Getting Back into the Mallet Swing

Kevin Lucas • GoodVibesMarch 2023 • March 13, 2023

All of us have gone through periods in our lives when we have a hiatus from mallets. Many of us have recently had one because of the pandemic. The question is how we get back into a consistent routine after months after taking a break? I’m going to discuss this topic to help your students along.

As a mallet player, it’s very easy to lose the approach to the instrument after time off. Here are some suggestions to rebuild your students’ playing.

1). Establish proper stroke: Even before your students start playing scales, it is important to establish the piston stroke once again. We do not strike a mallet instrument the way we play a drum. The mallet must come off the instrument and pull the sound out. The “piston” stroke is named after the motion of a piston in an automobile. The best analogy I like to use is bouncing a basketball. You allow the ball to rebound up to your hand just as you allow the mallet to rebound off the key.

2). Striking position: It’s so important to review the basics after time off. One of these basics is making sure your students are striking the center of the bars whenever possible, and the edge of the accidentals during fast passages. 

3). Scales: Work on scales playing eight on a hand in the circle of fifths. The right hand should play on the way up the scale and left hand should play on the way down, focusing on proper grip, rebound, mallet and body position, and proper stroke. At this point, when the basics are reestablished, your students can play faster scale exercises in major and minor keys.

4). Basic etudes: Your students should start with basic etudes and practice both sight reading and playing by memory. The latter is important so your students can establish muscle memory again. At the end of this article are a few links to great method books.

5). Burton Four Mallet Grip: Basic exercises with the Burton cross grip should be implemented at this point, playing both linear lines and chords. Remember that when playing linear lines, the left-hand mallet position is at a 45-degree angle and wrist rotation is used to produce the stroke and the inner mallet plays the passages, whereas the right hand has the mallets at a 90-degree angle and the motion is vertical with the outside mallet playing the passages. The mallet that is not playing should remain as still as possible. 

6). Comp chords: Have your students review chord comping and improvising using a jazz book. Playing along with recordings that come with the book is a great way to get back into the groove.

7). Stevens Grip: All mallet players want to master both grips. They are completely different beasts and often used in different styles of music. Having your students practice permutations and wrist rotation in this grip is very important at this point. Remind your students this is not a cross-grip and it is based on rotation technique.

It’s never too late to start rebuilding your mallet chops. Paying attention to the basics while doing so will pay off for your students. Now let’s go practice!

In 2016, The Huffington Post called Kevin Lucas “the most talented percussionist since Lionel Hampton, Ginger Baker and Tito Puente”. He has been nominated for 38 music industry awards for his Echoes in the Sand album, and he won the 2016 American Songwriting Awards. Kevin Lucas performed with the Madison Scouts Drum and Bugle Corps from 1992-1994 and won the DCI Midwest Individuals in 1994 for keyboard percussion. He placed 2nd in the United States for concert hall percussion at the Music Teachers National Association collegiate competition in 1997.

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