Monday, October 2, 2006
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Accurate Reading On Mallet Keyboard Instruments by Al Payson
To attain any kind of note accuracy on a mallet-keyboard instrument “eyeball” the bars. This is not a problem when the music is memorized. But it is a problem when playing from a printed part.
There are generally two types of note errors in playing mallet-keyboard instruments (bells, xylophone, marimba and vibes). One is the incorrect reading of the notes: “Whoops! I hit the “E natural” again. When am I going to start remembering that in the key of “B flat” the “E” is supposed to be flatted?” The other type is manipulative: “Drat! Went for the high “F,” didn't think it was quite that far, and whacked the “E” instead.”
It is safe to say that on mallet-keyboard instruments most of the errors are the second type, particularly when playing from printed parts. There are primarily two reasons for this:
First, as opposed to virtually every other musical instrument, be it wind, string or piano, there is no sense of touch on mallet-keyboards, only a sense of direction. There are always mallets that keep the hands at least 8” away from the bars.
Second, the keyboards are not standardized, as follows.
• Bar widths vary from 7/8” to 2-1/2.”
• Bar widths might or might not vary from one end of the instrument to the other. Imagine playing a piano where the mid-range keys are a certain (non-standard) width, the low range keys are wider, and the high range keys are narrower!
• Bar layout on the Vibe is different than on the other mallet-keyboard instruments. On the bells, xylophone and marimba the “accidental” row of bars is higher than the “natural” row, and overlaps the “natural” row. On the Vibe, both rows are on the same horizontal plane, so of course they do not overlap. Thus the spatial “feel” on the Vibe is quite different. To attain any kind of note accuracy, particularly when going back and forth from one mallet-keyboard instrument to another, one must “eyeball” the bars. This is not a problem when the music is memorized. But it is a problem when playing from a printed part. If the player keeps his gaze on the printed part he can make a spatial error: “Oops! Didn't reach quite far enough for that high “F.” But if he looks down to make sure he strikes the right note, when he looks back up he can lose his place in the printed part: “Let's see, was I on the 3rd line or the 4th? And was it the 5th measure?”
What to do?
The answer is to look at both the printed part and the bars at the same time. This is accomplished through the use of peripheral vision.
Use of Peripheral Vision
This is not as difficult as one might imagine, as one does not have to be able to see the entire keyboard, only the back end of the accidental row of bars. This is how players locate notes on the natural row in any case. Without the accidental row we would be hard pressed to locate any note on the natural row. As on the piano, we quickly learn the “C” is just to the left of the group of two accidental notes, “D” is in between those two accidental notes, etc.
So a trained mallet-keyboard player looks at the accidental row out of his peripheral vision and uses that as a locator for all the notes in the natural row. Try this: place one of your hands one inch below the computer monitor screen, or printed page, as the case may be. Focus your gaze on this spot. Now at the same time look at your hand out of your peripheral vision. That's all there is to it!
Once a mallet-keyboard student gets in the habit of looking at his instrument out of his peripheral vision when playing from printed parts, his note accuracy will improve dramatically. It surprises some to learn that many students have already had training in this area. I once started explaining peripheral vision to a ten-year-old. I assumed that he had probably never even heard the word before. But he stopped me almost immediately by saying, “Oh, I already know about that. Our soccer coach has trained us to always keep our eyes on the other players and just look at the ball out of our peripheral vision.”
Now it's time to practice those scales to minimize note error, and you are on the way to a successful mallet career!
Al Payson is a retired percussionist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a position he held for 40 years, and is an elected member of the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame. He has many instructional materials in publication, including Beginning Snare Drum Method. This article was used with permission from the September 2006 Keynotes Magazine. It is a publication from Conn-Selmer.
Editor's Addendum -- Touch and Say...Then Play by Eric Matzat
While teaching, I had the luxury of teaching percussion students in a separate room. As we worked through our mallet exercises, we would use the system of "Touch and Say...then Play". Without mallets in our hands, we would touch the bars and say the note names of the music we were learning. This would reinforce the names of the notes and provide a tactile reference to the instrument. The students would then play as a group. If the class was struggling, I would have each student continue the "touch and say...then play" method while one student played with mallets. I could watch that "solo" student and correct any difficulties. Give it a try! Good luck!
Sir Malcolm Arnold Passes Away
British composer Sir Malcolm Arnold passed away on Saturday, September 23rd. He was 84 years old and had been suffering from a short illness.
CBC News: 1st British composer to win Oscar dies
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