Traveling to the beat of a different drum mallet

Traveling to the beat of a different drum mallet

When Justin McConchie attended the Texas Music Educators Association conference in February, he made a point to visit American Drum’s booth. There was a certain set of marimba mallets he wanted to check out: the David Chung Tribute Series.

McConchie, who graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2013, immediately messaged his friend and former classmate Chung, excited to finally get to see and hold the mallets in person.  

“Getting a signature series of mallets is usually reserved for professionals who have a well-established career,” said McConchie, who will graduate this semester from the University of Texas at Austin with a master's degree in percussion performance. “I think the fact that David has had this opportunity at such a young age speaks to how much he has already accomplished and what kinds of great things are in his future.”

Chung, who graduates this weekend with a degree in music education from the VCU School of the Arts, didn’t set out to design his own mallet. And he certainly didn’t realize his design would become a series named after him.

The story of the David Chung Tribute Series starts three years ago when Chung was a freshman, taking area freelance gigs, playing anything he could find.  

“I get a call from a friend [coincidentally, it was McConchie] who said he couldn’t do this gig, and the guy sounded pretty cool,” Chung said. “So I took the gig and I ended up playing xylophone with the Richmond Concert Band … It was ‘Hava Nagila.’”

(It was also “hilarious,” he added.)

The cool guy who arranged the gig turned out to be George F. Jacob Sr., president of American Drum, a Richmond-based manufacturer of drumsticks and mallets. Jacob, who graduated from VCU’s music department in 1968 as part of the last Richmond Professional Institute class, liked Chung right off the bat.

“He’s a very, very fine young man,” Jacob said. “We were practicing the xylophone part and I taught him how to do the hand drum routine as well.”

Chung already owned some American Drum mallets before meeting Jacob, but was surprised to learn it was a Richmond-based company.

“I fell in love with these mallets,” Chung said. “No one makes anything like this. And he gave me a bunch of stuff. He gave me some xylophone mallets — just for playing with him. He gave me a drum too. Just all of this awesome stuff. And I was expecting a free gig — like I wasn’t getting paid for it and I wasn’t expecting anything out of it. I took it so I could meet people but he gave me a bunch of free stuff.”

The two kept in touch over the years, playing a couple more gigs together. Jacob invited Chung to the shop to see how it worked.

“I love it, it’s awesome,” Chung said. “It’s really cool to see how everything works because I own hundreds of mallets so it’s really cool to see the process behind it.”

Creating a mallet is more complicated than the layperson would think, Jacob said, comparing it to the much-beloved Mr. Potato Head.  

“I tell people, we have all types of round balls, different diameters, different hardnesses, different colors,” Jacob said. “Some are plastic, some are rubber, some are wood. [It’s like] all different kinds of Mr. Potato Head noses and mustaches and ears and everything else.”

While Chung loves American Drum mallets, he also owns other brands, which made Jacob curious. He asked Chung why he bought the other brands and what he would like to see in American Drum products.

“I said, ‘David, if we were to develop four mallets, what would you like for them to be?’” Jacob said. “So we started making mallets, and ripping them apart and making them and ripping them apart. Because he’s enough of a virtuoso, that he knows what he wants. [Like a driver,] he’s been racing cars long enough to know what kind of tires he wants to drive on.”

It was Chung’s chance to make his perfect pair of mallets. Like Goldilocks with her porridge, if a mallet was too hard or too soft, they would start over until they got it just right.  

“We spent about a week — it was right around Christmas time — we spent a week in the shop, just putting together a bunch of different things,” Chung said. “And he had shown me this awesome material, carbon fiber, and I really liked it. I really, really, really liked it. So I kept asking about the carbon fiber. Eventually, we put them on the carbon fiber shafts.”

The carbon fiber shafts are expensive, but no one else makes marimba mallets out of it. And while it’s rare for the no fuss, no muss Jacob to develop a new product — his mallets come in chocolate, vanilla and strawberry, he says, and he’s not one to come up with something new just for the sake of coming up with something new — he wanted to try something with the carbon fiber. He was worried the relatively rough texture would bother Chung or cause blisters, but Chung loved it.

“I have a marimba here and he would test them out and they would sound fantastic,” Jacob said. “Then he would go back home and go downstairs in the bowels of the music department where the practice room is and play on this gorgeous Yamaha marimba they have down there. And it sounds like a pipe organ in a cavern. It’s just gorgeous.

“As far as I’m concerned we have a perfect pair of mallets. Now do other mallet companies have mallets as good? Of course. Most of them are all good.”

Jacob doesn’t usually put someone’s name on his mallets, but he wanted to do something special for Chung, whom he calls an outstanding musician whose interest in the mallet-making process impressed him.  

At this point, Chung still had no idea the series would be named for him. He merely thought creating the mallets was part of American Drum’s exemplary customer service.  

“I thought we were just making mallets that I would like,” he said. “‘Cause that’s what’s cool about a local company is that they can pay attention so much to their customer. Like one customer. So I thought he was just making me mallets and then he told me that he was going to make a series of them, with my name.

“It was awesome. I thanked him and thanked him again and kept thanking him. It was really cool, just really, really awesome. Really cool. These are pretty awesome. I’m going to be playing on these for a very long time. You can still use other mallets for other things; there couldn’t be a perfect mallet ever, but these are exactly what I want, so it’s really cool.”


Feature image at top:
David Chung, right, with George F. Jacob Sr., and mallets from the David Chung Tribute Series.

 

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