The Texas-based Stick duo Matt Rogers and Mark White have just released their second CD, Silk and Steel, their first as a trio with soprano vocalist Tabitha Chambers

feature and interview by Greg Howard

Tabitha Chambers, Matt Rogers and Mark White
photo by Cathy Catlett

Matt Rogers and Mark White, also known as the Stick duo "Heartstrings," play familiar classical, new age and original compositions. Performing at art fairs, clubs, weddings and "society gigs" keeps them very busy, but not too busy to record two CDs and a host of live YouTube videos. Their first release, Days Gone By, featured music by Vivaldi, Pachelbel, Beethoven, Kitaro, and Matt Rogers, among others. Matt and Mark craft lush interwoven arrangements, sharing the various lead and accompaniment roles between them, and even adding MIDI controlled synths to the mix. Their sound is like a gigantic guitar orchestra, but has a real intimacy as well.

For their new release, Silk and Steel, Heartstrings have added soprano vocalist Tabitha Chambers, expanding the already fantastic musical possibilities offered by four hands tapping on strings. Chambers contributes on several of the CDs nine tracks, broadening the material to include pop ballads like "Fields of Gold" and "Scarborough Fair".

They've recently brought the Alto Stick into the mix, further expanding their sonic palette.

I asked Matt and Mark about their collaboration and recent developments, and even "Stick Mom," Linda Rogers, chimed in (see the INTERVIEW below).


Greg: so how did the two of you get together? whose idea was it to start a Stick duo?

Mark: I came to Matt for guitar lessons about 8 years ago. Back then, Matt was playing Stick but mainly pursuing rock guitar in various bands. During a lesson, I saw the Stick sitting in the corner of the room and was completely transfixed by it. I asked Matt to show me how it worked. When he played it for me, my interest in guitar all but evaporated! He let me use his old ironwood 10-string while I saved up for my own instrument, a padauk 10-string that I got off of Ebay. It was practically untouched! I was on my way.

Matt: That's right. I actually tried to discourage him from learning the Stick at the time because I didn't feel qualified enough to teach him. Fortunately for both of us, Mark was relentless and hounded me about it until I gave in. Once I got him going with the rudiments, I was amazed by his progress. I was also seeing myself all over again; that feeling of knowing that you've found your vehicle and you're on your way to unlocking your true artistic potential. It was such a beautiful thing to see Mark light up inside like that.

As far as coming up with the duo concept, that was my idea. I have to admit, though, that teaching Mark really planted the seed in my mind. Hearing all of those strings overlapping and combining was the epiphany for me. We all know the beauty and depth that a solo Stick player has, but two of them tastefully working in harmony can be absolutely spellbinding.

Heartstrings performs Kitaro's "Bottom of the Sky"

Greg: So when you approach arranging your pieces for two Sticks, are there any patterns you see emerging - Each player occupying specific roles, for example? Or does it vary?

Mark: Well, I have the midi on my instrument so I'm the default synth man. A blessing and a curse! If a song needs orchestal parts, I play them with the GK pickup and cover the low bass roots, sometimes breaking out for an occaisional harmony or solo. A good example of this is "Canon in D", which finds me switching back and forth from synth to harmonies very quickly.

Matt: This is our main formula for a song that needs synth. While Mark is covering the low bass and synth, I take the high bass chords and main melody.

We have discovered a few strategies for arranging Stick duets that work really well for us. One scenario would be where one of us plays two-handed arpeggios in the mid-range, while the other plays the bass and the main melody. A sort of "layered" approach, if you will. We did this on "China Roses" and "Unchained Melody". Another approach would be me playing high bass chords and the main melody, while Mark harmonizes the main melody and covers the lows. A good example of this would be our version of "Secret Garden" or "My Ain True Love". Then there are classical pieces such as "Concerto in G" by Vivaldi that are already written for two instruments, so the work is already done for us :) . Rarely, if ever, do we play the same thing in either hand. When it come to the vocal pieces, however, we have to change our entire way of thinking. More supportive than "front and center"

Greg: When you are making an arrangement for the two of you to play, what do you use for your source material, piano music? recordings?

Mark: If I can hear the song just once, then I have a good blueprint in my mind as to what I need to do. The Stick has always felt so intuitive to me, and it has made learning music very intuitive, as well.

Matt: I used to use piano sheet music in the early days, but it just doesn't seem to be necessary anymore. I'll have the song down in half the time it would take to drive to the music store.

Greg: Stick duos are pretty rare but they're not without precedent. Did you listen to any other Stick ensembles for ideas, like Splendore?

Matt: I've only heard a couple of their songs, but I liked them very much. Virna has a very unique style. They are successful at combining the two Sticks and somehow still leaving a lot of nice "breathing room" in the song. This is the primary obstacle in arranging Stick duets; serving up the instruments without cluttering the song with too many notes.

Greg: So are you finding that the Alto fits int to that need as far as range goes? how about sonically?

