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A Young Local Musician and Four Mallets

When determination and talent meet, mountains can be moved.

I wonder if I can hold two forks in each hand, spear four different foods at the same time on my plate, then pick all of them up and eat them? Sounds like a young person's daydream while taking a very long time to eat his vegetables.

When a student is first learning to use four mallet technique on the xylophone or marimba, similar thoughts may run through his or her mind: "While holding two mallets in each hand, I have to hit four different bars at the same time, in tempo and with correct rhythm? Then, change the mallet position in each hand, so I can play another chord that uses four different bars?"  It could be mind boggling for that student, to say the least!

Because there are several different grip choices, a percussion instructor should help  students decide which one is the best "fit" for them. Some factors might be experience level, type of piece being played, or even hand size. Simply put, in a basic grip, the player would hold a mallet between the index finger and thumb in each hand. He or she would hold the other mallet between the index and middle finger. The mallet heads extend forward to play on the bars of the instrument, while the handles sit near the base of the palm, slightly crossed. The pinky and ring fingers grip the "cross" and form a "hinge." The player can now widen or narrow the mallet head spacing to strike bars different distances apart by opening and closing the index finger and thumb.

About a month ago, Dan Smith, a talented and long-time student of mine, performed a "Class A" four-mallet marimba solo called "Mexican Murals," in District Solo and Ensemble Contest, part of his band class. Class A represents the greatest difficulty level for a solo or an ensemble.

Dan played the solo so well, that the highest possible score was earned: a "1*" judge's rating. This score advanced him to the next and final level: the State Solo and Ensemble Contest, held at Cardinal Stritch College this past Saturday. Here, he played the same composition, but the judge scrutinized his performance with much more detail.

Having fixed a few small deficiencies that the district judge found in his original performance, Dan played wonderfully. The volume changes of the dynamics were discernible and Dan phrased the music well. Overall, the performance was very entertaining. The state judge was impressed with Dan's technique and musicianship.

Unfortunately, Dan's nerves entered into this performance, and his tempo wasn't as steady as it usually is. The flow of the solo was affected, and a pianissimo section wasn't played quiet enough. At the state level — and with all of Dan's hard work behind him — he earned the extremely respectable rating of "2."

Dan chose a mountainous journey several months ago. His choice required him to learn  new skills, so he needed to master the exercises containing them first. Then, he could finally begin work on the "mountain."  As you can imagine, frustration and doubt would creep in at times, but he succeeded in bringing down "Mt. Dan" with hard work, determination, talent and four mallets.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Dan Smith June 06, 2011 at 03:15 AM
Thanks everybody for all of the positive comments. I appreciate. Also, thanks Jim for writing the article. Even though I didn't get a 1 at state, I had an awesome time learning how to play it with you throughout the past year. :)
Jim Kube June 06, 2011 at 01:54 PM
A-Fast: Thanks for sending some encouragement Dan's way! I know he appreciates it! Jim
Jim Kube June 06, 2011 at 01:57 PM
Dan: It was fun writing this story. You're welcome, Dan! I also enjoyed helping you to learn your solo. You are very talented, my friend! Jim
Sue Smith June 08, 2011 at 03:35 AM
Thanks for writing this article on our son, Dan. It's nice to have someone else reinforce how his efforts pay off. I don't think he often realizes how talented of a player he is. I agree with the two comments above. I think we ought to put a video of his performance with the story if he hasn't gotten too rusty yet, ha! One piece of advice for future mallet players. Bring the bell set that you are used to playing on to the solo ensemble festivals as different bell sets can make a big difference on your performance secondary to the width of the keys being slightly different. I truly think he would've gotten a one at state if he would've brought his school's bell set along.
Jim Kube June 09, 2011 at 07:57 PM
Sue Smith: You're welcome! It was a joy to write this story. I'm glad I could encourage Dan in this way. Sue, do you have a digital video of his original performance? I could try to add it if you do. To avoid confusion for anyone reading the blog story, Dan played his solo on the marimba. This is a much larger instrument (length-wise, almost as long as a car) than a "bell set." A full size marimba can be difficult to transport, and if a marimba is available to play at the performance site, many schools won't transport theirs. This is usually due to risk of damage. Repair or replacement may adversely affect a school's band budget. You are correct that there can be a slight difference from marimba to marimba on bar spacing (because of bar width), and the point you're making that this can affect performance consistency is valid. Again, writing this was fun! Thanks for commenting, Sue! Jim

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