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Career Biography

Introduction

Rebecca Kite is the author of a definitive biography of the world-famous Japanese marimba virtuoso, Keiko Abe – a work of scholarship that includes an exhaustively researched history of the concert marimba, accompanied by an illustrative music CD.

Kite's biography cum marimba history has been translated into Japanese, and will be translated into Spanish and published by the University of the Arts and Sciences in Chiapas, Mexico in 2013. A Chinese translation is planned, as well.

Kite was the first marimba teacher to record pieces traditionally played by beginning marimba students -- and so, for the first time, students could have the instructional benefit of hearing how these pieces ought to sound. On Kite's Prism recording, she played "Yellow After the Rain," the most popular marimba piece for beginners worldwide. She has created additional groundbreaking teaching materials, as well.

Kite holds several patents for innovative timpani designs that enable greater ease in moving the pedal, while improving the drum's overall sound. Early in Kite's musical career, she studied with such stars of the percussion world as Cloyd Duff, timpanist of the Cleveland Orchestra from 1942-1981, and George Gaber, Chair of the Percussion Department at the Indiana University School of Music in Bloomington, Indiana from 1960 to 1985. Much later in her continuing musical education, she studied with Keiko Abe, the
internationally known marimba virtuoso.

Musical Background & Early Education

Rebecca Kite was born on September 1, 1951 in Columbus, Mississippi, and began her musical education at a very early age -- in part because, as she says, "I grew up in a home filled with music." Her mother and aunt were accomplished pianists, and, Kite adds, "My mother taught piano and was always whistling, humming, or singing around the house. So when we were old enough, my brother, sister, and I would sing songs while Mom played the piano for us. Making music was how our family had fun together."

When Rebecca was five years old, she was intrigued by the ever-present family piano, and began exploring the instrument in her own way, at her own pace. From time to time, she would ask her mother for lessons, and was shown hand positioning and chord progressions, among other techniques that delighted her.

Four years later, when her father got a new job in the Department of Education at Peru State College, the Kite family moved to Peru, Nebraska. It was here that Kite's musical education entered a new phase. As a musically talented nine year old, she took violin lessons with Dr. Victor Jindra, Professor of Strings at Peru College. And, at age ten, started playing the snare drum under the tutelage of Dr. Gilbert Wilson, the Director of Bands at Peru State, who also served as Kite's elementary school band director.

"There were no rental instruments in those days," says Kite, "so we had to choose our instrument from among those the school owned. I'd wanted to play the trumpet or the French horn, because I really liked their sound. But since my last name starts with a K, which is in the middle of the alphabet, when it was my turn to choose, all the trumpets and French horns had already been
claimed by other students."

Dr. Wilson suggested that she try the snare drum and, because she could read music, he put Kite into the junior high band the following week. "At that first band class," says Kite, "I played cymbals on 'Great Gate of Kiev' from Pictures at an Exhibition, and I'll never forget how it felt to crash the cymbals together at the right time. After that, I was hooked on percussion." Two years later, she began a period of what she calls "self-study," and taught herself "by going through method books and solos. I continued with both the snare drum and the violin through high school into my first year of college."

Passionate about music and performing, Kite played in many different ensembles: snare drum in her school's marching band and the Peru State College pep band during basketball season; violin in the college orchestra, each May, for the graduation ceremony; and violin in a high school orchestra in Nebraska City, traveling twenty-five miles each week to perform.

"Peru, Nebraska was a really small town," says Kite. "So my family would drive to Omaha or Lincoln about once a month to go shopping, and while everyone else explored department stores, I browsed through books and sheet music in the music store. When I found some music that looked hard but interesting, I'd buy it and teach myself to play it. That's how I chose my repertoire, the musical selections for my snare drum solo -- at the solo and ensemble festival held at my high school, each year."

