Fulcrum

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fulcrum – the point on which a lever pivots; a thing that plays an essential role in an activity (from Latin fulcire “to prop up”)

While the implements percussionists use—sticks and mallets and other kinds of beaters—are imperfect constructions, there are ways of holding these implements that feel closer to perfect. The key is finding the optimal fulcrum point along the length of the stick where you can grasp it between your thumb and index fingers and then—boom!—the stick magically becomes an elegant lever. As I wrote in my post Strike & Vibrate, the joy of percussive striking derives from the feeling that with a stick in hand you’ve become a complex and fluid arm-hand-finger contraption for getting objects vibrating. Finding the fulcrum is key to making this happen.

I was thinking about fulcrum points recently just before and then while playing marimba. As the song was about to start—we were about ten seconds out—I stood with mallets in hand and, without my thinking about it, my fingers were inching their way forwards from the back-end of the mallets towards their yarn heads. As my fingers walked and my hands gauged the changing weight distribution (marimba mallets are heavier on their mallet head ends), I became aware of what I was doing. I glanced down at my hands and realized that they had travelled a little more than halfway up the length of the mallets! In other words, my hands had, without my noticing it, gotten themselves to an optimal fulcrum point. As the piece began, I decided to experiment a little more by alternately holding the mallets even closer to their mallet head ends and then much further back. In each of these far from optimal fulcrum positions I lasted just a few seconds before my hands instinctively panicked and got the mallets back into the “right” position. What was interesting was the degree to which I felt my feel for the marimba was inseparable from my hands feeling good in their relationship to the mallets. My thoughts on the feel of fulcrum were reinforced a few days later when on separate days a sound engineer and another musician dropped by my instrument to say hello. On each occasion they picked up a mallet (fuzzy and soft) to strike the instrument (who doesn’t want at least one strike?!—and I never object) and each time the first thing I noticed was that they were holding the mallet too close to its end and thus there was no effortless fulcrum action happening. The mallet came down towards the marimba bars like a falling tower, and upon impact there was no optimal fulcrum point to cushion the blow, no hinge to counter the falling with a corresponding rebound move.

After these experiences I began to think more generally about fulcrums: Can we extrapolate outwards from this fundamental of drumming technique towards say, more general principles of creativity? Consider that another definition of fulcrum is something that plays an essential role in creative work by “propping” it up—by animating it in some way. While one’s instruments/equipment/gear/stuff is obviously part of this equation, in more conceptual terms a fulcrum can be thought about as a hinging balance point: between originality and derivative, between distance and proximity, between density and space, between belief and doubt, between effortless action or clunky effortfulness, and between intuitive adjustments and deliberate weighing. How one’s hands find the optimal fulcrum points along the marimba mallets becomes a metaphor for getting a feel for the up-down ergonomics of one’s own creative work. Fulcrums are a part of percussive technique that suggest that finding a balance point is the key not just for getting objects vibrating, but for handling the feels and flows of creative processes.

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