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The challenge of sight reading on marimba, xylophone, vibraphone or bells

When it comes to sight reading, no instrument poses a greater challenge than the mallet instrument.

Brass and wind players, with their instruments’ valves or keys at their fingertips, readily sight read without ever having to take their eyes off the music. But performers on all the mallet instruments - marimba, xylophone, vibraphone and orchestra bells - have no direct physical contact with their instruments. They are expected to focus on music perched on a stand above and beyond the keyboard in front of them, and then maneuver mallets – which further distance them from the instrument – like precision guided missiles seeking bars laid out somewhere below them and out of sight.

Try it sometime. While sight reading on any instrument presents the challenge of instantly recognizing what a note is, mallet players have the added difficulty of locating where it is.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that beginning percussionists find it next to impossible to keep their eyes on the music. Sadly, when the parts become more difficult, and students find that they can’t keep up with the rest of the class because they have to memorize music in order to play it, they give up playing mallets altogether. But there are a few important points that will help guide your students to success in reading on mallet instruments (and leave you with at least one musician to play those vibe or xylophone parts that add so much colour to the score).

Peripheral vision and positioning the music stand and music

Most importantly, the stand must be placed so that the instrumentalist can most easily see the keyboard using peripheral vision.

First, your students must determine the range of their part, then they must place their stand in the middle of that range. So, if their xylophone part goes from a “middle c” to the “g” a perfect fifth above, the stand should be moved to the lower end of the instrument and the music centered in front of the “e”. If the range extends from the “middle c” to the “g”, an octave-and-a-half higher, the music should be centered around the “a” or ”b” above “middle c”.

With the music in the right place, the stand should be lowered as much as possible so that the bottom of the desk is just above the keyboard. Once that is done, flatten the angle by turning the desk slightly outward. The music is now in the optimal position to be read using peripheral vision.

Have your students play parts slowly. If they keep their eyes on the music, they will nevertheless be able to see the far ends of the “black” keys, and from there gauge where the other notes are. Keep in mind that there are certain intervallic leaps that would challenge even the most seasoned professionals, and there are times, particularly when playing on instruments with larger keyboards, when it’s okay to look down.

The importance of hand position

But another point – and one that is largely overlooked – must be observed in order to read accurately on mallet instruments: your students must keep the angle of the hand and wrist consistent as the mallet moves up and down the keyboard. By changing the angle of the wrist – and consequently the angle of the shaft of the stick – the head of the mallet shifts substantially. Without a consistent sense of where the ball of the mallet is situated, reading accuracy suffers. To illustrate what happens, let’s try playing a “c” scale.

First, make sure you start off with a good hand position. Let’s just use the right hand for this exercise. Standing with the ball of the mallet directly in front of you, and with your arm relaxed, place the ball of the mallet on “middle c”. The shaft of the stick should be under the palm, the thumb and index finger should provide a fulcrum, and the wrist should be flat. Keep the shaft of the stick at roughly a 45-degree angle. Now begin playing the scale, noting what happens to your wrist position as you play. You will see that it is quite easy, as your hand moves up the scale and away from your body, to pull the elbow in and shift the wrist so that the thumb turns up instead of remaining down and to the side.

Now, let’s check what happens to the ball of the stick when this relatively slight movement of the wrist comes into play.

Place the mallet on the middle “c” again. Now, just pull in your elbow slightly and turn your wrist so that the thumb now faces up and the top of your hand faces to the side. See what happens to the ball of the stick? It moves into place above the “d”. By turning the wrist, you greatly compromise the accuracy of the stroke.

Sure – there will be times when the hand position changes, but for the most part, make sure your students keep the wrist consistently flat, with the mallet as close to a 45-degree angle as possible. The elbow should not move in. To facilitate this, your percussionists will have to shift their bodies to the left when playing down the instrument and to the right when playing up the instrument, with the weight shifting to the left or right leg. With larger instruments, they may have to take steps up and down the length of the instrument in order to keep the ball of the stick positioned in front of their body.

It is not uncommon to see the wrists and arm position move significantly even over a very short range of notes. But with that wrist position “locked in” as much as possible, your students playing will benefit greatly in terms of both accuracy and confidence.

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