Teaching Four-Mallet Marimba Technique: A Sequential Approach to Repertoire

Mike Lawson • ChoralPerformance • November 27, 2007

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Although evidence exists of four-mallet playing in Asia as early as the 16th Century, on Western mallet instruments it is a fairly recent development. In modern times, a handful of different grips and approaches to playing have become standard, but a systematic approach must be used to teach beginning four-mallet players. All too often, it seems, students are assigned four-mallet solos which are too difficult for them, and are not given the technical tools to be able to play them well.

We can attribute the standardization of the main stroke types and names used in four-mallet playing to Leigh Howard Stevens’ wide-spread method book (which includes an introductory treatise on his approach to four-mallet playing) Method of Movement. In this book, Stevens explains and categorizes the main stroke types of four-mallet playing.

In general terms, Method of Movement teaches technique through sequential exercises and is great because it provides students with exercises that work on the various types of motion required to master four-mallet technique. In addition to Method of Movement, I require my students to also work out of 120 Progressive Four-Mallet Studies, by Luigi Morleo and published by Honeyrock Publications, which is a wonderful collection of etudes organized systematically so as to work on the various stroke types.

In Method of Movement, four main stroke types are outlined: the double vertical stroke, the single independent stroke, the double lateral stroke, and the single alternating stroke. My pedagogical approach focuses on those four plus two additional stroke types: the triple lateral stroke, and the one-handed roll. I first have students learn the double vertical stroke, followed by the single independent stroke, then the double lateral stroke, followed by the triple lateral stroke, then the single alternating stroke, and finally the one-handed roll. Enough time should be spent on each stroke type so that the student feels very comfortable before proceeding to the next one. If a teacher moves too fast, the student will end up with technical weaknesses in some area of playing. When the student becomes proficient with the first type, they can then use that stroke type in combination with the next stroke type he or she learns. The second half of 120 Progressive Four-Mallet Studies and the fifth chapter of the second part of Method of Movement are both dedicated to combination strokes.

The following descriptions of and suggestions for playing each of the stroke types are listed by the order in which they should be presented to the student. After the description of the stroke type, appropriate exercises are listed from Method of Movement and/or etudes from 120 Progressive Four-Mallet Studies. These exercises and etudes are followed by an example piece or pieces from the beginning four-mallet repertoire, which stress the technique being studied. The examples from the marimba repertoire are by no means exhaustive, but rather are listed because they are good student pieces that cover the technique without requiring the student to purchase a large amount of sheet music.

Double Vertical
With the double vertical stroke, both mallets in a hand hit simultaneously (for example, mallets one and two, or three and four). This stroke utilizes the most basic up-and-down wrist motion and was used with regularity by early four-mallet composers. The student should be careful not to use too much arm, or to let the hand creep too high above the instrument. The hand should be at a level which is slightly higher than the bars.

There are a couple of variables within this stroke, such as mallet intervals and placement, which can greatly affect the beginner’s level of success. This stroke should be introduced first with the student keeping a consistent interval between the mallets in either hand. Widening and closing the interval in the hand is a difficult endeavor for a beginning student. Keeping the same interval allows them to focus on the motion of the stroke. The student should only work on exercises that contain parallel placement of the mallets. This means that with the mallets of one hand only naturals or sharps/flats will be played, but never a combination.

*(consistent intervals, parallel placement)

-Stevens – #162-164, #171-173, #213-214, #218, #220-223, #263-273
-Morleo #19, #23-26, #28, #37-38
-Nebojsa Zivkovic Funny Marimba, Book I; “II Bauern-Tanz” 
-Ruud Wiener Five Marimba Pieces for Anais; “Marimba Piece nr. 3″


The next step in teaching the double vertical stroke is to introduce changing intervals. Now that the student has the basic double vertical motion down, they can focus on the scissoring motion of widening and closing the interval. At this point exercises should still be chosen that contain parallel placement of notes without combining naturals with sharps/flats.

*(changing intervals, parallel placement)

-Stevens #165-170, #174-206, #211-212, #225-262
-Nebojsa Zivkovic Funny Marimba, Book I; “I Mazurka” 
-Nebojsa Zivkovic Funny Marimba, Book I; “III Sizilianisches Lied”


Now that the student knows the basic double vertical motion and is feeling comfortable changing intervals, the student should be given exercises with varied mallet placement. This means that one of the mallets held in the hand can be played on a natural and the other on a flat. This technique will require the student to move the elbow away from the body and possibly to adjust the bend of the wrist. The student should make sure that the mallets strike the bars exactly on the edge of the sharps/flats and precisely in the middle of the naturals.