Kite auditioned and was chosen to perform in the percussion section of the Nebraska All State Orchestra during her junior and senior year in high school, and it was this success that led to her attendance, in the summer of 1968, at the Midwestern Music and Art Camp at Kansas University – a six-week immersion in the orchestra, band, and percussion ensemble world that inspired her
to pursue a career in music. "The best high school musicians in the Midwest came to this summer camp," she recalls. "There were three bands and two orchestras, and I was a percussionist in one of the bands and one of the orchestras. We learned an entire program of music for both each week, and performed them on the weekends. I was in heaven – twelve different concerts of really great music in six weeks! I loved the beauty and expressiveness of the pieces we played -- which were conducted by professional conductors. That summer, I decided to become a professional musician." Kite enrolled in Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, Nebraska in the fall of 1969. She majored in music and studied the snare drum with the university's part-time percussion instructor, and studied violin with Morris Collier of the Lincoln Symphony. Fortuitously, the university owned a marimba, and while she'd never played one before, she found it easy to read the music and to play this instrument that was then completely new to her.

Kite even went so far as to locate some marimba and piano music, so she could play the marimba with friends for the weekly student recital series. During the same period, her drum teacher suggested that she join PAS, and it was from reading PAS journals that Kite learned percussion departments at other universities had fulltime teachers. She decided to transfer to an undergraduate program that better matched her needs, plans, and goals. Entering the Conservatory of Music at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, in 1970, Kite studied percussion with Charmaine Asher-Wiley, a graduate of the Eastman School of Music
who performed as a marimba soloist and timpanist with the New Orleans Philharmonic, and as a percussionist with the Kansas City Symphony.

"Charmaine was a master at both musical interpretation and relating to the audience," Kite says. "I learned how to shape music effectively, how to choose a repertoire and program order, as well as how to perform in a way that connected with the audience." In 1972, Kite was elected to Pi Kappa Lambda, the national music honor society for academic excellence, and, the following year, she earned her B.M. in Percussion Performance. After completing her undergraduate studies in music, Kite launched her musical career as a freelance percussionist (she was a drummer in a jazz-rock band, a timpanist for local orchestras, and took on private percussion students). At the same time, she was eager for advanced training as a timpanist, and in 1974, contacted the well-known timpanist of the Cleveland orchestra, Cloyd Duff.

She then began a course of study with Duff that lasted for several years. And when she began investigating graduate schools, planning on furthering her musical development, Duff suggested that she contact his old friend, George Gaber, who was director of percussion at the world famous Indiana University School of Music in Bloomington, Indiana. Kite auditioned for Gaber, and he invited her to study with him in the Master's program, awarding her a two-year assistantship. In 1977, she graduated from Indiana University with an M.M. in Percussion Performance.

"George Gaber demanded perfection of every kind in my playing," says Kite. "He insisted upon extremely thorough preparation. And this discipline was exactly what I needed to up-level my playing to the highest professional standards."

But despite her excellent musicianship, Kite -- like many of her fellow music school graduates at that time -- sought employment outside the United States because of what was then a weak economy. She was hired as both the timpanist of the National Symphony of Nicaragua and as the Director of Percussion Studies at the National Conservatory. "It was a real challenge to work in a country with so few resources," explains Kite, "but I made some great friends and developed a lifelong love for Latin America."

Returning to Indiana a year later, Kite became the timpanist of the Owensboro Symphony for two seasons, before again launching into a freelance career -- one which included six years of performing with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra. She worked in the pit orchestra providing the music for such touring shows as the Paris Ballet and the Houston Grand Opera, and she
performed with the Columbus Pro Musica Orchestra in Columbus, Indiana.

During this time (and perhaps most significantly for her later contribution to the field), George Gaber hired her as the percussion technician overseeing and maintaining all the percussion instruments owned by the Indiana University School of Music. There were more than 60 timpani, and enough sets of orchestral instruments to supply five orchestras playing at once, as well as enough to supply practice rooms for 80 percussion majors.

"The logistics of maintaining this much equipment was a headache," Kite admits. "But I became well-acquainted with the mechanics of each brand of timpani, and their varying mechanics were exceedingly interesting to me."

