Today we feature an article from Ted Rounds.
I use what I call a full stroke as the basic motion. Regardless of the stick height, the beginning and the end of the stroke are the same location in space and that location is the apex. For a thorough description of the full stroke, refer to the Method of Movement for Marimba by Leigh Howard Stevens. Stevens also refers to this stroke and its application as the “piston stroke,” an analogy that suffices, but that I do not use for insignificant reasons. (Please don’t ask me why). The full stroke has at least a couple of major components: the downstroke, and the upstroke. They can be varied in direct or inverse proportion to each other resulting in what can be characterized as less than full strokes and they have various applications. A sound that is produced by using more downstroke than upstroke is a preparation for a sound at a lower dynamic level. Conversely, a sound that is produced with a short downstroke followed by a larger upstroke is a preparation for a sound with a higher dynamic level. However, by definition, a downstroke without a consequent upstroke is a dead stroke. An upstroke without an antecedent downstroke is the sound of one hand clapping.
I do not subscribe to the notion of always playing with only the wrists or allowing the forearms to dominate either. What is needed for a large dynamic range and superior control without fatigue is as much range of motion as the player can develop. I practice several combinations of wrist and forearm motions. (Strokes generated by the fingers alone are difficult to compare in Stevens grip because the inner and outer sticks are held so differently from each other. Since what follows is applicable to several techniques, I will save the subject of isolated finger motion for another article).
My warm up usually consists of playing a series of double stops (or double verticals) at a tempo that requires a cyclic repetition: fast enough to prevent a noticeable stop at the apex of the stroke. The exercise is contained in my book, Mallet Keyboard Exercises, an application of the Four Basic Strokes. Without undue regard to volume but in complete regard to the metronome, I start by isolating the wrist motion by keeping my hands low and the forearms “quiet.” I try to keep the stick velocity (volume) moderate so the stroke doesn’t seem to be motionless at the apex. This provides a predictable and repeatable motion. After many repetitions, I gradually raise the level of my hands until the angle of the attack is no longer parallel to the bars, but is rather steep, utilizing the full range of motion my wrist has to offer. Then I reverse the process until my hands are low again. When you try this, pay careful attention to the timbres produced by the changing angle of attack. I also perform this part exercise at relatively low volume levels, especially during a warm up. As a matter of fact, I work on increasing the volume level by playing at faster tempos rather than just trying to play louder. Discerning higher volume levels is very subjective. If the stroke has fluidity (smooth transitions between cycles) increased tempo should have a direct affect on stick velocity and volume if the stick height remains constant.
There is no sense in practicing to become the sloppiest player who can also play the loudest, so hit the right notes. But if you never learn to use your forearms, you will join the “mezzo piano club,” whose only recourse for playing louder is by using crappy sounding sticks
Next, I isolate the motion of the forearm beginning with my hands in the lower position. All motion is generated by the forearm. The wrist has to remain very flexible because the larger muscle groups of the forearm make them a bit more unwieldy, and a stiff wrist will get sore and cause dead strokes. If you are having trouble executing this motion set your sticks down and try this: grasp your right forearm with your left hand and use your left hand to shake your right arm allowing the right wrist to move freely. As an aside, notice how well this works if your fingers are also loose. Now make a clenched fist out of your right hand and notice how your wrist cannot move freely. Back to the exercise.
As before, increase the degree to which you raise your forearm while keeping your wrist as loose as possible. To allow the mallet heads to make contact with the bars at a steeper angle, you will need to begin the upstroke with your forearm as the mallet heads are continuing their downward motion. As you will have a huge range of motion available, be careful not to damage your instrument. Reverse the process until the height of your stroke is where you started and begin using only your wrists again. With practice, the forearm generated stroke is repeatable and depending on your hand to eye coordination, is predictable as well. There is no sense in practicing to become the sloppiest player who can also play the loudest, so hit the right notes. But if you never learn to use your forearms, you will join the “mezzo piano club,” whose only recourse for playing louder is by using crappy sounding sticks.
As you can imagine, producing more stick velocity using the isolated motion of the wrist, and exercising more control using the forearm stroke are two abilities that must overlap. I accomplish this overlapping of skills by playing wide ranges of tempi. Faster rates of repetition often result in greater stick velocity and hence, more volume. The inverse is true for slower rates of speed. Adding variable dynamics to the exercise helps the two techniques to overlap. I also work on accent patterns with the isolation procedure as well as incorporating various amounts of extra stick height using the forearm.
This exercise is also useful in achieving greater facility of the other strokes: single independents, laterals, and alternating, although with the alternating stroke, the use of the forearm is generally superfluous except for adding accents. However, do not overlook the importance of varying the hand height when working on the alternating stroke.
This is all geared toward increasing flexibility and range of motion which also translates into increased strength and improved control. Having increased control over the dynamic range provided by both wrist and forearm motions is how a player can achieve consistency of volume in a given context. Consistency of volume in a given context is my first premise for achieving good tone. I almost always qualify that definition to include consistency of placement (hit the spot on the bar you are aiming for) and using sticks with sufficient mass to produce plenty of fundamental, and not so hard so the marimba sounds like a xylophone. Loud is not the same as harsh. Harsh can be “too loud for too long,” or the effect of overplaying the instrument, which usually ends up as broken bars.
