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Warm-Ups and Performance Tips for Today’s
Mallet Player

by MSgt Steven Przyzycki

MSgt Steven PrzyzyckiHello to all you fellow percussionists and music educators out there. These days, I find myself playing most of the mallet or keyboard percussion parts in the concert band. It is both rewarding and challenging. Today’s symph- onic band literature can be quite demanding on the keyboard percussionist. In fact, some of the parts make the orchestral literature look easy in comparison. I have found that I rely on a few aspects to ensure a great performance. The first is the importance of a good warm-up routine. I will also talk about the importance of rehearsal preparation and sight-reading ability.

What exercises do you recommend for an effective wam-up?

Although four-mallet marimba and vibraphone parts appear on every concert I play, most of the concert band literature relies heavily on two-mallet xylophone and glockenspiel parts. With that in mind, I will share some of the basic two-mallet warm-up exercises that I utilize. The sole purpose of the warm-up is to ready the wrists and hands to perform with technical ease. Your warm-up should consist of familiar exercises that you can execute with a considerable amount of ease. I like to start out at the xylophone by playing major scales two octaves in sixteenth notes at a tempo of quarter note equals 120 beats per minute. I move up to the next scale chromatically and continue until I have played every major scale. This can be done with minor scales as well. I have notated this in the following figure:

Example A

Once you feel confident with this, it is now time to play scales up and down the entire keyboard starting on the lowest “possible” or diatonic pitch, and playing up to the highest “possible” or diatonic pitch. For example, on a standard three and a half octave xylophone (with a low F natural being the lowest note), a G major scale would start on your lowest F sharp and go to the highest C natural. You would play back down to the low F sharp. It will take your ears some time to get used to starting and ending scales on pitches other than the tonic note, however this exercise will help strengthen your familiarity with keys and it is important to note that rarely do I see scale patterns in today’s literature that start and end on the tonic.

The next exercise below proceeds up the xylophone chromatically in sextuplets, and proceeds back down in sixteenth notes using the starting note’s major scale. I like to do this at quarter note equals 116-120 beats per minute. Continue up chromatically again, until you have covered the entire range of the keyboard and then proceed back down:

Example B

In the final figure below, I have an exercise consisting of major triads in inversions. Again, proceed up the instrument chromatically and remember to come back down chromatically as well. This exercise is good to sharpen your accuracy and should be played utilizing minor triads as well. When performing your warm-up, be sure to keep the hands low and use your wrists. Pay close attention to the sound you are producing and remember to pull the sound out of the bars—don’t play “into” the instrument.

Example C

Some good books with great warm-up exercises are George Hamilton Green’s Instruction Course for the Xylophone and Mental and Manuel Calisthenics for the Modern Mallet Player by Elden “Buster” Bailey. You can find a myriad of exercises in these books to help vary your warm-up, and tailor it to any specific challenges you may be encountered with in today’s literature.

What is the best way to prepare for a first rehearsal?

Master Sergeant Steve PrzyzyckiAll of my teachers always stressed the importance of being prepared for rehearsals. They taught me to prepare not only by practicing, but by studying my music away from the instruments as well. The talented composers and arrangers of the day have realized that the keyboard percussion instruments can be used in a variety of ways to create magnificent sonorities. Sometimes the xylophone or glockenspiel matches the woodwinds’ lines to provide clarity and color. In other instances, the keyboard percussion instruments might be used to help punctuate a brass line, provide an ostinato or play a solo line that is dependent or independent of the overall ensemble. It is not enough to just have our parts in our hands. Today’s mallet player has to know how his line functions within the context of the composition. It is very important to study the score to realize how the composer intended your part to function within the piece. When you get to the rehearsal, listen intensely to the ensemble, and mark notes on what to listen for when playing your part. Mallet choices can be decided upon at the rehearsal as well. What kind of sonority or color is the composer trying to achieve? Should my xylophone part be in the foreground or should it blend with the woodwinds? What sticking best matches the ensemble I am playing with? Are the trumpets double-tonguing and consequently, should I use doubles as well? Questions like these can be answered by studying scores and more importantly, using your ears.

How can I become a better sight reader?

Throughout my career I have encountered players who had memorized difficult solo pieces for various situations, but when it came time to sight-read just a standard bell part on a Sousa March they failed miserably. Solo works are great fun to play, and they allow us to grow as musicians. At an audition, this is your chance to show off your musicianship to the panel. However, we live in a very fast-paced world today. Everyone is being challenged to accomplish more with less. I am often amazed at how much music I have to learn in a short amount of time. Furthermore, sometimes a piece is passed out at the beginning of the rehearsal, and we are required to “read it down.” Commanders and conductors are looking for people who read well to fill vacancies in today’s bands and orchestras. Sight-reading is extremely important. How does one become a better sight-reader, you ask? The answer is simple…you just do it! You should devote a section of your practice session to sight-reading every day. It is imperative that you select music suited to your reading ability though. If you have selected a work that requires you to stop too often, then look for something easier. If the work presents no challenge at all, then look for something harder. There are a lot of books on the market designed to progressively develop sight-reading. Many of them are excellent, however you can use just about anything as long as it is appropriate to your current reading ability. The key is to be consistent in doing it every day. The great thing about reading is that the more you do it, the better you get at it. Pick a nice moderate tempo and try to always look ahead as you read. You need to see what’s coming up next in order to prepare the correct sticking patterns and execute the right notes. Be conscious of the sound you are producing, and remain confident in your abilities. Try not to stop, and be sure to use a metronome to ensure good time. Be aware of phrasing, dynamics and the Master Sergeant Steve Przyzycki overall style of the piece you are reading. Another excellent way to develop your sight-reading ability is to play duets with another player of the same or slightly better ability. This requires you to read within an “ensemble” situation, although a small one. Violin duets work great. As your reading improves, so will your familiarity with the keyboard and how it is laid out. Trying to read a part, look at the bars for those big leaps and watch a conductor all at the same time can be quite a challenge, but after a while it becomes second nature. So be sure to devote some of your practice time every day to sight-reading. It will offer many rewards. I hope these ideas help you to grow as a player and realize your full potential as a musician. Most of all, I hope they provide a lot of fun!


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