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Marimba Ensemble Techniques

INTRODUCTION
The "missing link" in percussion education programs on the high school and collegiate level, is the lack of a chamber music experience, one player to a part, UN-conducted. Percussionists need to balance their rhythmic weighted literature with an equal melodic/harmonic challenge to grow as musicians with a method comparable to string players playing their quartet literature. Playing transcriptions of music from the orchestra/opera/solo repertoire, from "classics" to "pops", provides opportunities to develop stylistic awareness and interpretive insights as well as personal music expression. In the following GUIDE FOR MARIMBA ENSEMBLE CHAMBER MUSIC, the technical intricacies and logistics involved are presented to assist in fulfilling the above stated goals.

 

INSTRUMENTATION
Three marimbas, each at least four octaves, "C" to "C"

One marimba, 4.5 to 5 octaves
One Xylophone, at least 3 1/2 octaves, "C" down to "G" or "F"
String Bass (with low "C" extension)
Other percussion instruments as needed

 

NUMBER OF PLAYERS

Seven:     five marimba players (player I and V play on the same instrument)
                one xylophonist
                one string bass player
        
POSITION OF INSTRUMENTS

 

 

MALLET DIVERSITY
Each player must have the appropriate rubber, yarn and specialty mallets as needed. Each player should have a mallet bag attached to their instrument. In complicated/fast change situations, an auxiliary tray stand may be needed.

 

MALLET CHOICES
The marimba ensemble arrangements in the Marimba Masters and Gordon Peters Libraries were transcribed with fundamentally soft and medium rubber mallets in mind, with appropriate other mallets used with yarn-wound rubber cores. The fifth marimba part usually used yarn mallets that are slightly larger and heavier. The relative degrees of mallet head hardness chosen depends generally upon the registers used by the various players. Often, mallets are changed during a piece to lend contrast in timbre. Specialty mallets with wooden heads, or what might be called "toy mallets", are sometimes used with great effect in some "pops" pieces.

 

INSTRUMENT HOMOGENEITY
Ideally, the marimbas and xylophone are made by the same manufacturer for uniformity of tone, tuning and appearance. This standard is not always possible to be met. More important is that the instruments have the same uniform tuning of "A" (that is, "A-440", or "A-442") and, additionally, that each instrument is in tune with itself and the others. Periodic tuning of the ensemble instruments is essential.

 

ACOUSTICS OF BARS
It is important that players understand how bars vibrate and that they place their mallets carefully on the bar where it responds with maximum tone (unless a special playing effect is desired). The fullest tone is to be found near the center of the bar, with the very ends also a good choice. Playing on the nodes for special effects, particularly with special mallets, can lend a nice tone color variation to the marimba sonority.

 

LEGATO PLAYING
One must learn to roll from bar to bar with no accent and absolutely no break in the roll (a continuous roll). The decision of which hand to use in leading from bar to bar is difficult to make at the outset. Another special legato problem is in trying to play with both mallets on the bar where it has maximum resonance, i.e., in the center or using a combination of one mallet in the center and one at the end. A smooth sound akin to drawing a bow on the string of a violin should be one's objective. When leaps in a melody are present, false accents can result. An additional problem of false accents arises in the situation where a rolled note is tied to an unrolled note. Care must be exercised to avoid accenting the unrolled note. The consistency in volume between the rolled and unrolled notes has to be carefully controlled. An excellent melody to consider for practicing legato technique is the Marimba Masters' adaptation of the "Waltz" from Tchaikovsky's SERENADE FOR STRINGS.

 

RAPIDITY OF ROLLS
Generally, the lower the pitch of a bar, the slower the roll should be played similar to rolling on timpani heads. In some special situations, however, it is found that a fast intense roll, particularly in upper registers, is capable of projecting great strength into the character of a passage.

 

"DOUBLE STOPS"
Rolled double-notes should be started with both mallets striking simultaneously. In rolling double-notes the bars should be rolled fast to try and emulate the sound of each bar being separately rolled with two mallets, i.e., as if they were being played by two persons.

 

MARKING THE MUSIC
Players must be taught to mark their parts at rehearsals with lead pencil... no pens nor colored pencils. Any adjustment in dynamics or erasure corrections must be neatly and clearly made so that the "next" player using the music has no questions about the alterations.

 

CASTING OF PLAYERS
The choice of players and assignment of position in a group must be carefully cast. The first marimba player should ideally have the most experience, technique and talent and have soloist "flair". In an educational situation, the fairest way to choose players for a group or groups is through competitive audition. It is a good "prelude" to future auditioning for a "job" as well.

 

COACHING
Presuming that the players have mastered the techniques demanded (correct notes, playing up to tempo and observing all dynamics faithfully), the coach can focus on matters of ensemble, balances, and interpretive dimensions. Each player must study the score and his own part away from the instrument to absorb every detail. By breaking down the actual composition of the arrangements and the way they are scored, the player will find certain combinations of parts are more dependent upon each other than others. Coaching these sub-groups (shown below) yields a higher level of achievement.
xylo and 1st                        3rd and 4th
1st and 2nd                        3rd, 4th and 5th
1st, 2nd and 5th                 5th and string bass
xylo, 1st, 2nd and 5th         1st, 5th and string bass

 

LARGE MARIMBA ENSEMBLES
When Clair Omar Musser formed his large marimba ensembles in the 1930s and 1940s, his transcriptions were essentially created with rubber mallet usage in mind, with the exception of the 5th and bass marimbas. In those special situations where a legato sonorous piece was to be performed, almost everyone, of course, used yarn-wound mallets. It should further be mentioned that his massed groups were formed primarily with the intention of selling Deagan Marimbas, of which he was the designer. There is a place for the multi-player ensemble in both education and as an amateur-leisure time activity. However, when a group is conducted, it is not chamber music. The highest level of achievement and self-satisfaction for the player only can be achieved through pure chamber music, one player to a part and with no conductor.

 

ADDENDA
The reader is urged by the author to consult the latter's text, THE DRUMMER: MAN, A TREATISE ON PERCUSSION 2003, on disk and currently owned by the PERCUSSIVE ARTS SOCIETY. Included in the last 100 pages is detailed information about the evolution of the Marimba Ensemble and Percussion Ensemble Programs at the Eastman School of Music during the years 1954-1959 plus other useful and relevant information. The first 200 pages are an in-depth world history of percussion, including a chapter on keyboard percussion instruments.