How many times have you stepped up to the marimba to work on a passage and it seems like you have never seen the music before even though you spent hours practicing the day before? Well guess what? This happens to everyone including me. It is frustrating and makes you want to throw your mallets across the room. If this sounds familiar, I want you to start incorporating block chords into your practice routine.

If you think about it, we use block chords in our warm up routine (or at least you should be). Block chords allow us to warm up our big muscle groups and work on accuracy. So why do we only use them in warm ups? Here’s are some tips on how to use them on your next difficult marimba and/or vibraphone piece.

I have been working on Vignettes by James M. Stephenson for an upcoming recital with trumpeter Rob Frear. (BTW, this is a great piece if you are looking for some material for an upcoming recital. Thanks to everyone on FaceBook who recommended the piece to me this summer.) In Movement 6, titled Leandro Perpetuo, the entire movement is 16th notes. It is written in Perpetual Motion form (a fast instrumental passage made up of equal length notes) and with all of the leaps and chromaticism, it is very challenging for the percussionist. Measure 3 & 4 look like this:


Music Example No. 1 – Measures 3-4: Vignettes by James M. Stephenson

The issue is that the movement is marked quarter note = 116. I have been struggling with this the past week and today, I decided to use block chords to help me learn this section. I took measures 3 & 4 and turned them into block chords, like this:


Music Example No. 2 – Applying Block Chords to Measures 3-4: Vignettes by James M. Stephenson

Viola! It worked like a charm. I was able to increase my accuracy and speed immediately. Why? By using the block chords, I was able to check the position of my hands and practice moving from one chord to the next. I can also start to make decisions about where I am going to be striking the bar. If the passage is easier, you could do a smaller amount of repetitions.

Practice this slowly and be deliberate about your movements. Hopefully you will find that this helps to create the muscle memory that is required to play music example #1.

Have a great week and let me know how you are using block chords in your practice sessions. Leave your comments below.


Originally posted on on September 14, 2014.

The photo in this post is used with permission from Yamaha.

Dave Gerhart
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