by Gifford Howarth

Over the past 5-10 years, there has been an enormous growth in 4-mallet percussion at the high school level. Today's high school percussionists are playing literature with techniques that would only be heard at college recitals ten years ago. This is a great indication of the growth of this genre. I describe this occurrence as “the bar is being lowered” from an age level standpoint. The techniques have been around for more than 25 years, but the players attempting them are getting younger and younger.

With the rapid increase in popularity, there comes the possibility of students moving too quickly through the learning process. Over the past 5 years, I have given somewhere in the ballpark of 200-250 beginning 4-mallet clinics throughout North America. The most common problem I come across is seeing students playing with bad technique. To be more specific, students playing with too much tension. It is very easy for a young percussionist to develop physical problems such as tendonitis, carpal tunnel or pulled muscles and tendons if they play with a lot of tension.

For the past year or so I have been putting together a new method book that is based on my hands-on 4-mallet technique clinic. The book is entitled Simply Four; 4-Mallet Percussion as Easy as 1-2-3 (4) and will is available through Tap Space Publications. The book breaks down the Stevens and Burton grips step by step from (1) how to hold each mallet in your hand, (2) how to use the different basic strokes, (3) how to combine the strokes through the use of exercises and etudes and (4) how to develop your technique correctly.

The following article is based on the book.


This seems to be the most popular 4-mallet grip in North America. The grip was developed by the world-renowned marimbist Leigh Howard Stevens while he was a student at the Eastman School of Music back in the mid 1970's. In addition to being the most popular grip, it is also the most improperly played grip, and is the grip that can give young students the most physical problems when played incorrectly.

The following is a breakdown of how to correctly hold the mallets and the roles of each finger, the basic strokes, common problems with beginners and ways to fix them.

(Important Note: Wrist needs to be in a "handshaking" position with the thumb facing the ceiling.)

Roles of each finger

Index finger
- acts as a "table-top" for the inside mallet to rest on. It is important that the tip of the index finger always points across your body, not into your body.

- forms fulcrum point with index finger by slightly "pinching" the mallet shaft between the index and thumb. The role of the thumb is to keep the mallet from sliding off the "table".

Middle finger
finger - performs what I like to call the "Spiderman move”. This finger bends into your palm and makes contact with the mallet shaft where the tip of the mallet touches the palm. The role is to keep the tip in contact with the palm.

Ring and Pinky finger
- wrap around the outside mallet to keep the mallet in place. It is important to understand this is the ONLY role for these fingers: to simply keep the mallet in place.

With any 4-mallet technique, the strokes can be boiled down to two choices: when both mallets in your hand play together (double-stop, double vertical) or when only one mallet plays (single independent, rotation stroke). All other types of strokes and combinations of strokes stem from these two possibilities. I like to use a catch phrase called wrist it or twist it.

Wrist it
- focuses on the idea that with a double-stop stroke, the main stroke production comes from your wrist vertically lifting both mallets.

Twist it
- stems from the idea that in order to lift only one mallet in your hand, you need to rotate the wrist or twist the wrist. The power of this stroke comes from the wrist itself, NOT THE THUMB AND INDEX FINGER.


Tension can be found at several locations within the player's hands. Here are just some of the most common.

1) Index finger pushing in towards palm
When this occurs, the inside mallet is shoved into the palm causing that sore spot in the center of the hand. Keep in mind that the only role for the index finger is to supply a place for the inside mallet to rest on (“table-top").

2) Forceful thumb
Often, young players think that the thumb is responsible for the downstroke during an inside rotation stroke. You will notice "white knuckles" on the thumb. The power of the stroke needs to come from the wrist, not the thumb or fulcrum point. The only role of the thumb is to keep the mallet shaft in place on top of the index finger.

don't curl the index fingers!

3) Ring and Pinky finger performing the stroke
This is the most dangerous. These fingers are not responsible for producing the upstroke or downstroke for the outside mallet. The twisting of the wrist does that. Many students flex their two small fingers to help produce the stroke, and all this is doing is putting extra strain on the small tendons and muscles in the hand.

4) Not twisting the wrist during the rotations
When the single independent or rotation strokes are not properly performed, the non-playing mallet ends up bouncing out of control. This is the main cause of the blisters between the middle and ring fingers. When the rotations are used correctly, the axis of the rotation ends up being that non-playing mallet. When this occurs, the "bouncing" of the mallet stops, and the blisters do not form.

All of these problems and concerns need to be looked at with young percussionists. The most important "rule of thumb" is to have the student play as relaxed and comfortable as possible. The student only needs to control the mallets, not "death-grip" the mallets and have that industrial arts class approach to the instrument.

This is just the tip of the iceberg in dealing with 4-mallet percussion. For further information and details, look for Simply Four; 4-Mallet Percussion as Easy as 1-2-3 (4) at your local music store, or purchase a copy from Tap Space Publications online.

GIFFORD HOWARTH received his Bachelors of Music degree from Ithaca College and his Masters in Percussion Performance from Kent State University. His percussion studies include working with Gordon Stout, Ted Rounds, and Bill Molenhof. He is currently an Adjunct Professor/Artist in Residence at Penn State University in State College, PA along with being on the percussion faculty at Nazareth College in Rochester, NY.

Mr. Howarth is a very active recitalist, clinician, and masterclass teacher focusing on mallet percussion.

For the latest performance and clinic schedule, or to listen to Gifford's newest release, Rosewood Resonance, please visit:

Simply Four
4 Mallet Technique as Easy as 1-2-3... 4
by Gifford Howarth

For band directors, percussion instructors, and percussionists of all ages.

Finally, a clear-cut method on the fundamentals of four-mallet percussion technique! While this style of performance is becoming standard in modern percussion, never before have you had such a clearly defined resource to answer all your questions. This book is sure to take the fear out of playing with four mallets!

Included in this book:
• Step-by-step breakdown of the Stevens and Burton style grips.
• Technique enhancing exercises.
• Progressive and inventive etudes.
• Tons of detailed photos.
• plus much more!!

Listen to an etude sample:
"Call and Answer," page 68 (mp3 Audio - 684K)

View book page samples:
Table of Contents (Adobe PDF, 2 pages - 88Kb)
Sample Book Pages (Adobe PDF, 4 pages - 196 Kb)
Etude Samples (Adobe PDF, 4 pages - 112 Kb)