The marimba used to be a sore subject for me until a couple years ago. The high school I went to is well known for their show-style band and drum line, aka no pit band/front ensemble/indoor drum line/weekend tournaments. Friday night is game night – and you won’t be able to hear much afterwards. Our drum line was always right around 25-30 deep, usually with 8 snares, 6-8 bass drums, 3-4 “squints,” and 6-8 cymbal players. Like I said, no mallets. More on the Rolling Thunder Drumline later though…
Concert season would include mallet parts for most pieces – and as I was one of the few percussionists there who could read music, I would sometimes play these parts while everyone else would get the cool drum parts. I would try to make the best of it though, especially on Robert W. Smith’s epic piece for concert band, “Africa,” for which I was on chimes with 2 mallets – a difficult part in itself with 8th note triplets while the rest of the band played with a straight 8th feel. I remember a couple other pieces where I was “stuck on bells” or some other “lame mallet instrument.” Great. But then I went to college…
To audition for the college I would eventually graduate from, I needed to perform a snare drum piece, a timpani piece, and a mallet piece, along with whatever else was involved (sight-singing, yada yada yada). I spoke with Nancy Zeltsman (before I really knew who she was) and she gave me a 2-mallet marimba solo called “Hegira” for my audition that one of her students, Carrie Magin, had composed, along with a CD for reference which helped a lot (Thanks Nancy!). I spent every night in a practice room learning that piece in addition to the famous timpani piece “March” by Elliot Carter – turns out its a really fun piece with stick-flipping, quintuplet and septuplet phrasing, and polyrhythms – my favorites!
These were the most difficult pieces for those instruments I had ever done, and I was really on my own learning them for an audition. But long story short it went well. Got in, did my time, graduated, here we all are. Studying with the percussion teacher there was very beneficial to my own playing as well as for my solo project The Gathering Mist. I had written a piece which I wanted to feature fingerstyle acoustic guitar on, but it was a difficult part. The rest of the album was just about finished when I remembered that the one track still had programmed MIDI guitar scratch tracks on it – unacceptable for the finished product after so much work on everything else. Since my fingerstyle acoustic guitarist search came up dry, I said “screw it, I’ll just play it myself on marimba.”
At that point I was comfortable enough playing with 4 mallets, and the recording went pretty smoothly after a bit of practice. Hearing the playback of the two tracks on my first solo album, Rhythmic Epiphany and then on the one track from my second album Reservoir that feature the marimba, it made me a little more self-confident with my mallet playing. Proof that the best way to improve is to (practice a lot first) record yourself, listen back, and be your own biggest critic with regard to timing, tone, etc. The way I think about it is similar to voice-leading on 4-part choral-style music – Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass – you have 4 mallets, two in each hand – yes there’s 5 octaves worth of possible notes to play, but wherever your next note is, one of those four mallets is going to be closest to it, so you don’t have to work as hard as you would with only two mallets (this goes for linear playing only – thicker chordal textures have more notes, so yes more mallets.)
So I got more and more used to it, and ended up playing the huge 5-octave marimba with 4-mallets for two pieces in my senior recital (another piece only required 2 mallets but was WAY more difficult, go figure), as well as a few other pieces for other recitals here and there. My experience with the marimba happened at a good time too – right as I was getting into other forms of melodic percussion – especially the Kalimba and HAPI Drums.
Anyway, why I’m posting this: I ended up overcoming some difficulties I guess and now I’m proud enough of the results to include it on a few tracks for The Gathering Mist – Enjoy!