Power Up! Beginning Percussionists Success on Keyboard Instruments

Success on Keyboard Instruments

Tips and Tricks for getting your students comfortable playing and reading behind any mallet instrument.

Before even tackling how to approach and play the instrument, students need to know their notes on the staff (both treble and bass clefs!) and where they fall on the keyboard. Make sure they know where middle C is on the staff and where it is on the instrument—it’s not always in the middle of the instrument! As you teach them the notes on the staff, have them grasp the correlation between moving “up and down” the staff and to the right and left of the instrument. Also have them be able to see a note on the staff and quickly pick it out on the keyboard. With my beginners, I try to get them to move as fast as possible and make it slightly competitive. This will help with sight reading later on!

When approaching the instrument, first things first: how to hold the mallet

Take your mallet and hold it horizontally. Divide it into thirds including the head of the mallet. Place your thumb on the lower third with the thumb tip pointing towards the head of the mallet. Be sure that the middle of the squishiest part of the thumb right behind the thumb nail is flat on the mallet. Then take your index finger and curve it to make a lower-case r shape. This creates indentations on your joints. While still curved, place the indentation closest to the index finger tip right behind the thumb nail. This, also known as the fulcrum, should feel really secure since the curved finger almost cradles the mallet in the indentation. Wrap the rest of the fingers all the way around the mallet, leaving a small gap (approximately 1 cm) between the index and middle fingers. This small gap helps to adapt for the difference in width of a snare stick and mallet. The back fingers will not open and close while moving the mallet until students play at really fast tempos, so for now, keep the hand closed and those back fingers all the way around the mallet, using the wrist to move the mallet up and down.

Mallet Grip

How to stand behind the instrument 

When approaching the instrument, the height should be equal to where the student’s wrist naturally bends. Avoid using the waist or belly button—younger students’ torsos and legs grow too rapidly to make that a consistent unit of measurement. Students should stand behind the instrument with their feet open at shoulders’ width and equal weight distributed on each foot with their center of body behind whatever they’re playing. They should step from side to side as necessary to keep their center of body behind what they’re playing; be sure they don’t cross their feet as they do this. Have students bring their mallets up by attaching an imaginary string to their wrists. Pull that straight up until their forearms are slightly below parallel to the floor—there should be a natural downward angle to their forearms and their arms should hang naturally from their shoulders. Keeping the wrist low, pull the mallet head up with the wrist and step up to the keyboard. Their hands should be close to the keyboard without touching it and when they strike the instrument, the key should be hit with the middle, thickest part of the mallet. If they’re hitting the upper part of the mallet, the instrument is too short, and if they’re hitting the shaft/stick of the mallet, the instrument is too high. 

Mallet Percussion Posture

Time to Play!

With their wrist low and mallet heads up at the top of their stroke, have students strike the instrument with wrists moving in a straight, fluid up and down motion. I find that if you tell them to view only half their thumb nail when looking at their hands, they’ll keep the correct wrist motion. Have the mallet return to the starting position in the air each time they strike the instrument. Begin this practice with hitting both mallets at the same time—you can choose to play octaves or any other interval to start. Have them watch not only where they hit on the instrument but their hands as well, making sure both hands look and feel the same. 

Playing With Fluid Strokes

After students are comfortable playing with both mallets at the same time, have them alternate and stress the same beginning mechanics, especially that their right and left hands sound the same. When alternating on the same note, mallets should aim to hit the same spot on the bar; if their arm and wrist angle creates a symmetrical “piece of pie” and they pull their mallets up to the top of their stroke with their wrists, the mallets should stay out of each other’s way. This motion takes some training and practice so be sure to make this part of a daily warm up routine. 

What part of the bar to strike for the best tone?

When learning to play any of the keyboard instruments, students should aim for the middle of the bar for the best sound possible. Once students are able to control their aim, they should aim a little off center in the lowest registers of the marimba and vibraphone over the resonator rail. This will give a little more of a pure sound. On the upper manual of the instrument, students should do their best to push forward to the middle of the bars. Only if it’s a fast passage should they pull back and play on the very edge of the key. They should keep their wrists low and move their elbows forward to play these keys; don’t let them raise their arms more than necessary or they’ll play with an incorrect part of the mallet. This is a very common problem with beginning percussionists. Students should also avoid “stacking” their mallets with one mallet higher or lower on the bar than the other when playing on a single bar. 

Mallet Percussion Bar Placement

How can all these skill sets be implemented while teaching the rest of the band?

The best way to allow students to practice all these things is to make it part of your daily warm up routine. Spend a few minutes before the school year begins modifying your winds’ warm ups for percussionists. Keyboard warm ups can include wind notes being rolled, alternated, in octaves, and various rhythm patterns added to be in unison with wind parts. When rolling, make sure students are going for even strokes that are just fast enough to make the instrument sustain without hearing individual strokes, do NOT play as fast as possible. Long tones can also be arpeggiated or have chromatic scales played alongside them on keyboard instruments. Give students a mental checklist with their posture, hands and playing motions as you teach them and remind them to go through those mental steps every time they play. Also empower your percussionists to help each other and give each other criticisms throughout the class. You can also implement a buddy system where each student has a buddy that they check with throughout the class and keep an eye on their hands, posture, notes, etc. This is especially helpful if you pair a more advanced student with someone who may need more guidance. The percussion section is unlike any other, and if you prioritize them being a team that gets better by working together, the section will excel and create a positive culture for future years. 

Mallet Rolls

Reading and playing the keyboard

When first learning to read, keep the music stand low to develop students’ peripheral vision. They should be able to see their notes and the music in the same view. Have them look at their music and place mallets or fingers on the keys they’re reading to allow their peripherals to grow.  Over time, raise the music stand little by little and their awareness of where the notes are and their ability to use peripheral vision will get better. 

Music Stand Placement

In conclusion, all the basics discussed above will help your students become comfortable behind any keyboard instrument with consistent practice! Make sure you progress slowly at the beginning, creating good habits with positive feedback. Constantly check hand and finger positions on the mallet, make sure the wrist motion moves straight up and down without any excess arm motion. Teach them what a good tone sounds like and have them strive for that at all times. Most of all, keep your percussionists engaged while doing keyboard basics; change up your warm ups, keep them fun and new! Lastly, make sure the entire percussion section is all helping each other; creating a fun, safe and positive environment for them to learn and grow together is key to a great percussion culture at your school with happy well-rounded percussionists!

Explore More Power Up!

Claire Smith Kenney is a percussion educator, clinician, and performer in the Greater-Atlanta area. She is currently the Percussion Director at Pope High School and teaches at Kennesaw State University as an adjunct percussion instructor. She is originally from Cumming, Georgia and attended Jacksonville State University in Alabama for her Bachelor’s degree in Music Education. Claire then continued her education at Texas Christian University where she earned her Master’s degree in percussion performance.

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