Matt: Most definitely! I almost always played the high bass chords and main melody on my Grand, often chording near or past the octave point of the instrument. Even with all the ergonomics that a standard Stick has, it can be uncomfortable to be playing that high all of the time. I had hoped that the Alto would come to my rescue in this application, and it absolutely has. All of those high reaches are now right in the middle of the board on the Alto. Sonically, it has provided a beautiful texture against the lows of the Grand and Mark's synth melody. Even if playing an identical note as the Grand, the Alto just seems to have a built-in shimmer to it. Mine has the ACTV2, which works well with Mark's Stickup-equipped Grand. You can really tell us apart now! So now we seem to have found our formula: Grand with midi, Alto, and vocals. As Emmett would say, you get more than the sum total of the parts.

Silk & Steel

Heartstrings' 2008 CD,
now available from Stick Enterprises

track list:

"Up from the Ashes" (Rogers)
"My Ain True Love" (Krauss/Sting
"Widow of a Living Man" (Harper)
"Fields of Gold" (Sting)
"Awakening" (Rogers)
"If You Want Me" (Marketa Irglova and
    Glen Hansard)
"Scarborough Fair" (English Trad.)
"Put Out the Lights" (Telfer/Prosser)
"Emerald Mist" (based on "Shi Beg Shi Mhor")
Greg: You've recently addd Tabitha as a vocalist. How does that change your approach?

Matt: It's a whole new ballgame, arrangement-wise, with Tabitha singing. We've been so accustomed to making our Sticks take up as much room as possible; now I'm learning how to be more of a supportive player. The lead vocal occupies the biggest part of the mix, and you have to give it the room it needs. With the melody being taken by the singer, I was kind of lost at first. Stickists are so used to presenting the melody and accompanying themselves. With that part of the equation gone, it forces you to use your instrument in different ways. You have less space to fill, so the notes you chose are that much more precious.

Mark: It was a great lesson for me. It helped me focus more on rhythmic ideas, and my fills got a lot stronger. You don't get many opportunities to play licks in between vocal lines, so you really learn to make your statements count. This was all a very daunting task; mixing two Chapman Sticks and a big lead vocal. I'm proud of how it came out, and very excited for the possibilities, this being our first try.

Greg: What kinds of things are you working on, new songs, for example? your YouTube videos are really a strong presentation. Are you going to make a live DVD (I think this is the way to go...:)

Mark: Funny you should mention this. Tabitha suggested just recently that we should do a live video. We play some really beautiful venues, so the setting would be perfect. The visual aspect tells the true story of what's going on with the Stick, and makes for a very engaging experience for the listener. This is definitely at the top of our list.

Matt: As far as the music goes, we're really getting to know each other well as a trio and we're starting to hit our creative stride. Our first CD was about getting a niche in the industry as two Stickists playing elegant duets at upscale events and festivals. It was our way of breaking into the world of playing music for a living. Now that we have that foothold and leverage, we can focus much more on original material and solidifying our style. Our direction seems to be celtic and new age with more of a drive to it. Big and melodic, first and last.

Here's one last question (for Stick Mom):

Greg: You've gotten a lot of moral support from your Mom along the way, what does she have to say about how things have developed?

Linda Rogers (aka "Stick Mom"): There is a Stick Mom and a Stick Dad (sounds like little cartoon characters).. We love the direction Matt has taken his very inspired playing. I believe he's created something unique - Heartstrings with two harmonizing Stick players and one angelic soprano voice. This has given him an opportunity to explore songwriting, arranging, and recording in layers after the "pieces" are done. Being mostly Irish family, of course we love the celtic and bluegrass elements but love the old romantic songs that broke our hearts during the 60's and 70's. As Matt's parents and biggest fans, we love to see Heartstrings' success at juried art shows, weddings, special occasions and are grateful that he's been able to create a niche with this special sound. Matt is fortunate to have Mark White as his partner Stickist as Mark is devoted to the music and the Stick from his heart, as is Matt. Then, the Universe smiled on the boys and brought them Tabitha Chambers, whose sweet, strong voice takes great lyrics and simply shreds your heart. The beauty of blending two Sticks is in itself a wondrous thing, and then with Tabitha their trio is a sparkling, rich, layered tapestry of emotional and delicious sounds. This all began with Matt's magnificent obsession with the Stick (thanks always to Emmett and Yuta).

Greg (question for Matt): How has her support influenced this process for you?

Matt: What do you say to something like that? I've always had a special relationship with my parents; they have been and always will be my best friends. Ever since I fell in love with music as a child, they have taken every conceivable action to help me achieve my dreams. They saw me light up inside when I discovered music, and gave of themselves to keep that fire burning. Not every person has parents that support their child's dream of being a musician; I consider myself blessed to have a family that believes so strongly in me. Of the many joys I try to express through my music, the joy of having my mother and father in my life is one of the greatest.

Thanks to Linda and Steve Rogers, Emmett and Yuta Chapman, the crew at Stick Enterprises, and to you, Greg, for this tremendous honor.

Greg: A pleasure, and thanks for all the great Stick music.