Creating New Timpani Designs & Instrument Patents

While maintaining IU's timpani collection, Kite began to notice that various elements of the instruments' design caused problems in the resulting sound. And she soon developed some innovative ideas for making timpani pedals easier to use.

"On some drums," Kite explains, "the head always pulled off center, no matter how many times you'd re-centered it. Also, on our top set of German drums, the bearing edge was dented in numerous places, because the support ring didn't really support and protect that edge. On other drums, it was hard to get a high pitch setting, because the drum would slide away from you as
you pressed down on the pedal."

Kite had studied the acoustics of musical instruments at the Conservatory of Music at the University of Missouri in Kansas City. She'd also become expert at clearing timpani heads, using techniques learned from both Cloyd Duff and George Gaber. And so, in 1982, she and a business partner founded and incorporated a timpani manufacturing company they called GP Percussion, in order to re-design and produce an improved Dresden-style timpani.

The GP Percussion drum that Kite designed had a strengthened frame and several improvements in the mechanical aspects of the pedal, rocker arm, and spider – improvements designed to eliminate the problems of other Dresden-style drums. To Kite, no detail was too small for improvement. She even introduced wheels that had both rolling locks and swivel locks, so the drum could not move around when a timpanist changed pitches.

The more than thirty-five innovations (resulting in four US patents) that Kite designed included a support ring machined to precisely match the underneath side of the bowl lip -- thus making for a truly suspended bowl that was better connected to the frame, and giving the drum greater projection.

"I added a short lever arm," explains Kite. "It was added to the connection between the rocker arm and the spider that converts the arcing motion of the rocker arm into a straight vertical spider motion. As a result, the timpani head would never pull down off-center, and would remain cleared at all pitches."

She also designed a pedal that is easier to push down as it is moved to a higher pitch setting. Today, many of her innovations have been incorporated into drums made by other manufacturers (using their own new designs); in particular, designs that pull the head down perpendicular to the bearing edge throughout the entire range of motion, and a pedal that is easy to push for high
pitches. Kite's many design innovations for the timpani have been awarded the following four US Patents: US Patent # 4,635,524; US Patent #4,674,390; US Patent #4,730,531; and US Patent #4,831,912.

In 1984, GP Percussion became a sustaining member of PAS, and introduced their new timpani at PASIC'84 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. GP Percussion exhibited these timpani at later PASICs – up until 1992, when the company stopped manufacturing drums, after a decade that began in 1982.

"Working on the design and manufacture of the GP Percussion timpani was a challenging but very rewarding part of my career," says Kite." It is always extremely gratifying to hear atimpanist make music with an instrument that I designed and built. And I'm very happy to see that timpanists in the US and Germany are still performing with my drums today -- and that new models of timpani are being produced that incorporate my design ideas."

Solo Marimba Performance

"As part of my percussion studies with Charmaine Asher-Wiley," recalls Kite, "I studied the marimba techniques, literature, and sight reading that someone who wanted to become a marimba soloist would study. This was largely because Asher-Wiley had performed as a marimba soloist in the 1950s, after her graduation from Eastman and before her orchestral work. But I feel very fortunate to have developed a strong foundation in marimba performance because of my study with her."

As more literature became available for solo marimba (for example, "Two Mexican Dances" by Gordon Stout, and "Time for Marimba" by Minoru Miki), Kite learned as many compositions asshe could while also working as a timpanist and teacher. With the solo marimba literature, Kite says, "I really enjoyed the freedom to shape the entire interpretation of the music I was playing - unlike playing in an orchestra where the conductor shapes the interpretation, and where percussion and timpani are always in the accompaniment role. Because of my appreciation for that difference, I began playing solo marimba recitals in 1979."

