Mallet Percussion and the Visual Arts

Kevin Lucas • August 2021GoodVibes • August 13, 2021

I am going to discuss how percussion relates and can be influenced by the visual arts. I am also going to talk about a recent experience I had that really opened my mind to the realm of possibilities for percussion as an artform and how this concept can help your students. 

I was recently asked by a filmmaker to watch one of his silent movies of just landscapes and scenery in Iceland. He asked me to setup my marimba while I watch the movie and improvise while I interpret the visual elements of the film. It sounded like a cool idea. This film maker is advanced in many art forms, so I knew he had great ideas. But I had absolutely no clue what I was in for. He wanted only one take of my performance because he only wanted my initial reaction to what I was watching. So, there were no edits and very little production after the fact.

I knew I had to silence my mind and go into a “Zen” mode to be able to pull this off. I realized that I would have to quiet my mind, not think, and just react to the visual stimulation. I found myself in a state of relaxation, enjoying the scenes and just creating music. And I just let my emotions dictate what I was playing from scene to scene. The most challenging part was watching the film and playing accurately, meaning hitting the notes that I was intending to hit. But I felt so relaxed that it wasn’t a problem. And I am also known for closing my eyes for a minute or longer during my live performances.

The hour of music flew by so quickly because I was really enjoying the experience and just locked into the scenery. When Dan Johnson softly told me, “The end is approaching, and we are about a minute away”, I was shocked!

What had I just played? I would find out a couple weeks later. But I had thought to myself that if somebody had told me to improvise for an hour, playing whatever came into my brain, the end result would be zero musical form or unity. I would expect a bunch of abstract ideas strung together.

When I heard the audio for the first time, I was absolutely stunned. The music flowed from one section to the next. It made sense. And there was form. There were also “themes and variations” on one idea throughout but approached in different musical ways. What had just happened!? After much thought, I figured it out.

Usually, we create music from the cerebral part of our brain. This was a completely different beast. The music was coming completely from the “visual” part of the brain, with no thought process happening. The only reason the music had form, made sense, and thematic material is because of the movie! It had absolutely nothing to do with me. The musical form “was” the film form. They had melded into one entity as I interpreted the changing scenery. I was also shocked with the perfection and excellence in which I performed completely improvisational music on the spot. And I could not have composed a better piece of music if I had spent six months trying.

There is a very strong connection between the visual and musical aspects of our brains. This made me realize that we need to integrate the two different art forms into curriculum for our students. It will open up new horizons and teach them to use different parts of their brains than they are currently taught to use. Staring at sheet music and learning music that becomes so repetitive can be a very sterile form of pedagogy. Even if our students aren’t at a level on their instrument to be able to improvise well, I think it could be a great idea just to have them watch a scenic and beautiful film before a performance and rehearsal, and at least interpret the emotion that the student feels after the visual stimulus.

Jeff Moore, dean of fine arts and professor of percussion at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, has recently created a multimedia computer lab where students from every school of art at the university can work together and collaborate. I would imagine that film students could ask for music from the music students, dance students can ask for music for choreographed routines, and the possibilities are endless. 

It is my strong opinion, that after my experience of recording “Icelandic Saga”, students at the high school and university level need to experience collaborative and multimedia art. It will teach them to use different parts of their brains while performing or writing music, and it will also teach them how all of the arts relate to each other. This is why we have Impressionism in both music and painting. The style characteristics are the same: Faded boundaries, dreamlike moods, and images and sounds that seem to flow into each other in a ghostly manner. All art is universal. Now I understand why Jeff Moore created this ingenious idea long before my amazing experience with artist Dan Johnson in southern Illinois.

In 2016, The Huffington Post called Kevin Lucas “the most talented percussionist since Lionel Hampton, Ginger Baker and Tito Puente”. He has been nominated for 38 music industry awards for his Echoes in the Sand album, and he won the 2016 American Songwriting Awards. Kevin Lucas performed with the Madison Scouts Drum and Bugle Corps from 1992-1994 and won the DCI Midwest Individuals in 1994 for keyboard percussion. He placed second in the United States for concert hall percussion at the Music Teachers National Association collegiate competition in 1997.

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