Top Ten Tips Composing for Marimba

Kevin Lucas • GoodVibesMarch 2021 • March 6, 2021

Composing a song on any instrument can be a challenge.  It can be very frustrating getting the creative juices flowing.  I will go through some steps to help your students move forward in this process.  Creativity is one of the most lacking topics taught in percussion pedagogy.  I feel that this is a neglected topic that can not only help the musicianship of your students, but it will also help them enjoy percussion on a even deeper level.

  1. The number one rule to composing on marimba, or any instrument, is to not force it!  If you aren’t feeling it, then don’t even attempt to compose!  Take a step back and relax and wait for the inspiration to return.  It will!  I have gone through periods in my life to where I have not felt like being creative for nearly a year because of life circumstances.  This is normal.  Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing!
  2. When your student feels like composing music, ask them if any life experiences are pressing at the moment.  The best compositions are often expired by bad, good, or emotional life experiences. And our students are overwhelmed with these experiences in modern times.   Using the tragedies of life to the advantage of your student will help them pour their heart and soul into music, which often leads to the best compositions!
  3. The first place to start is choosing a tempo and feel.  Your student does not need to go into great detail at this point.  This is a very simple step to choose a musical direction.  The topic or life experience that is being communicated in the song should be a guiding factor in choosing a tempo, feel, and time signature.
  4. Another lesson to learn may go against the previous mentioned step.  But your students should never “box in” their creativity.  Sometimes not choosing a feel or a tempo is completely ok.  Some of the best works of art in history have been “free form”.  As your students think about structure, don’t rule out having no structure!  Teach your students to always have an open mind.
  5. The next step should be choosing a chord progression.  Your student should choose a progression that fits what the work is meant to communicate .  If the mood is sad, then the chords may possibly move slowly and be based in a minor key.  If the mood is happy or aggressive, a minor or major key may be appropriate but a faster tempo may be desirable.
  6. The general rhythm of the chord progression should be the next step since this will establish the feel of the composition.  Have your student experiment with different rhythms.  Syncopation can also be a choice in an ocean of options.  Have your student choose a feel that represents what they are trying to convey.
  7. After the chord progression, tempo, and rhythmic feel are established, the melody should be the next step.  Remind your students that sometimes the simplest melody can be the most effective.  Complexity may be cool, but it may not be the correct choice for the song.  Many of the greatest songs in human history have the simplest melodies!
  8. Establish a form for the composition.  Will your student want an ABA form or sonata form?  Another option is a form with a theme and variation on a simple melody.  There are many options for form, which may even include a section for improvisation.
  9. Have your student integrate four mallets into the composition.  Your student can get more body out of the base line with four mallets.  Syncopation in rhythms will also be more effective with four mallets. The compositions can also have richer melodies because the use of chords can be implemented into the melodic material.
  10. Have your student write down the composition.  This will help keep the memory of the work intact.  I have woken up the next day and thought “How the heck did that last part go?”.  Your student may think they will remember, but it is surprising how easy it is to forget a musical part overnight.

These are not necessarily the only rules for composing a marimba song by any means, but they are building blocks to get a great start, and they are ideas that have worked really well for me throughout the years.  After the composition is complete, have your student play through the work over and over.  They will be surprised how new ideas will come after the project is ‘completed’.  Compositions are never complete.  I still think of ideas for songs that I wrote years ago that I wish I would have recorded!

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 second in the United States for concert hall percussion at the Music Teachers National Association collegiate competition in 1997.

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