Technique Improvement and Maintenance: My Warm Up Routines – Two Mallets

Two Mallets

In the second installment of this series I am going to tackle and explain my two mallet keyboard routine. This applies for all mallet instruments including marimba, xylophone, glockenspiel, and vibes. I chose to spend most of my time on xylophone when focusing on technique and improvement. The skills and technique used on xylophone transfers to all of the other instruments much easier in my opinion than the other way around.

There are several reasons for this tactic. The first is the instrument’s sustain. A xylophone has virtually no note length so it is much tougher to be musical. It is also easier to hear unevenness in your rhythm. All of your flaws are more apparent, which in theory, makes them easier to notice and then correct. If your flaws are corrected on xylophone then they really will be great on the more sustaining instruments. Another reason is bar size. I have found it is easier to go from a smaller bar size instrument to a bigger bar size than the other way around. Most xylophone bars are smaller than marimba and vibe bars. The last reason I start on xylophone is rebound. That may seem confusing since the xylophone has no rebound. Even though all of the mallet instruments don’t rebound like the stick does off a drum, I find the xylophone to be the “stiffest” of the family. All of these factors cause me to believe the xylophone is (from a purely technical aspect) the hardest instrument to play. This is why I start here. All of the routines and exercises below can be played on other instruments with great success; however, I chose to use them on xylophone first and then take them to the others.

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Just like with snare drum, my routine is influenced by the skills needed to play the repertoire. The most basic skill to start with is single strokes (like stick control) and I focus on them using basic major scales. I start every mallet practice session with scales. This gives me an opportunity to re-familiarize myself with the spacing of the keys, remind myself of good stick control strokes, and do all of this with an exercise that allows me to focus on these technical elements and not be distracted by something that is very complex. If I start out with something too complex in terms of accuracy it is harder for me to check my technical execution because my focus is diverted. I will start with a very slow tempo and then slowly move up. If 140 is my top tempo that day I might work up to that by starting at 90, then 110, then 125, then 135, and finally 140. Much like weight lifting (if you are curious read my previous blog post) I start very slow to check my technique (or form) and build up to a faster tempo to work on stretching my abilities. This philosophy of how to move up in tempo can be applied to the rest of the exercises discussed today.

Next I will work on arpeggios as this introduces leaps into the warm up. Scales are great but not all of the repertoire is melodic. The exercise below is how I practice arpeggios. This exercise also helps me practice “seeing chords”. For instance this example is written in C major but the second pattern is in D minor. Even though this is a C major exercise it helps me visualize other chords. When you transpose this exercise into all 12 keys you will have a chance to visualize the primary chords you will see throughout the repertoire.

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Chromatic lines are very common throughout the repertoire so I do a very simple exercise to work on getting around the keyboard chromatically. This exercise should be transposed into all 12 keys and as you work through them you will notice that the “reference” point on the major beats changes. When playing fast passage, especially chromatically, it is impossible to visually focus on every note. By establishing reference points you can group the notes better and play them easier. This is what I call a “getting around the instrument” exercise. It really helps your hands know where they need to be. You can also reverse this exercise and play it going from high to low as opposed to low to high.

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A different skill we need on mallet instruments that we typically don’t need on snare drum are double stops. There are a variety of exercises that I use for this but I am only going to talk about my favorite two here. The first is a scalar exercise stolen from the George Hamilton Green book, Instruction Course for Xylophone; exercise #12 in Lesson One. I have adapted it slightly and this is how I play it. Double stop exercises are great for working on getting the two mallets perfectly together as well as visually focusing on the keyboard. Seeing the keyboard well is very important which will develop a good sense of spacing. I also transpose this exercise into all 12 keys.

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There are lots of exercises that focus on double stops in specific intervals and while I do a lot of them I don’t work on them as regularly as I do this one in octaves. I find octaves to be extremely difficult and they are prevalent throughout the repertoire. This exercise helps really drill my octave double stops as well as dotted rhythms in scales and leaps. Just like a certain excerpt many of us know… Rather than repeat Schumann 3 over and over, I work on this. (Again, in all 12 keys).

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Next, I work on rolls. Generally I do not roll on xylophone or any mallet instrument unless absolutely necessary, but there are times you must. The tricky thing about a single stroke roll on any mallet instrument is transitioning from note to note. A trumpet player can simply press a key and a different note comes out. The transitions between our notes are a bit more technically demanding to play smoothly. I go back to the Green book for this and work on exercise #12 from Lesson Two. This can be adapted to all 12 keys but also worked on in different intervals than octaves. It is a pretty simple and basic exercise but sometimes that’s all you need.

Finally, I work on rag time exercises. There is no better resource than the Instruction Course for Xylophone that I keep referencing. Each “lesson” has a page of ragtime specific exercises. While I could list a few of my favorites I generally just open the book to a random page and work on a page at a time. This keeps my ragtime double stop skills sharp as well as a consistently swung rhythm. Even the “easy” exercises can seems difficult when you really focus on having the same consistent swing feel.

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All of these exercises are designed to hit the major skills and technical difficulties needed to play the two mallet repertoire. They are not all encompassing but are a reasonable group of tools that can help improve and maintain your playing. If you have certain exercises or routines you like to use please comment below.

