Teaching the Beginning Mallet Player – Part 1

October 23, 2009 11:21 am in Concert by mark wessels

Why is it that beginning percussionists have a hard time learning to READ keyboard music?! It always seems that other students in the band learn to read music faster, even though they have major roadblocks to overcome (forming the proper embouchure, using the proper air support, making a sound on the mouthpiece, etc.) – all before they can play one or two “semi-recognizable” notes on their instrument. In contrast, beginning mallet players do not have to worry about anything except hitting a key with a mallet! It sure reinforces the stereotype of the “dumb drummer”, doesn’t it?

Before you place the blame on some mysterious “brain vacuum” that exists in the back of your band hall, it’s important to realize that there are so many inherent problems when learning to sightread on keyboard percussion instruments that many young players get discouraged and simply quit trying! WE have set them up to fail from the beginning because we have not taken the steps to identify and address these problems.


A. Physical problems of the instrument.

If you’ve spent any time at all trying to play on a beginning bell set, most of the problems are easy to figure out.

• Size of bars (small “target” compared to the size of the mallet head).
• Screws in the bars (further shrinking the “target”).
• Kinesthetics (players do not touch the keys like every other instrumentalist).

Unfortunately, unless you have enough marimbas in your band hall for each beginning student (and one to take home as well), we pretty much have to deal with the instrument situation as it is.

B. Potential problems with the keyboard method book.

In my experience, a method book can present the biggest hurdle to learning to read music – especially if it wasn’t designed to specifically address the problems associated with the limitations of the instrument. Take a hard look at the mallet method that you’re using and see if it has any of these potential problems:

• The book begins with whole notes, which does not encourage the students to keep their eyes on the music.

• The book encourages memorization because there is no variety within songs that force the student to read.

• Notes may begin in the upper octave, where the key size is the smallest.

• Page layout and/or small note size may make it difficult to find your place in the music if you glance away for a second.

• The method may start with the natural keys (C major scale). The natural keys are farther from the line of sight than the accidentals, so visually there is nothing to ‘break up’ the row of natural keys (as there is in a Bb major scale). Even for the advanced percussionist, there is no key that is more difficult to sightread in than C major!

• Poor note spacing may make it difficult to recognize rhythmic values. Also, notes that are crammed too close together make it very difficult to recognize notes on the staff.

• Some beginner mallet books begin with a full octave range and proceed to teach new keys above and below the staff within a short amount of time. Students don’t have time to feel comfortable with a FEW notes before adding others.

• Large interval jumps (5ths–octaves) are VERY difficult to play without looking down.

• Pacing: The first few lessons may look great, but soon afterwards, a book may lunge forward in rhythmic or melodic difficulty.

• Rolls: While it is important for a beginner to learn how to roll, they are next to impossible to play on small keys EVEN while you’re looking at your sticks.

So, given the fact that there are all these potential problems with the beginner keeping their eyes on the music, what is a typical beginner going to do? MEMORIZE THE LINES, of course! Sure, that might work for the first couple of pages, but then what? Chances are that your beginning drummers will begin to get frustrated as the lines become more difficult and eventually give up wanting to learn to play “the bells” altogether.

Sounds pretty bleak, doesn’t it? Don’t give up yet! Rather than have yet another class of “dummers”, let’s look at some of the ways that we can counter these problems and set them up for success!

In my next article, I’ll discuss a few strategies that might help fix these problems.