Kite consistently worked to improve her performances, and by 1981 wanted to study with the most experienced marimba soloist she knew of, and that was the world-famous Keiko Abe. When Abe came to PASIC'81 in Indianapolis, Kite arranged to meet her in order to ask about studying with her, as well as taking a lesson during the convention. Because of this PASIC connection, Abe invited Kite to perform with her in a demonstration for the composition department at Indiana University School of Music on the Monday after the convention. They rehearsed together, and then Kite performed "Time for Marimba" by Minoru Miki, while Abe improvised over her playing, weaving a new melody and rhythms that provided an exciting expansion and counterpoint to the original music. During the demonstration, Abe provided a wonderful example of performance energy and musicianship, as well as her worldrenowned sound and dynamic range.

"Playing 'Time for Marimba' while Keiko improvised was a profound musical experience for me," says Kite. "She drew me into her musical energy and performance, and completely changed my understanding of what was musically possible with the marimba."

This experience led Kite to study with Abe for five weeks in Utrecht, Netherlands in 1985. And later on, to Kite's purchase of the new five-octave concert marimba, the Yamaha YM6000. It had been designed by Abe in conjunction with the Yamaha company, which subsequently manufactured them.

"I bought the YM6000 so I could play guitar music and the Cello Suites by J. S. Bach at pitch instead of transposing them," says Kite. " I loved the sound of my new instrument and especially the lowest octave. The first piece I learned that actually was written for the five-octave marimba was Abe's 'Dream of the Cherry Blossoms.' But because this instrument was brand new and there was almost no music written for it, commissioning and learning new works became an important part of my subsequent activity."

As Kite developed her solo performance career, her repertoire included music written for the marimba by American and Japanese composers, along with her own transcriptions of music originally written for the lute, classical guitar, and violin. Kite received a Fellowship from the Indiana Arts Council in 1988, and a Master Fellowship in 1992 for artistic excellence. This support of her work made possible Kite's debut solo marimba recording, Across Time (1993), which included her seminal recording of the "Chaconne in D Minor" by J. S. Bach.

"I performed as often as I could in all sorts of venues for all kinds of audiences," says Kite. " I even played in the Indiana State Parks concert series for two summers in some memorable settings. As more and more performing opportunities came my way, and I learned more repertoire, my professional focus shifted away from the timpani world to that of the marimba."

Since 1985, Kite has performed in solo recitals, percussion festivals, and new music festivals across the United States, as well as in Latin America, Europe, and Japan. In addition to her standard repertoire, her performances have included premieres of new compositions, including solo marimba works that she has commissioned – most notably: "Ilijash" by Nebojsa Zivkovic; "Recurrences" by Bruce Hamilton; "Circe" (for six mallets) by Evan Hause; and "Jazz Suite for Marimba" by Joan Griffth.

"I commissioned composers I knew to write music for me that filled a place in my programs," says Kite. "For example, 'Ilijash' -- perhaps my most successful commission -- gave me an exciting marimba setting of folk rhythms and melodies, and the 'Jazz Suite,' written by a jazz composer, gave me a great composition from this important American music genre."

Teaching the Next Generation

While Kite toured, she also kept up her teaching schedule, presenting clinics and coaching master classes in marimba performance. "I owe so much of who I am as an artist to those teachers whose influence has helped me grow and develop," Kite explains. "And I believe in sharing what I have learned about musicianship and the marimba with younger generations."

Kite's interest in percussion pedagogy -- and a concomitant interest in teaching private students -- began during the years of her undergraduate education. She took a two-semester course in percussion pedagogy at the Conservatory of Music, and, at the same time, was hired by the Conservatory as a member of the faculty for their preparatory program designed for students in both middle school and high school.

"The second semester of our class included supervised private lessons for five students from the conservatory's preparatory program," Kite explains. "I taught middle school and high school students how to play the snare drum, and it was challenging but also exciting to use the information and ideas I'd just learned -- and especially rewarding to see my students progressing so quickly."

Kite has maintained a private studio throughout her career, teaching young beginners as well as adult students, and she has taught at the university level, both undergraduate and graduate – from the master's to the doctoral level. She has held adjunct faculty member positions at a number of schools, including the University of Minnesota; the University of St. Thomas (St. Paul, Minnesota); and the University of Maryland at College Park.