Stay tuned for the next installment of my series on technique improvement and maintenance when I tackle four mallet routines.

Technique Improvement and Maintenance: My Warm Up Routines – Snare Drum

Snare Drum

I start the forward of my book with the statement “technique is a means to an end.” I firmly believe that. Great musical ideas are not possible without the skills needed to create them but on the flip side all the physical skills in the world don’t count for much if you don’t have great musical ideas. Most of us have good musical ideas but struggle with the physical skills needed to execute them. Each percussion instrument has its own specific issues so I wanted to write a series; spending time on each instrument and explaining what I do both to improve but also maintain. Maintain seems like a bad word because it implies not improving. I think we should always be trying to improve and I see maintenance as a way to improve. As percussionists we have to keep our skills sharp on a lot of different instruments and it’s hard to keep up on the fundamentals of all of them. These maintenance programs I have come up with are ways to keep your skills sharp when you simply don’t have the time to be behind the instrument for multiple hours a day.

I am starting with snare drum because I think it is the most basic instrument we play in a lot of ways and the technique we use on it translates to almost every other instrument. The simple act of striking the drum with a stick in an efficient way is a basic skill that can be applied to mallet instruments, timpani, multi-percussion, bass drum, triangle, and loads of others.

The first thing I do when playing snare drum is George Stone’s Stick Control. Ever since college this has been my ritual and all of my students can attest to my belief in its value. If I am working out a technical issue I will work through the first three pages. However if I am just trying to check my technique and get warmed up, I’ll only play the first page. I will spend about 45 seconds on each exercise and then go back to the beginning and play through the entire page without stopping, repeating each exercise once. This serves as both a physical and mental warm up. It is a way for me to check in every day and make sure I am starting from a good place. If there are issues I will work and correct them but if not, move on.

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As great as Stick Control is, it only address one type of stroke, the full stroke. George Stone’s Accents and Rebounds addresses two more and is next up in my lineup. Accents and Rebounds helps me work on controlling my down stroke and up stroke. After adding those I theoretically can play the entire single stroke repertoire. Those are the only three options for a single stroke: Full Stroke, Down Stroke, and Up Stroke. I generally start at the beginning of the book with the eighth note exercises, then move to the dotted eighth, sixteenths, and finally the triplets. That’s a lot to do in one day so I will slowly work my way through over a few weeks. After 20 minutes or so working out of these 2 Stone books my hands feel nice and warmed up and confident with a full stroke.

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Next I tackle one of the hardest parts of playing all percussion; playing soft. It is an aspect of percussion playing most of us don’t spend enough time focused on. What I have experienced when working on my own soft playing is that the best way to practice your soft playing is… wait for it… to just do it… I can make this a lot more complicated but it’s just that simple. If you don’t spend a lot of time playing soft and learning how to control the sticks at a super low stick height, then chances are you aren’t going to be very comfortable doing it in performance. I accomplish this using multiple books and methods. I like to read beginner to intermediate etudes and ignore all dynamics and just play as soft as possible. The Wilcoxon All American Drummer is a great resource for this. So are the Peters books. Reading through this kind of repertoire will also help your sight reading ability. When working on these etudes and exercises I try to keep the bottom of the stick below the rim at all times. This is VERY difficult to do, but if I can, then I know I am good shape to play just about anything.

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Finally I tackle perhaps the most difficult skill on snare drum; the roll. Coincidentally, I wrote a book The Modern Concert Snare Drum Roll on this very topic because I did not feel there were enough resources out there to both learn the roll but also to maintain it. The second half of my book deals with what we are talking about here; maintenance and improvement. I will start by working on dynamics and my unmetered rolls. Exercises #80-84 are good for this and working on having very smooth dynamic changes. I can also focus on what speed my hands need to move to create an even sound. If I am unhappy with the evenness of my hands I will work on a series of exercises that use accents to help control the smoothness (#98-165). Focusing on the roll before and after the accent will help even out the sound. If I am looking to build some strength and finger control I will work on some exercises that help distinguish between a double stroke and a buzz roll (#237-301). These will really give your fingers, wrist and arm a work out so don’t spend too much time on them. One of my favorite exercises that I almost always finish with is controlling my soft double stroke roll. This helps my double stroke roll, my ruffs and grace note control, as well as my soft buzz roll. Reading and writing exercises to work on this skills helped my playing immensely. I started by reading etudes and rolling all the 16ths. I then decided to write some of my own including this one (#398) from my book.

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The idea behind this routine is I am actively working on all of the most basic skills needed to play snare drum:

Controlling the 3 different kinds of single strokes at a full dynamic

Controlling those same strokes at a very soft dynamic

Controlling the roll.

If you boil down the entire repertoire, that’s kind of it. Granted that is a massive over simplification, but it’s still true. This kind of thought process is how I came up with all of my “routines” that I do to stay in shape on all of the instruments. Please leave your comments on what you like to do and what keeps your hands in shape. I look forward to hearing what helps you sound your best!

Stay tuned for more posts about how to improve your technique and give you some great routines to use.