We all have our favorite mallets for each instrument, but how do we choose the best mallet for the part? No matter which instrument, whether it’s marimba, vibes, xylo, or glock, we can use the same philosophy for all of them. Today I’m going to outline the process I go through mentally when I choose a mallet. The hope is that this process will make your playing having a little more color. Just as a painter uses multiple colors in a painting we can use multiple sound colors. The mallets we have are our pallet. Of course having all the mallets in the world doesn’t mean much if you don’t know the right place to use them. Here is how to find the right mallet for every situation.
I always start my mallet choice decision with articulation. As percussionists the start of the note is what we have the most control over. For most of the instruments we play we don’t have much control over the sound after the note has started. With that logic, the articulation is pretty darn important. I have started thinking more and more about my mallet playing like a wind player. “How would a wind player attack this note?” I love the word attack. It’s a great adjective to think about articulation. It doesn’t necessarily have to mean aggressive but it definitely doesn’t imply anything passive. A wind player might use words like these to describe their attack and sound:
This more sophisticated approach is getting us a little further away from the typical mallet description of soft and hard. That is a very two dimensional way of looking at mallets choices.
Another “dimension” we can use to think about articulation is weight. I don’t mean how much a stick weighs or how hard we are playing the note. I mean how much weight is behind the mallet head. Weight has a lot to do with how much presence a note has. You can start with two identical mallets but if there is a brass insert inside one of them it will have a little more presence. Adding brass inserts has become really popular to keep the articulation desired but give the mallet more weight and presence. The size of the ball has a lot to do with this as well. A ¾ inch and 1 ¼ inch ball made of the same material will have very similar articulations but very different overall sounds because of the difference in size and weight. Along with more weight, the bigger mallet is making more contact with the bar because of the increased surface area. I find that when I prepare the same work for both an ensemble situation as well as an audition (solo) situation the weight is the biggest variable I change. When playing alone, I don’t need as much presence as when I play in the orchestra. I will probably want very similar articulations but a heavier weight when having to cut through other players.
Another variable that controls the sound of the mallet is the shaft. This is fairly minimal but it does have an effect. I have no scientific research that proves what I believe but my experience tells me that the shaft effects both how you play the instrument and how the head responds off the instrument, and thus the sound. A stiff shaft, like a birch shaft, will usually produce a heavier sound. The head of the mallet will stay on the bar longer and the stroke is usually more emphatic. Because of this most xylophone and glock sticks do not use birch. Birch is great for four mallet marimba because that stiffness allows you to control the mallets more precisely. Rattan is the middle ground. There are thicker, stiffer rattan shafts as well as very thin, flexible rattan. This will have an impact on how you strike the instrument as well as how long the head of the mallet stays on the instrument. In the last 15 years or so there have been specialty glock mallets that are on a very thin fiberglass shaft. The reason (I believe) these sound so great is because of the way they respond off the instrument. The extremely flexible fiberglass allows the mallet to pop right of the bar and thus allowing the bar to vibrate with less interruptions.
The last variable I use are my dynamics and thus stick height. Essentially I am picking the best mallet for the entire passage and then using the stick height necessary to produce the dynamic warranted. Because a passage could require all sorts of sounds and dynamics I pick the best mallet possible because dynamics are the only thing I can adjust within the passage. Marimba players are used to this issue of picking the best four mallets to play a 15 minute solo. Luckily in the symphonic repertoire we can change mallets with greater frequency. Another reason dynamics are one of the last variables I consider when choosing a mallet is because I don’t want the dynamic to influence the articulation too much. It is very easy to fall back on p = soft articulation and f = hard articulation. You will be surprised how many times you want a crisp, sharp articulation in the soft dynamic. We can manipulate volume rather easily with the intensity of the stroke, but we can’t change the articulation.
A lot of you may be wondering why I don’t have “mallet sound” at the top of the list. Well although I haven’t listed sound specifically, everything we have talked about thus far effects the end result or sound. The only aspect of sound we haven’t discussed is sustain and the mallet doesn’t have a lot to do with sustain!
A lot of this logic can be used for other instruments such as bass drum and timpani, however for those instruments the stroke can influence the sound much more than on the mallet instruments.
So to recap:
1. Articulation – How do you want the start of the note to sound?
2. Weight – How present do you want the note to be?
3. Shaft – Which shaft type will compliment your musical choices?
4. Dynamics – How can you use dynamics to get the most out of the mallet you have chosen?
Having a very wide palette of options can make mallet playing a lot of fun. Especially when you are playing a seemingly easy part of single notes. Finding the right color and sound for every situation will really help your playing stand out from the rest.