbs, try plucking upwards with your right index/pointer finger. While that finger is limited to the right half of the instrument, it unlocks SO many more possibilities:

– Covers greater distances across the range of the instrument without having to strain your thumbs to work twice as fast.
-Allows for wider intervals like 5ths and 7ths to be played with one hand, leaving your other hand free to fill in the rest of a chord or polyrhythm.
-Opens up new possibilities with the instrument as far as arpeggios and faster playing, although Joe Zawinul’s track “Zanza II” with Paco Sery on kalimba hurts my thumbs just to listen to, haha:’s only thumbing it tho!).

2. What I’ll Call “Sliding”

-This is a thumbs-only technique, where you play one note by sliding off of that note to then pluck the next highest note adjacent to it (on a standard diatonically-tuned kalimba, the interval will be a third).

-I often use this technique to play neighboring notes together or in a rapid succession.
I find this takes less thumb movement than plucking one tine and then lifting it back up to pluck the tine right next to it (one sideways motion rather than two up & down’s).

3. The Percussive Qualities of the Kalimba

-The way you naturally hold and play the kalimba leaves your middle, ring, and pinky fingers available to help your palms hold the instrument while your thumbs play it. But since it’s already resting comfortably in your palms, try using your middle, ring, and pinky fingers to hit the bottom of the kalimba.

-This could be used for time keeping, setting up a groove to base the rest of the piece on, or even part of the overall groove/melody.

-Because its an idiophone, you’ll hear the tines vibrating as well as get a nice percussive slap from the bottom of the instrument.

…So by utilizing the percussive qualities of a melodic instrument you’re basically unstoppable now, especially with a live-loop pedal or layering within your recording software.

Applications in My Music

Combining these three different techniques, I have been able to play passages like these (with a bit of practice!) in pieces for both albums from The Gathering Mist, shown in this video:

Also, here are two tracks displaying how I use kalimba. I have other ones if you’re interested:

I’d also like to hear your stories/techniques with the Kalimba also!  Don’t be shy 🙂

My history with the kalimba

I stumbled upon this instrument at an interesting time in my life, as I was starting to write my first solo CD (The Gathering Mist – Rhythmic Epiphany), and it became a big part of the CD and how I would continue to compose music in general. I was on a family vacation to South Dakota and Wyoming, and I found a beautiful Catania 12-Note Flatboard Kalimba in the musical instrument section of a Cheyenne/Lakota cultural store. Being that the kalimba is traditionally an African instrument, I figured that if I bought it from them that I’d be helping myself out musically as well as making them more of an authentic store 

That first night with it, I wrote part of what later turned into “MyriaD Minor,” track 11 on Rhythmic Epiphany. I think I still have the hotel notepad with the melody scribbled on it, and I know I still have that hotel’s pen…

Brand New Blog!!

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