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With Mallets: A Forethought!

North Carolina Principal Timpanist John Feddersen is one of the most visible and audible members of the orchestra.   The next time you hear him bring a piece of music to its thrilling conclusion with one of his mighty rolls, you might want to pay particular attention to the mallets in his hand, for he makes them by hand.

John began learning the craft of making mallets as a sophomore at Ithaca College, when he needed to replace the covers on his frayed mallets.  He found a good source of piano damper felt in New Jersey, and learned to prepare the material, and sew it on the stick, which he says is what took the most practice to perfect.  He estimates that about 90 percent of timpanists working re-cover their own mallets, but only 10 to 15 percent make their own.
While later attending the Manhattan School of Music, he saw other types of mallets, and became even more interested in construction.  John remembers that, while later a student at Indiana University, he and a friend drove back to New Jersey and brought back a car trunk full of Tonkin Bamboo, which is characterized by a thick wall and smooth nodes, and as he puts it, “is perhaps the ideal material” for certain types of mallets.
After a tour as solo timpanist for the United States Navy Band, John began playing with the North Carolina Symphony in 1973, and also began teaching at the Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro.  He determined that his students needed to know that, for much less money, a few skills and the investment of time, they could save on mallets.  He began codifying what he had learned over the years, and got to the point where he could teach it in just a few sessions.  He taught them how to wind yarn and how to design and make mallets for bass drum, xylophone, and gong.

His interest in malletry continued, especially as he taught longer.  “My students would not have with them everything they needed to have a first class sound, particularly bass drum and gong,” he remembers.  “Those mallets tend to get put off until later, and they are spending so much of their money on marimba, snare drum sticks, xylophone, and all the instruments that a percussionist has to own.”  He shares that a player could easily spend $30,000 to $40,000 on a full set of percussion instruments. 

Over the years, John has made several hundred pairs of sticks for percussion instruments.  He has given some thought to making mallets to sell, but says that it is a whole different ballgame these days, with more players learning to become makers early in their career.  He has been experimenting with carbon fiber mallets, and might explore selling more of those in the future, as not a lot of players are using that material.

His interest in malletry led him to begin crafting snare drum sticks. He bought a lathe, and relates that he was very interested in turning sticks to fit his hand and although those of his colleagues.  For most of his career at the Symphony, percussionist Ken Whitlow’s “go-to” snare drum sticks were an early pair that John made.  When asked about the ideal wood for snare drum sticks, John answers, “Persimmon wood has now come into the fore, but it is hard to find, what with so many players out there, and so many companies buying up the wood.”  Other woods used include straight grained maple, hickory, and occasionally, rosewood.

Snare drum sticks are exacting to make.  “They have to match exactly – pitch, weight, balance, and of course the shape of the bead,” John says.  “Back when we were kids in college, you would go to the music store, buy snare drum sticks, and spend all our time rolling them down the countertop to make sure they weren’t banana shaped.  Now, the big companies machine match for identical weight, so a lot of the guess work is taken out of it.”

John says that the shape of timpani mallets is not crucial, but the weight and the balance and materials are.  And, different mallets are used in different locations.  “My go-to mallets here in Meymandi Concert Hall are more often the leather and the wood rather than the felt,” he says, adding that that gives a crisper sound, which suits conditions in Meymandi.  “If I played an identical concert in Chapel Hill, I might just move one or two grades softer.”  He calls the range of sound a spectrum, and to each concert around the state takes his standard set of 11 pairs, starting with a solid wood “up through soft, puffy things.”

He continues with an example that is easy to understand, “If it was pizza, you have your thin and crispy sound and your thick and chewy sound… a different range for different halls.” 

When asked about how often he has to get out the felt, and needle and thread, he says, “If I were playing the white sticks more, I would have to recover a given pair twice a season.  The softer and more delicate the felt, the quicker it wears out.”

John Feddersen wanted to be a percussionist from an early age.  He says, “I was awed by the drums at a homecoming parade when I was six. Later, I climbed into the kitchen cabinets and banged on pots.”  He has come a long way from the kitchen to Meymandi Concert Hall, but one look at him on stage, and you realize that he is having just as much fun as he did as a boy.

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