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An interview with marimbist Kai Stensgaard

I was studying percussion at Western Illinois University in 2006, my life was forever changed by a guest musician named Kai Stensgaard. He entered the stage with confidence and began performing some of the most impressive and beautiful marimba pieces I had ever heard. Then he paused, attached a shaker to his leg, and picked up not two, not four, but six mallets. I was in awe as he skillfully played all six while using his leg to keep time. I immediately thought, “I need to learn how to do that.”

The next day in a small clinic, Stensgaard would in fact teach me his six mallet grip and show me some tips on how to play different six-mallet techniques. A whole new world of music opened up to me, and I was instantly hooked on the new skill and overwhelmed with the new possibilities of sounds that could be created. I spent the next few months learning all the six-mallet material I could get my hands on, as well as many other four-mallet pieces by the great Kai. He was truly an inspiration.

I recently caught up with Kai and had a chance to ask him a few questions about how he came up with the six-mallet grip, how he’s seen the marimba change over the years, and what he’s working on now.

When and why did you start playing marimba?

Kai Stensgaard: I started back in 1972 when I began studying percussion at the music conservatory. I immediately fell in love with the sound of the marimba. There was not very much to play … so I had to arrange some pieces myself. My teacher told me not to spend so much time playing the marimba, because I could not use it for anything. “Play the snare drum and the timpani,” he said.

How did you learn your six-mallet grip?

Kai Stensgaard: It started after a trip to Mexico and Guatemala in 1984. I saw a Maya Indian playing with six mallets, but without very much control. That gave me the idea, so back home I wrote Two Mayan Dances two easy six-mallet pieces that I recommend for beginners.

What kind of benefits can you get from playing with six mallets? What are some drawbacks?

Kai Stensgaard: The benefit is 50% more sound. With six mallets, I am able to have my left hand play bass and chords, while my right hand plays melody. So the playing style becomes more piano-like than playing four mallets. It is easiest to play in keys like C, F, G major and D, E and a minor, because then you don’t have to use the black keys a lot.

One drawback is playing in keys with a lot of sharps and flats. I have been trying to explore more complex pieces in my new piece Hexagram. Here I am using most of the keyboard. I feel it is very important for a composer to write for six mallets, because he has to understand how to use the grip. So being a marimba player writing music is an advantage.

Have you seen six-mallet marimba playing becoming more popular in the last few years?

Kai Stensgaard: Yes, very much. It is growing very fast. We have at least 150 pieces written for six mallets. I think it will keep growing, but I only see it as an add-on to the four-mallet grip. It gives you new possibilities when playing.

In 2006, I was at a clinic where you taught me how to use your six-mallet grip. I was surprised at how easy it was to transition from four to six. Do you find that most people transition quickly, or do a lot of people struggle making the change?

Kai Stensgaard: Well, it varies a lot. Maybe it is easiest for people with relatively large hands. My grip is based on the Stevens Grip, and I feel it gives most control. Many people in Asia use a variation based on the traditional grip.

My all-time favorite piece to play is Spanish Dance. What was your inspiration behind that piece?

Kai Stensgaard: Spanish Dance is the very first piece I wrote many years ago. I was still studying and, at the same time, playing mallets in a Frank Zappa/Santana style band. The guitar player asked me to play a marimba solo for the next gig, but I was only playing some very contemporary pieces at that time and I did not feel that was good for the gig. I was very interested in Spanish Flamenco music, so after only one hour behind the marimba, I came up with Spanish Dance. Today it is great to see it played all over the world.

Tell me about your newest piece, Kais Mambo.

Kai Stensgaard: I wrote it as a follow up for Spanish Dance and a piece that does not ask for too much four-mallet technique. After writing quite complicated pieces for six mallets, I thought it would be good to write a piece for young players.

What tips do you have for players learning your music?

Kai Stensgaard: It is hard to give tips for it, because I feel that my pieces are not so difficult to play. Since they are written by a marimba player, it means that it is written in a marimba-logical way. Many of my pieces ask for improvisation, so it could be good to start learning how to improvise. If you do, you will love it. It gives a different view on playing. You will gain a kind of musical freedom and maybe start to write music. Many of my pieces start from improvised ideas.

What tips do you have for marimba players writing their own music?

Kai Stensgaard: Write what you like, and write music you enjoy. Try to come up with your own style. In the long run that will make you, as a marimba player, more interesting, because you are not a copy of other players. Today we have so many excellent players, so having your own style will help you get out playing.

You just got back from PASIC [Percussive Arts Society International Convention] 2013. Other than the tornados, how was it?

Kai Stensgaard: Yes, I ended up in the middle of tornados, but had no problems besides being delayed on my way back home. I was mainly at PASIC to demonstrate my new invention, the Aluphone. A lot of people know the instrument now and really like the sound. Composers are writing for it. This coming January Evelyn Glennie will do a world premiere of Anders Koppels’ new concerto for Aluphone. The soloist also plays the marimba. It is a great piece in five movements.

What projects are you currently working on?

Kai Stensgaard: I just finished a recording with my duo Calabash, saxophone and marimba. I have had that duo for more than ten years and really enjoy playing with a saxophone player. It will be on iTunes next week! In late January I will start a new project with a jazz drummer and a guitar player. Our trio will play our own compositions, not free jazz, but of course with some improvised parts. At the end of May, I will be performing in Taiwan at a huge percussion event arranged by Ju Percussion. It is going to be very exciting. Also, I will meet a great friend and six-mallet player Pei-ching Wu, so maybe we will do some 12-mallet playing!

Anything else you want to share? 

Kai Stensgaard: This summer I was judging marimba players in Italy at a Percussion Festival together with Marta Klimasara and Casey Cangeliosy. It was great for me to meet the new generation of extremely talented marimba players from all over the world. It was kind of a dream that came true — to watch how far the marimba has come.  When I started playing marimba, it was the very beginning of the development of the modern marimba. I believed in the marimba at that time, and now it has become a fantastic instrument and it has become accepted like the violin, cello, etc. – and that is great!

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