Why do percussionists struggle so much with sight-reading on mallet instruments compared to other band instruments? It’s simple really—distance! There is distance between your hands and the keys on the keyboard. There is distance between your eyes and your music. Unlike all other band instruments, the mallet player cannot actually feel the notes they are trying to play because there is a mallet in the way. There is also a relatively large distance between the eyes and the music because the instrument is in the way.
From the day we introduce our beginner percussionists to the world of mallet percussion, we should be teaching them to read and play at the same time. Your percussionists can and should be able to stand at the keyboard, mallets hovering over the keys, eyes on the music, feeling confident in their ability to hit the right notes without hesitation. Many percussionists never gain this confidence; instead, they rely on “methods of survival” such as writing in note names, watching neighbor’s hands, learning by rote, and most commonly, memorizing. This is why it is so important to establish healthy habits in the first few weeks of mallet percussion, and consistently reinforce healthy habits throughout their percussion careers.
Before actually stepping behind a keyboard instrument, percussionists must have a good understanding of the staff and the keyboard.
During the first few weeks of percussion class spend a few minutes each day discussing the notes on the staff. Using acronyms like “Every Good Burger Deserves Fries” is okay for a starting point, but be careful: you do not want students to be stuck counting lines and spaces for every note on the page! Drill note names to get past counting lines and spaces (on the whiteboard, with worksheets, etc), just like you would for all your other beginner band classes.
Spend a day discussing the keyboard. Give each student a blank copy of a keyboard and have them locate and label C and F. Have them fill in the rest of the white keys with the musical alphabet. Then take some time to explain sharps, flats, and naturals, even having them write out the definitions on their paper. Using the definitions you gave them, have them write in the note names on the accidentals.
Now take the paper to the instrument and discuss the note names on the instrument. Show students that moving up the musical staff is moving to the right on the keyboard. Moving down the musical staff is moving to the left on the keyboard. Show them middle C on the staff and the keyboard. For every note on the staff, there is only 1 correct note on the keyboard. An E on the top space of the treble clef staff does not equal any E on the keyboard. Since students are most likely sharing mallet instruments during class time and therefore playing in the incorrect octave, make sure that they understand this.
Have them locate a few notes, and take some time to check for individual understanding.
The Set Up
The clarinet player takes time to get the reed lined up just right on the mouthpiece; so too the percussionist should take time to get the music stand set up correctly before making a sound.
Each student should have their own music stand and music should be on the center of the stand. The stand should be as close to the keys to be played as possible. Why? Because we are going to use peripheral vision to look at the notes on the page and the bars on the keyboard. Have the students find the highest and lowest notes in the piece: have beginners place the right mallet on the highest note, the left mallet on the lowest note. Find the halfway point between the two notes, and line up the center of the stand with that halfway point. Next, lower the stand so that the bottom of the basket is hovering about an inch above the accidentals.
The Mechanics of Reading and Playing
Explain peripheral vision: your eyes are looking at the notes on the page and the bars on the keyboard at the same time. An occasional glance at the bars is okay, but your eyes should be on the music 95% of the time. Make sure students understand that even if the music is super easy and they don’t need to look at it in order to play the right notes, they have to. Yes, Mary Had a Little Lamb is easy to memorize, but this is just like learning to read a new language. Anyone can memorize an easy sentence in a book, anyone can memorize an easy line in a song. We are learning to read!
A few technique issues to watch for once we start reading and playing:
- Make sure students are using full piston strokes (down strokes are the enemy of good tone on marimba) with the mallet hovering above the key to be played, stopping and starting at the same point in the air.
- Tone should be open and round–you should not be able to hear the “tick” of the plastic core of the yarn-wrapped mallet hitting the bar. Listen and look for tension in fingers and palms.
- Playing spot is in the center of each key, above the resonator. Demonstrate bad tone at the node, good tone at the center of the bar. Picture an imaginary line across the center of each bar—that is what you are aiming for with each stroke.
- Explain that we shift our feet to the left and right to go up and down the keyboard. We don’t extend our arms to the left and right to make this happen, and we don’t cross our feet.
At First Glance
Students have already identified the highest and lowest notes. Point out time signature, key signature, and the first and last notes of the piece. Say note names with the metronome one measure at a time. Watch eyes and make sure eyes are moving across the page. Give students 15 seconds to find the notes on the keyboard with their fingers on their own. With the metronome on, have them touch and say the note names, eyes still on the music. Once everyone is comfortable, have them pick up mallets and play the song. Watch for eyes to scanning across the page from left to right.
The Dreaded Misfire
One of the biggest pitfalls that percussionists face when learning to read and play is a fear of hitting the wrong note. It is more important that students are reading the music than that they hit the right note. Aiming for the right note, and missing it, is okay when reading through a new piece of music. If students do not know this, they are more likely to write in note names or memorize notes instead of reading them. Even the best percussionists and mallet players miss notes when reading through a piece for the first time.
The Key to Success
The key to success for every percussionist learning to play the marimba is quite simple: individual practice time. Just like learning to read, each individual has to spend time working through the process on their own. Learning to read is not group work, it is entirely individual, and success in learning to read is directly related to how much time the individual spends reading and playing on the instrument. Got a high schooler still writing in notes names or memorizing one measure at a time? They most likely have not worked through this process on their own.
Another note: students most likely do not have a real marimba at home. They have a bell kit or a practice marimba—both are helpful, but they are not the real thing! Percussionists need as much time on the real instrument as possible—that is where they will perform, after all. No other instrument is asked to prepare on a “practice version” of their instrument. For this reason, it is really important to allow them some class time(even just 5 minutes a day!) to work individually on the instrument. You can use this time to monitor and discuss how to practice effectively and help individuals who need a little one-one-one guidance. Give it a shot, it makes a huge difference! If you feel uncomfortable with this idea, schedule practice times before and after school. Better yet, create a culture that allows (or even expects) percussionists to come grab an instrument before and after school to practice.
Click here to read Part 2 of this article.
A former teacher, Charlotte Breedlove was a middle school band director in Plano, TX and also taught privately in the area. She received a Bachelor of Music Degree from Southern Methodist University where she studied with Drew Lang, Jon Lee, and Doug Howard.