Through her teaching experiences, Kite discovered a need for teaching materials in certain areas of the curriculum, as it related to the marimba. "The two biggest challenges I faced in teaching marimba in the early 1990s," says Kite, "were the lack of a method book for teaching drummers to read pitched music, and the lack of any recordings of the compositions my beginning marimba students were learning, so they could hear how the music should sound."

Kite conceived of two projects to make these necessary learning materials available to all students -- writing a method book for learning to read music, and recording and producing a professional, commercial CD of beginning marimba literature, her CD entitled Prism.

Kite researched how sight reading is taught on other instruments and how we learn to read (by listening to and learning sounds, then matching symbols with the sounds and recognizing patterns). She wrote etudes and tested her teaching methods for two years on students of all ages, including college freshmen who were taking lessons with her to make up their reading deficiency. It took two years of development to complete this project. But in 1994, her method book, Reading Mallet Percussion Music, was published, and it was immediately lauded by reviewers. Here are two of their comments:

"Rebecca Kite's Reading Mallet Percussion Music is an excellent book, well-written and organized for easy comprehension." -John Beck, Eastman School of Music (retired)

"Your two-mallet reading book is absolutely brilliant, and is now a required resource in my curriculum." -Kurt Gartner, Kansas State University Over the years, Kite's method book has been used by thousands of percussionists, both to learn to read pitched music, and to improve their sight reading skills.

In 1995, Kite rented time at Studio M at Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul to record her second CD of solo marimba music, Prism. This was the first commercial recording of beginning four-mallet marimba repertoire, and it included, among other pieces: "Yellow After the Rain" by Mitchell Peters; "Raindance" by Alice Gomez; "Monograph IV" by Richard Gipson; "Frogs" by Keiko Abe; and the "C Major Etude" by C.O. Musser.

The Prism recording was released in 1996, and immediately became a bestseller in the marimba world; it has since sold thousands of copies. Kite's performances quickly set the standard of musical interpretation for these important pedagogical compositions. And, even now, after sixteen years, Prism is still a bestseller, and is available through such mainstream Internet music sites as iTunes, Rhapsody, and CD Baby, and is regularly downloaded by people around the globe.

"I am happy that my teaching materials for reading and musicianship have been so well received," says Kite. "And that they are useful to percussion teachers and are fulfilling the goal I had in creating them, which was to help students become better musicians."

A Biography of Keiko Abe, Including the History of the Marimba

In early 2000, Kite began a six-year journey to document the pioneering career of the internationally known marimba virtuoso, Keiko Abe, as well as the history of the marimba – including its present evolution as the five-octave concert marimba (an evolution that Abe was instrumental in creating).

"I had learned about Keiko Abe's pioneering work as a marimbist in contemporary classical music from the large number of pieces that Japanese composers had written for her," says Kite. "Her performances were legendary -- she has incredible focus and energy -- and I knew from first-hand experience how unique the Yamaha YM6000 five octave marimba was.

"What I didn't know," Kite continues, "was the background story, or why and how Abe made these things happen. I wanted to document her work, since it is so important to marimbists all over the world, and has had such a huge impact."

A central part of Abe's legacy was the development of the five-octave concert marimba, as a result of her work with the Yamaha corporation. But as there were no scholarly works dedicated to the history of the concert marimba, Kite decided to include this as part of Abe's biography.

Kite conducted original research in order to find and document the facts about both Abe's career and the long history of the marimba and its musical instrument predecessors. "Using more than 350 bibliographic references," explains Kite, "and more than 50 hours of interviews -- including interviews of Abe and more than fifteen Japanese composers who wrote music for her, as well as interviews of Abe's colleagues and students, I then wrote this biography."

Keiko Abe -- A Virtuosic Life: Her Musical Career and the Evolution of the Concert Marimba tells the story of Keiko Abe's life and her dedication to transcendent musical performance. Performing around the world since 1977, Abe has inspired thousands of marimbists, percussionists, and audience members.