*(varied placement)

-Stevens #207-210, #215-217, #219, #224, #274-276
-Morleo #20-22, #27, #29-36, #39-43
-George Frock Mexican Variations (theme)


The final step to teaching students the double vertical stroke is combining these in a rolled, chorale-style piece. Chorales are some of the most difficult pieces that marimbists play because the rolls that are utilized necessitate the •illusion of sustain’ through fairly quick repetitive attacks which require fast changes from chord to chord. It is also difficult to prevent chorales from sounding metered which can be avoided by altering the roll speed.


-Stevens #171-193 (slow tempo, rolling all chords)
-George Frock Mexican Variations (variation II)
-Nebojsa Zivkovic Funny Marimba, Book I; “VII Ein Liebeslied”

Single Independent
When the student has a good grasp of the double vertical motion, he or she is ready to learn the single independent stroke. This stroke type involves having only one mallet hit the marimba, while the other mallet remains relatively still. The single independent stroke utilizes a rotating motion of the forearm and wrist. The mallet that is not striking the instrument basically serves as an axis for the rotation of the one that is. Students should practice this until they alleviate any “wobble” that can occur in the stationary mallet.

-Stevens #1-11, #16-26
-Morleo #1-11, #13, #17 (combinations: #63-64, #67-75, #77-81)
-Ruud Wiener Five Marimba Pieces for Anais; “Marimba Piece nr. 5″
-Clair Omar Musser “Etude in C Major (Op. 6 No. 10)”

Double Lateral
The double lateral stroke requires one mallet in the hand to strike the instrument and is followed immediately by the other mallet (for example, 1-2; or 2-1; or 3-4; or 4-3). On the surface, it seems like this would simply be two single independent strokes, but in reality this is a completely different motion. Because the second mallet is striking immediately after the first one, the down-stroke of the first mallet must also include the preparation stroke of the second mallet so that it is ready to strike the instrument. The combined movement is almost like a scooping motion to the left or the right (like scooping ice cream out of a container). The key to this stroke type is getting both mallets to produce the same volume of attack.

-Stevens #279-414, #462-485 (combinations: #415-461, #486-501)
-Morleo #12, #14, #16, #18; (combinations: #65-66, #76)
-Ruud Wiener Five Marimba Pieces for Anais; “Marimba Piece nr. 2″
-Nebojsa Zivkovic Funny Marimba, Book I; “IV Kampf der Samurai”

Triple Lateral
The triple lateral stroke takes the double lateral stroke and adds a thirds note (for example, 1-2-1; or 2-1-2; or 3-4-3; or 4-3-4). This minimizes the scooping motion of the double lateral stroke, replacing it with a back-and-forth (teeter-totter) motion. The most important thing to remember when teaching this motion is that each down stroke is also a preparation, or lifting of the mallet that will hit next. Teaching the triple lateral stroke after the double lateral is a good way to transition into the single alternating stroke.

-Mitchell Peters Sea Refractions
-Ruud Wiener Five Marimba Pieces for Anais; “Marimba Piece nr. 1″

Single Alternating
By now the student is getting used to a back and forth motion where the down stroke of one mallet serves as the preparatory stroke for the other. The single alternating stroke extends this back and forth motion indefinitely (for example, 1-2-1-2-1-2•; or 2-1-2-1-2-1•; or 3-4-3-4-3-4•; or 4-3-4-3-4-3-4-3•). Being able to control this motion at various tempi can be difficult. The motion should be practiced slowly at first, then increasingly faster as long as the student can maintain a consistent tempo and control of the stroke.

-Stevens #50-161 (combinations: #502-517, #522-565, #572-579)
-Morleo #44-62 (combinations: #82-120)
-Nebojsa Zivkovic Funny Marimba, Book I; “V Silvias Lied”
-Nebojsa Zivkovic Funny Marimba, Book I; “VIII Auf der Wiese”

One-Handed Roll
The one-handed roll is basically a fast single alternating stroke with a smooth and fluid motion. It is intended to impart the illusion of a sustained sound with one hand while leaving the other hand free to play other rhythms or melodies.

-George Frock Mexican Variations (Variation III)
-Nebojsa Zivkovic Funny Marimba, Book I; “IX Srpska igra”

With the right approach, a teacher can assist in developing solid marimba technique with his or her student that will set the student up for success as a percussionist. Just as no violin teacher would give a beginning student a Paganini “Caprice” to wet their feet, no marimba teacher should give a student a piece that will ingrain bad habits and sloppy technique which may take years to correct. By introducing four mallet stroke types in a sequential manner, beginning with double vertical stroke, and working all the way to the one-handed roll, a teacher can give his or her student one of the greatest gifts the facility needed to play great pieces from the mallet repertoire.

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