“I have always loved music”
Rebecca grew up in a musical family and played the piano, violin, and drums. As a percussionist, she consistently won highest ratings at festivals and won All State positions in her junior and senior years of high school. In 1968, she won a scholarship and attended Kansas University’s six-week long Midwestern Music and Art Camp, playing in band and orchestra with weekly concerts.
“I fell in love with timpani and the sounds of a full orchestra. College and a career were on my mind – in 1968, the career choices for women were secretary, school teacher, nurse, or homemaker. None of these options interested me and after my orchestral music immersion experience at KU, I decided to pursue a career in music as a percussionist.”
The UMKC Conservatory of Music in Kansas City was Kite’s choice for college – with a large and excellent percussion program founded and directed by Charmaine Asher-Wiley. Asher had more than two decades of professional experience as a solo marimbist and orchestral percussionist:
“She was an experienced professional musician and an inspiring teacher. I learned how to be a professional performer from her, and, without realizing it at the time, to be a concert marimbist.”
Jazz-Rock Band Drummer
in 1973, Rebecca became the founding drummer of an all women’s band, Pandora. She and her friends spent six weeks after their May graduation from the Conservatory of Music rehearsing daily, and putting together fifty songs and arrangements to get started. Then they auditioned for and signed with Goldman-Dell Music Productions, then the biggest agency in Kansas City and began working in August. In addition to clubs, parties, corporate events, festivals, and weddings, their music was heard nationally on NPR’s Jazz Alive .
“We became very successful working full time covering Pop, R&B, Funk, and Rock tunes by Stevie Wonder, Carol King, The Doobie Brothers, Chicago, AWB, Joni Mitchell, Bette Midler, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Five, Sly the Family Stone, and even Jazz standards by Jobim, Gershwin, Brubeck, and more. We were one of the first all-women Jazz-Rock bands in this era, with perhaps only four or five others across the country.”
Timpanist and Percussionist
Rebecca continued to play classical music as timpanist of the Kansas City Civic Symphony and the Northland Symphony. Deciding to pursue her first love, playing timpani, she began traveling to Cleveland to study with Cloyd Duff (legendary timpanist of the Cleveland Orchestra). In 1975, she won a full teaching fellowship to attend graduate school at the Jacobs School of Music in Bloomington, Indiana.
“When I began grad school, I was surprised to be asked about my typing skills instead of about my two years of professional experience and what my professional goals were. I was also confronted with a lack of opportunities to prepare for orchestra auditions. Looking back, I realize that I was treated like the stereotype “girl on mallets” and was not taken seriously by the faculty. The biggest problem for me was being denied permission to practice on either of the two sets of professional Gunter Ringer timpani the school owned. These drums were reserved for the exclusive use of male students preparing for an orchestral career.”
Timpani Designer and Builder
After grad school, Rebecca’s early orchestra career included timpani positions with the National Symphony of Nicaragua, followed by the Owensboro Symphony and the Evansville Philharmonic. Preparation for auditioning for a higher paying position was difficult because she had no access to timpani for practicing. She decided to take on this problem in a very unique way – to build her own drums.
“I was working hard to support myself as I developed my music career. I really needed my own timpani so I could practice, prepare for auditions, and move forward. I decided to build my own drums with some changes and improvements in mind. As designing and building the drums progressed, in 1982, I founded GP Percussion, Inc. – Timpani Manufacturers.
My design work produced many improvements and was awarded four US Patents. Some of these design elements are still used today by other timpani manufacturers. We first offered our drums for sale at PASIC’84, with immediate success and continued to build timpani (including hand tuned historical reproductions) for about twelve years, with timpani sets sold across the US and in Germany.”
Finding My Musical Voice
While Rebecca continued to audition for an orchestra position, she also continued to face discrimination as a female timpanist, even winning an audition, yet not being hired for the job. She did everything possible to follow the normal route to a percussion career but was not able to make progress against the headwinds of misogyny. After an exceptional musical experience hearing marimbist Keiko Abe at PASIC 1981 and performing with her at Indiana University that weekend, Kite made a decision to change direction – to focus on the marimba.
“Abe’s artistry was stunning and beautiful. Her unique Yamaha marimba supported her huge dynamic range and her musical energy captivated the audience. Her repertoire was interesting and sophisticated. Her music was compelling and her performance level inspiring. I decided to become a concert marimbist with my destiny in my own hands – no one could stop me from performing as a soloist! I stopped practicing for auditions and started practicing the marimba with much more intensity and focus. I began playing concerts in the mid-west in both formal and informal settings like art galleries, library auditoriums, wine bars, book stores, and other places people would gather.”