"I found through my interviews," says Kite, "that Keiko Abe had inspired many marimbists who then went on to major careers. They include Leigh Stevens, Gordon Stout, William Moersh, Nebojsa Zivcovic, Evelyn Glennie, Katarina Mycka, as well as many others."

Because of Kite's "labor of love" in conducting exhaustive research -- and turning her findings into both a unique work of scholarship, and the only full-scale biographical work capturing Abe's significance within the field of percussion music -- music lovers and dedicated marimbists have an opportunity to be inspired by Abe's personal story and her striving for excellence, as Kite herself had been.

"I worked very hard in doing original research to find and document the facts about the history of the marimba and its music," says Kite. "So I'm very gratified that my book is regarded highly within the academic community, and is being used as a text for Percussion Literature courses, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels."

Kite's biography is, actually, a "double first." Not only does it offer the first complete picture of Keiko Abe's many contributions, it offers the first history of the concert marimba. Kite documents the marimba's roots in the Asian and Eastern European xylophone, as well as in the African, and later the Central American, marimba traditions. And she details how composers grew into an understanding of the marimba as an instrument having its own voice, along with musical and technical characteristics distinct from its predecessor, the xylophone.

A translation into Japanese of Keiko Abe – A Virtuosic Life was published by Yamaha Music Media in Japan in 2011. And the book is currently being translated into Spanish in preparation for its 2013 publication by the University of Arts and Sciences in Chiapas, Mexico. A Chinese translation is also now in the planning stage.

"The response from percussionists and marimbists to my book has been overwhelmingly wonderful," says Kite. "I am so happy that I have been able to convey the spirit and essence of Abe's musical world, and I continue to receive messages like this one that recently came in from a graduate student in London: "I thank you for the incredible inspiration this book was for me. It really gave me a great insight into Keiko Abe and the marimba. The ideas about eastern philosophy and the impact of this on her music were of particular interest."

"The fact that my book is in the Library of Congress," says Kite, "and in academic and public libraries around the world, guarantees that my work -- and more importantly, Abe's artistic legacy -- will continue to inform, influence, and inspire readers for many, many years."

Percussive Arts Society

Kite's participation in PAS has, since 1969, been an important part of her career. As a student attending an early PAS event in Chicago, she was inspired by the Black Earth Percussion Ensemble, and by the groundbreaking four-mallet virtuosity of Gary Burton.

"Membership in PAS has been part of my career every step of the way," says Kite, "providing great opportunities for networking, hearing, and learning from great artists, and being inspired each year at PASIC."

As a timpani designer with GP Percussion, Kite discussed her instrument design innovations in the exhibit hall at the convention, each year -- from the debut of her new timpani at PASIC '84, through PASIC '91.

Kite served on the PAS Board of Directors from 1994 to 1997, and was a contributing editor of Percussive Notes from 1990 to 1996. In addition to editing articles contributed by other professional percussionists, Kite wrote seven articles of her own for the publication from 1992 to 2006 -- two of which were timpani related, and five of which related to the marimba.

"Percussive Notes is such an important resource in our community of students, teachers, and professional musicians," says Kite. "We learn from each other, share ideas, and inspire students throughout the entire year."

From 1992 to 1999, Kite actively participated in the WPN (World Percussion Network) committee, and helped build and maintain the original PAS BBS system and original Internet website. "This communication network began before web browsing existed," Kite explains, "and it connected percussionists from around the world and all parts of the United States in real-time chat, thus bringing us together in a way that was impossible before."

In 1997, Kite founded and chaired the Keyboard Committee, and she organized panel discussions featuring well-known marimbists for each PASIC over the course of five years.

Career Summary

"In these projects that I've taken on throughout my career," says Kite, "I have found problems to solve through instrument design, challenges in teaching that I could overcome by creating new materials and recordings, and the inspirational story of a great artist that I could make available to every percussionist, by researching and writing a book.

"All this was my way of giving back my ideas and creativity to the percussion community," Kite continues, "and to pass on what my teachers and colleagues have given to me, over the years, as they shared their approach to playing, their concepts and ideas, and their passion – while helping to shape who I am today."