Teaching the Beginning Mallet Player – Part 2

October 23, 2009 11:39 am in Concert by mark wessels

In the 2nd part of my discussion of teaching beginner percussionists how to read keyboard music, I’ll attempt to offer some solutions to the common problems that I discussed in Part 1.


Some of the problems I discussed in Part 1 have easy solutions, and some cannot be overcome except with diligent practice on the part of the student (isn’t that always the case?). The purpose here is to eliminate as many of the problems as possible so that the students can have the best chance at success. Start the year by cultivating the right habits:

• If the student’s bell set has engraved note names, cover them with a piece of electrical tape (for the time being, let’s assume that your beginning percussionists are no less intelligent than the other band members who do not have note names engraved on their instrument!).

• Never allow your percussionists to share music. It’s difficult enough to read music that is directly in front of the bells – much less from across the room!

• Place the music stand as close to the keys as possible. And while we’re at it… always use a music stand, not a built-in wire music holder! I know it may be convenient, but I’ve yet to walk into a clarinet class and see them all using lyras!

• Place the music on the stand as close to the actual notes as possible. If the line is on the right hand side of the book, but uses the lowest octave, move the book (or the stand) over!

• Encourage your students to keep their eyes on the printed page! Since mallet percussionists do not “touch” the keys, it’s important to explain how peripheral vision is used to “see” the keys without looking directly at them. Making the player to use his or her peripheral vision is paramount to developing a kinesthetic “feel” for the instrument!

• Start on the “home” keys. The closest keys to the printed page are the accidentals. Since they are also in groups of 2 and 3, they are even easier to see with the peripheral vision.

• If you must use a band method book for your beginner class, try re-writing the lines! Here is an example of the first line from most popular band method books:

Beginner Keyboard graphic 1

If you were 10 years old, playing this line in the back of the band hall at m.m.=80, would YOU keep your eyes on the music? Do you think you could resist the temptation to look down at the keys? I bet you’d have time to set a small fire & still be back in time to play the next note!

Here’s how I could rewrite the line to make it work better for your percussionists:


Take a look at the SIZE of the music and the rhythms involved. Given the rests that are randomly placed throughout, I’ll bet that your students will keep their eyes on the music – if nothing else than to avoid the humiliating “playing in the rest” mistake!

Given that a beginning mallet player can easily learn several notes, you can even use harmony notes to vary the exercise even further, or you may even choose to create several different reading lines for each line in the band method book. Chances are that you will be spending several days (if not weeks) on the first few pages – so why not give them LOTS of reading material to keep them on their toes?

I know that creating a “packet” of rewritten exercises may take several hours of work, but even if you do it for the first 6 pages of your band method, you’ve started your percussionist out with the right habits!

• Repetition and Reinforcement

Another key to learning to read music for the beginner is REINFORCEMENT. Introduce a note or two, then grind it into them until they can’t help but remember it! Remember typing class? “j j j j f f f f j f f f j j f j . . . I’d hate to admit it, but learning to read music on the bells is much more like typing than it is a beautiful musical experience!

To this end, VF Educator Marc Jacoby and I developed a computer video game to make this a fun process for the kids (you can find this “Speed Note Reading Tutor” here: http://www.vicfirth.com/education/keyboard/speednotereading.html.


In the first level of play, the students are asked to name 100 random notes on the staff. To make it fun and challenging, the player must ‘race the clock’ to name as many notes correctly as possible before time runs out! To encourage the student to get even quicker at recognizing the notes, they can play at 3 skill levels – each requiring the player to finish in less time. Level 2 includes exercises on finding a given note on the keyboard. In other levels, they must recognize accidentals… then key signature changes… all while REINFORCING note recognition skills.

That will help out tremendously – but we still need to get the kids to read on the keyboards. Here’s some more suggestions:

• Introducing New Lines:

Another factor that contributes to students being able to develop the habit of keeping their eyes on the music is how new lines in the book are introduced. Most band directors have other instrumentalists “finger through” a line before they play it & say the note names, but there are a few additional things that you can do to help percussionists:

1. Have students name the notes that the line contains. Do a short “hit the key exercise” while you call out these notes. Students should keep their eyes on the music and use the peripheral vision to find the notes on the keyboard.

2. FINGER through the line (physically TOUCHING the keys with the fingers) while they say the note names (while keeping their eyes on the music).

3. Play measures out of sequence. If the song is one that they know the tune to, they will try to memorize it from the beginning. Playing different measures in the piece forces them to look at the page.

4. Don’t play the line over and over! Go on to another line BEFORE students have a chance to memorize it.

Final Suggestions

• I make “looking down” part of each mallet test I give for the first 12 weeks. You have to “get in close” on your tests, but students realize right away that memorizing doesn’t help.

• Missing a note on the bells is not as important as playing the wrong fingering on another instrument. And don’t count off points on tests for “hitting a screw”!

• Sticking is NOT a big issue to me when the students are reading. If I choose to work on a more difficult line or etude, I will go back AFTER we’ve read through it and instruct them in proper sticking techniques.

• Read lots and lots of easy music! Buy a “classroom set” of A Tune A Day books written for other instruments, then play a few lines from the beginning of the book.

• Make test assignments cover a “range” of 5-6 lines rather than just one. That keeps a student from memorizing one simple tune.

• Don’t practice for them! Assign lines that are a bit over their heads. Basically, if they feel like they can learn it in class, they will never PRACTICE!


There’s no doubt that teaching beginning percussionists how to read keyboard music is a difficult task due to the limitations involved with bell kits. But, with patience and persistence applied to overcoming the inherent problems, your students can soon read keyboard music as well as they do rhythms!

These are just a few of my thoughts on helping students to become successful keyboard readers. If you have any questions, or want something explained in more detail, let me know – I’ll do my best. Or, if you have any strategies that have worked for you and your students, please share it with the rest of us!