Finding the Right Multi-Mallet
by Kurt Gartner, cageymusic@juno.com

Author's note: The following article is a result of the experience of rehearsing and performing Illegible Canons, a multi-movement work for clarinet and percussion, composed by William Bergsma. The principles explained in this article may be applied to any multi-percussion piece.


The performance of most multi-percussion pieces involves a series of decisions and compromises on the part of the musician. Finding the optimum placement for each instrument is crucial. Proper mallet selection is equally as important. Finding the most appropriate mallets for a given situation is vital to a musical performance.

First, consider the instruments to be played. If a musical passage includes a rapid succession of notes over many different instruments, there may not be time for a mallet change. In this case, choose mallets that create an acceptable sound on all the instruments to be played. Experiment with different mallets until finding the most appropriate overall choice. Some double-ended mallets are available. These mallets may offer the necessary variety of design while allowing rapid changes of timbre.

In making the selection, consider the total design of the mallet, from the material and length of the shaft to the size, material and mass of the mallet head. Suppose that a piece includes a rapid run over the following instruments: bells, xylophone, vibraphone, wood block, temple blocks, bongos, snare drum and tenor drum. The mallets need enough mass to make the drums speak. They shouldn't be too large, where they would overpower the smaller instruments such as bongos, high-register xylophone and wood block. However, they must be hard enough to sound good on bells, while not too hard for the vibes. At the same time, you may want the firm feel of wood shafts. All the while, you may need to balance all of these needs to the timbre of other non-percussion instruments, such as clarinet or flute. What a tall order! Experimentation is the key.

If a compromise in sound is necessary, consider the relative importance of each instrument to a musical passage. Although one instrument may have the most notes, another instrument may have the notes which are most exposed. These musical decisions are as much a part of the creative process as the actual execution of the notes. Again, work with a variety of mallets in order to find the ideal solutions to such problems.

If a passage includes a wide array of instruments, but is not as technically demanding, think about multi-mallet combinations in a four-mallet grip. Consider the situation that includes rolls and chords on vibraphone, decorated with occasional figures on bells. In this case, you may use three dedicated vibe mallets and one bell mallet on the outside of the left or right hand. If they're hard enough, the vibe mallets should also sound good on the lower end of the xylophone, as well as other instruments in your set-up.

Finally, find a way to objectively evaluate your sound. Ask another percussionist to listen to you from a distance, or have the other percussionist play for you, so that you can get a more accurate idea of how the mallet-instrument combination will sound to your audience. Make audio recordings of your rehearsals and performances. This will also give you more objective information with which to reach conclusions about mallet selection.

Playing a multi-percussion piece is truly a creative process, from the mallet selection, to the instrument set-up, to the interpretation and execution of the music itself. View the entire process as a creative endeavor, unique to percussion performance. Enjoy the opportunities!