Mastering Marimba: Laying the Foundation for Independent Rolls

Mike Lawson • Repertoire • November 12, 2015

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(c) ShutterstockIn the late 1970s, the independent roll technique was reserved for a handful of major new works for marimba. The focus of this article is the roll as developed by marimba virtuoso Leigh Howard Stevens. Over the past forty years, the independent roll has become common in marimba literature. It is also a technique that has no published method book devoted solely to its development.

It has been my experience that most young students rush to learn these rolls in an effort to play new music for contest or a recital. My observation is that many students try and learn through online videos or “teach themselves” and the result is a poorly executed, misbalanced one-handed roll.

In this article, I will introduce nine developmental exercises for independent rolls. These will include concise instructions and suggested tempos to properly execute the technique.

Independent Roll ExerciseEXERCISE 1

Focus on evenness of sound between both mallets. This is not the single alternating stroke, rather a continuous motion of the wrist that has a centered “pivot point” in your hand between the mallets. It is best to start with the interval of a 5th, one hand at a time. Expand to 6ths, 7ths, and octaves, each interval being played  chromatically in all keys. Begin exercises 1 through 5 at 120 bpm, gradually increasing to 140 bpm.

Independent Roll Exercise 2EXERCISE 2

These are the same rhythms as Exercise 1, but start on the lower note in each hand. Note that the wider the interval, the less rotation (or torque) is required. Be sure to play near the ends of the upper keyboard (sharps and flats) for ease of movement.

Independent Roll Exercise 3EXERCISE 3

In a logical pedagogical order, this exercise combines 1 and 2 alternating between hands. You will practice starting with both upper and lower notes in each hand.

Independent Roll Exercise 4EXERCISE 4

Think of this like a drum set exercise, playing steady quarter notes with your feet while playing 16ths with your hands. Except, in this case, your “feet” become your left hand. Line up the right hand exactly with the quarters in the left hand. You can also combine intervals between the hands to form chords. For example, 5ths in the left hand, C-G with 6ths in the right hand, E-C. Play all chromatically in every key.

Independent Roll Exercise 5EXERCISE 5

This is number 4 upside down, but many players have difficulty with the left hand roll development, so remain diligent on evenness of sound and rhythm with the rolls.

Independent Roll Exercise 6EXERCISE 6

At this stage, with careful and patient practice, you should have developed a continuous motion of 16th notes that are balanced in sound and accurate in rhythm.

One of the faults I hear in independent rolls is the speed is so fast, it is unnatural. It is always best to try and duplicate the sound of a roll that you would play with both hands (two mallets). Then, go back and play the same roll one-handed, trying to maintain the same speed and balance.

 The remaining exercises are designed to move away from the metric feel of the 16th note roll base. I often associate this with the same thinking as a timpani roll or a multiple bounce roll on snare. There is no set metric pulse, you just roll at the speed appropriate to the range and dynamics. Here, there is also an interval change during the roll. Make it as smooth as possible, as you would playing with just 2 mallets.

Independent Roll Exercise 7EXERCISE 7

The inclusion of arpeggiated figures between the hands adds another degree of difficulty. Try practicing major and minor keys to expand your technique.

Independent Roll Exercise 8EXERCISE 8

A variation of this exercise would involve changing intervals to 3rds in the rolling hand, forcing a more extreme hand/body position to play correctly.

Independent Roll Exercise 9EXERCISE 9

Playing scales with arpeggios increases the difficulty further. Doubling the rhythm to 16th notes forces your concentration to the non-rolling hand.

Further Study

After mastering these exercises, introduce some more advanced concepts into your rolls. The outline below provides some guidance moving forward.

  • Speed should not be metric, but if you have a roll that sounds heavy on one hand, try thinking in groups of 5’s. This will force the “beat” from the upper mallet to the lower and hopefully help balance your sound between the two.
  • The lower the range, the slower the roll, you are just connecting the length of “ring time” to sustain the sound.
  • The higher the range, the faster the roll, just as you would play with 2 mallet rolls.
  • Softer dynamics, especially in a lower register, translate to slower rolls.
  • Louder dynamics require faster rolls in general.
  • To develop greater independence, try playing syncopated rhythms in your non-rolling hand.  
  • Continue to develop interval changes while rolling, starting with octaves and decreasing the interval in half notes or quarter notes to a 3rd.

There are many more creative ideas and drills to improve the independent roll. With careful and patient practice, I hope the exercises in this article have provided a higher level of comfort in executing this technique correctly.

Jamie Moyer, DMAA native of Shamokin, PA, Dr. James Moyer is director of bands at Texas A&M International University where he also teaches and develops the percussion program. Dr. Moyer is timpanist in the Laredo Philharmonic Orchestra and former timpani/keyboard specialist with the Allentown Band, America’s oldest civilian band. He has performed as timpanist or percussionist with orchestras in Oklahoma, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Texas. He has published several methods on four mallet marimba, xylophone solos with band, and numerous articles in national music journals.             


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