The Art of Keyboard Percussion

Mike Lawson • • October 5, 2017

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Keyboard percussion is developing into an art form, especially within the last several decades.

More composers and arrangers are scoring complex rhythms, harmonies, and melodies for the marimba and vibraphone as the instruments have quickly become a more integral part of the band and orchestra in modern compositions. As the performance demand increases for these instruments, mallet players are required to have more training than ever before.

Why has keyboard percussion quickly becoming an integral part of school ensembles?

Much of this has happened because of the influence of drum and bugle corps on the school systems. The activity has turned keyboard playing into a virtuosic art form, whereas keyboards in the past used to just embellish the band or orchestra ensemble. The repertoire for keyboard percussion literature is also vastly expanding. Only within the last half century has solo keyboard literature been a force in music.

The are several factors any band directors should consider in developing young mallet players. First of all, mallet choice is extremely important. For the absolute best quality sound, I both use and recommend the Jeff Moore signature series mallets.

They have enough weight to them, combined with articulation and depth to bring out the best tone of marimba and vibe bars. The next factor is technical approach to the instrument.

The keyboard instrument is not a drum, so it should not be approached in the same manner. A rebound or ‘piston’ stroke needs to be mastered to pull the sound out of the bar. The proper stroke is similar to bouncing a basketball. The ball is not forced downward to stay on the ground. It is pushed down and then allowed to rebound back up to the hand.

Students should practice this technique playing “8 on a hand”. This means the students should go up and down the scale, striking each note 8 times, and then switching hands. The goal is to only focus on proper technique and mastering the rebound stroke with both the left and right hand. Students should also always avoid the “nodes’.” These are the spots on the key right above the string. This will make a “dead” sound. The center of the bar should always be struck, and if there is a fast technical passage, the edge of the sharp and flat keys should be struck.

The wrists should be used the majority of the time when executing proper technique. When extremely fast passages are required, the student should use the thumb and index at the fulcrum and the three remaining fingers to play the passage. When a sixteenth note or sextuplet passage is being at 200 beats per minute, a wrist stroke along will not allow the performer to play fast and accurate.

Learning how to master the combination of a wrist stroke and finger motion should be the goal of students. When basic technique is learned, the next step is for the student to gain a thorough knowledge of the keyboard. I recommend playing simple scale exercises in all 12 major keys through the “circle of 4ths” and the “circle of 5ths’.” This will help the student become familiar with the pattern that exists in every scale and how they relate to each other.

With my groups, I have found that once the students learn a few scales, the rest come easier because they start to see and sense the pattern.

Once major scales are mastered, move to minor scales and once again go through the circle of 4ths. One exercise I recommend is playing the scale from the tonic to the 5th for a total of 3 times, and then going all the way up to the 9th scale degree and playing down to the 5th 3 times, and then playing all the way down the scale. This should happen consecutively without pause, the student should always lead with the right hand.

Chromatic scales are also highly recommended. Only after the student is very familiar with the keyboard should he or she begin 4 mallets.

For jazz and marching band without amplification, I recommend the Burton Grip. If your pit is not running through a sound system to amplify, the Burton Grip will provide much more power to project to the box. The Musser or Stevens grips have great uses as well. A more intricate passage that requires mallet independence will be executed more effectively with the Musser Grip. For additional reading, I recommend “Beginning Exercises and Studies for Two Mallets” by Ney Rosauro.

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 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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