To me, sticks that are too hard create a harsh sound. Sticks that are too soft are just “poofy,” and sticks with too much yarn are “thuddy.” Either may work in limited pitch ranges and in limited dynamic ranges. I rarely use sticks with graduated hardness as a set, i.e. soft in #1 position, medium soft in #2, medium hard in #3, and hard in #4. It’s not an inherently bad idea, just cumbersome in most situations. If the piece uses a texture that calls for the bass to be separate from the other voices consistently, I might be inclined to use a softer stick in the #1 position. In most cases, I would prefer to try to control the dynamics with a uniform set of sticks. By the way, you may have noticed that I use the term “sticks” instead of “mallets.” There is no particular reason- no big deal either way.
Speaking of thuddy sound and placement, notice how much more extraneous noise of the rails and frame are produced when playing out on the ends of the black notes. That particular part of the bar also produces a different harmonic spectrum than anywhere else you can play. Still a usable sound, and often a necessary concession the player must make to facilitate particular passages. However, when it is practical, I aim for the same placement on the black notes as I do on the white notes: somewhere between the strings. (OK, OK, the nodes.) This adds another opportunity to observe the stick height and angle of attack: when going from white notes to black notes and vice versa.
Another difficult concept to reconcile with consistent tone is “playing below the surface of the instrument.” This is a very useful idea to students of the martial arts when attempting to break boards, but pine is considerably less expensive than rosewood. If this concept is useful to you, by all means embrace it. There are other Zen-like ideas that seem more applicable to me, but they always seem to make more sense while imbibing in libations.
The instrument I play on is a bit lower in comparison to my height than many players prefer because I do not play with my hands as low to the keyboard as others. Therefore, my “middle of the road” stroke has a steeper angle of attack than those who position the instrument to facilitate the sticks being parallel to the surface of the keyboard. I prefer to achieve this slightly steeper angle without having to raise my shoulders and still have a wider range of forearm motion when necessary. I can still execute “flat stick” strokes, but it is by design rather than by default. This also makes it easier to play much higher on the mallet heads when necessary. To some, I may appear to be using more stick height than is necessary, and to some extent that may be true. I like to think of a neutral rest position with the mallet heads an inch or so off the keyboard. (Obviously, a completely relaxed position would be with my arms extended at my side, but I can’t play from there). In the “neutral” position the distance of the inch between the mallet heads and the keyboard is easily traversed by residual motion (gravity and inertia) as the muscles begin the upstroke portion of the cycle. As that return motion is begun, there is a natural spring-like action as the wrist approaches the end of its available range. This helps in returning to the apex of the stroke. Is this “the only way to play?” No, but it does make use of several muscle groups working together. When I play a drum with a stick, I prefer to do half the work: I do the downstroke, the drum and the stick do the upstroke. That doesn’t work as well on the marimba, so I need to find another way to do less work during the upstroke. Especially since the center of gravity in a marimba stick is almost totally located in the mallet head. I should add that the mass of the sticks I use is heavier than average. If the neutral position puts the sticks parallel with the keyboard (flat stick position), the range of motion available to the wrist is considerably less, so the dynamic range is limited to the stick velocity generated by a short stroke.
If the main controllable component of our sound is volume, then it is the consistency with which we execute predictable and repeatable strokes that produces the overall effect of good tone.
Experienced players are able to create considerable velocity with very low stick height and this is a necessary skill to play quickly at higher volume. Greater stick height means faster passages are going to be more difficult to execute. The exercise I described at the beginning of this article can help to develop these skills, but in my own playing, I “hit the wall” soon if my forearms are too low for my wrists to recoil. In order to generate a great deal of velocity with lower stick height, the contributing muscles (in this case, mostly wrist muscles) must contract very quickly and release in time for their counterparts to lift the sticks. It is an exercise in timing that if not executed properly can result in dead sticking. If nothing else, all the muscles of the wrist- the “down” muscles, and the “up” muscles are almost in a perpetual state of contraction. This is doable, but can result in a great deal of tension. Only careful practice will get you “over the wall.”
If the main controllable component of our sound is volume, then it is the consistency with which we execute predictable and repeatable strokes that produces the overall effect of good tone. It only makes sense that the player should concentrate on expanding the dynamic range at his/her disposal. It is in the creative use of dynamics to shape a phrase and the creative use of time and rhythm that makes for musicality. I have barely touched on the subject of alternative placement: using parts of the bar other than the “sweet spot” to contribute to palette of timbres we can produce.
Strive for fluidity of motion. Observe extraneous motion: is it counterproductive, or is it a natural result of playing expressively? Work toward efficiency and conservation of energy. That doesn’t mean moving like that robot dance they did in the 1980s. It also doesn’t mean confining yourself to only four inches of stick height (are you listening mezzo piano club?). Quit worrying about how many milliseconds your sticks are on the bar. Hit the damn thing and then get out of its way. See if you can hit it a hundred times the same way. Experience gravity and inertia. Increase your dynamic range at both extremes. Explore crescendo and diminuendo. Discover the optimum speed to roll at various volume levels. Discover when not to roll. Learn to play for recreation. Play in the dark. For sure, play in front of a video camera. Record your playing with decent equipment, and listen critically. Listen non-critically. Pay attention to your teachers, but ask them lots of questions. Get your own answers and revisit them later. Be prepared to change your mind, and it’s OK to sit on the fence and watch others battle it out. It’s silly to battle over this anyway.
Thanks Ted! So many thought provoking ideas here. Which ones interest you? Please leave your thoughts below the post.
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