Pioneering the Five Octave Marimba
Rebecca purchased her own marimba in 1974, a four-octave Deagan Model 40 Diana. It had a beautiful, resonant sound, but gradually, she wanted more sound for larger performance spaces and an extended bass range. She was looking for a new marimba for concertizing, when at PASIC 1984, she heard Keiko Abe perform the US premiere of both the Yamaha YM6000 and Minoru Miki’s composition Marimba Spiritual, celebrating the birth of the world’s first five-octave Concert Marimba.
“What an incredible, powerful sound this marimba had – a warm, beautiful tone with clear pitch and great projection! Jim Coffin from Yamaha announced from the stage that Yamaha was going to make five of these marimbas the next year and I vowed to myself to get one of them. My marimba came on Christmas Eve of 1985 – Serial #10!
I was overwhelmed by its responsiveness, long ringing tone, and clear sound. It was also so big – three feet longer and with much wider bars than any marimba I had ever played before! I realized immediately that a lot of work was ahead just to figure out what mallets would work and how my technique needed to change to get around the huge keyboard.”
World Class Concert Marimbist
In the following years, Kite was recognized by the Indiana Arts Commission in 1988 and 1992 for her pioneering work in developing the musicality of this new marimba with two artist fellowships . The beautiful and musically compelling results of her work are presented in her debut CD recording, Across Time, with compositions from each of the historical eras of classical music, including her seminal recording of JS Bach’s Chaconne in D minor:
“The most satisfying piece on the disc is Kite’s own transcription of the famous Bach D-Minor Chaconne. Here Kite’s pacing and building of the often complex variations are exemplary, and even though the central D-Major section of the work calls out for an instrument on which a true legato could be played, her voicing of the chords and her sensitivity to the musical line somehow make it work.” Richard Burke, Fanfare Magazine – The Magazine for Serious Record Collectors, November/December 1994
By the end of the 1980’s, the three strong threads of Rebecca’s career became clear: Free-lance percussion performance, Concert Marimba performance, and teaching. In 1992, the University of Minnesota School of Music hired her to teach marimba.
“I was surprised to find talented percussion students with very weak music reading skills and a lack of knowledge of basic music theory. These students needed to learn quickly and there were no teaching materials designed for them. I developed Reading Mallet Percussion Music for my students and, over the years, tens of thousands of percussionists have learned to read using this book.”
Inspiring Students and Teachers
The marimba world was changing rapidly by the mid 1990’s. Composers had started writing more and more compositions that beginning and intermediate marimbists were learning. Rebecca decided to record these works so students could hear how the music they were learning could sound, what a good marimba sound was like, and learn about musical interpretation. Her second CD Prism set the musical standards that have inspired generations of students and teachers.
“I felt this was a huge need in the available teaching methods and resources at that time and decided to invest in this project. Since it’s release in 1996, I have sold more than 2,000 CDs plus thousands of digital downloads and streams of selections from it every year since 2004. The biggest hit, of course, is Yellow After the Rain, which is continuing to be streamed daily around the globe.”
While many compositions for beginning four mallet marimba studies are based on repeated sticking patterns and basic chord tones, Rebecca has added repertoire from the historical eras of music, especially with melody, bass lines, inner voices, functional harmony, and standard forms. Her Anthology of Lute and Guitar Music for Marimba (2001) has become very popular because of its many compositions that are appropriate for solo and ensemble festivals and All-State auditions.
“It is so important for young percussionists to learn to hear functional harmony and to play melodically with good phrasing. I have always drawn on lute and classical guitar music for much of my teaching and I put my favorites into an anthology for others to use in teaching beginning four mallet marimba.”
Historian and Author
In 2000, Rebecca started another major project – researching and writing Keiko Abe’s biography, including the history of the concert marimba. This six-year project resulted in the book: Keiko Abe ~ A Virtuosic Life – Her Musical Career and the Evolution of the Concert Marimba.
“Keiko is such a giant in the marimba world – I am so honored that she agreed to work closely with me in documenting her career! Her performance is transcendent, her story is inspirational, and today’s 5.0 octave Concert Marimba exists only because of her musical imagination and vision.
This project was long and arduous with almost 100 hours of interviews, four trips to Japan, and hundreds of hours of writing. It is so rewarding when I hear from marimbists from around the world, like Taiwanese composer and marimbist Chin-Cheng Lin and the Twin-Cussion Duo, thanking me for researching and sharing Keiko Abe’s life story and telling me how much it has inspired them.”
© 2023 Rebecca Kite – All Rights Reserved