Thoughts on Two-Mallet Playing.

A former student who is graduating from his undergraduate program recently contacted me and asked about different two mallet pieces that he should learn. It's my general observation, that in everybody's haste to get to advanced four mallet solos for five octave marimba to play on their senior recitals and Master's auditions, they pass a lot of good and important two mallet repertoire which is more directly related to what we really do in terms of skill set, interpretation, and styles for the majority of our lives as working musicians.

Take a look at some of the good old method books. While I do have most of my students play through parts of the Goldenberg book, I do move on to other technique/theory books as soon as I can (and I don't really care about the etudes in the back of the book.) The two most popular method books for me are the Phil Kraus' "Modern Mallet Method" and the George Hamilton Green "Instruction Course for Xylophone." I've also had a few students work out of Vic Firth's "Mallet Technique" book which is kind of like the Kraus book but without the serious music theory slant.

Here's a list of a few pieces that I think every percussionist should consider playing:

  • 1.) George Hamilton Green solos. One should look at all the solos in the Meredith Publications xylophone rags collection, but there are plenty of other pieces to look at besides these. Two in particular are Caprice Valsant, which is an easier introduction to Green's style of playing and something I have students play as soon as they are able, and Valse Brilliante, which is an excellent technical display piece that audiences will enjoy and has a lot of issues to explore in terms of style, rubato and pacing. There are a LOT of works out there either written by or arranged by Green and you should know them. Don't forget George's brother Joe and especially his solos Xylophonia and The Whistler.
  • 2.) Violin works. I know there are a lot of percussion teachers who decry the performance of transcriptions, but I think it's an excellent idea. I think that a lot of percussion students do horribly in ear training and theory classes because they aren't exposed to the music they are studying in their academic classes. Playing music written in the common practice period can only help us understand harmony, melodic lines, step progressions and to be aware of the other parts of a symphony or opera. We may be playing timpani or triangle or bass drum in the orchestra, but being keenly aware and sympathetic of what the violins are doing certainly can't hurt our musicality in a given moment.

    So many great artists have commented on the necessity of playing Bach in their lives, including Pablo Casals and Andres Segovia. With the spread of the 5 octave marimba, a lot of people are playing the cello sonatas, and I think it's because the marimba is so nice and cushy down there. I suggest looking at the violin works, especially the Sonatas and Partitas (although the concerti are good, too), because they will fit on most keyboard instruments (xylophone, vibes, marimba) and are written in the range where most of the kinds of parts we play in standard performing ensembles exist. The E Major Partita is mostly two mallet and there are a number of movements in the other five that can be played with only two mallets. There's plenty of music in these works for four mallets as well. Some people take the four mallet pieces down an octave, and that's fine, but I think working to make the upper registers sound good can only help you as a general rule. Many orchestral auditions also ask for a movement of solo Bach as the select marimba piece.

    A couple of popular transcriptions that I recommend are the Goldenberg arrangement of "Hora Staccato" and the Green arrangement of Kreisler's Tambourin ChinoisTambourin Chinois used to be a staple on the Canton Symphony audition lists. As an aside, too many people listen to the Gordon Stout recording and never actually listen to the available recordings of Kreisler playing his own piece or the numerous recordings by major violin soloists. There are a number of Green arrangements of a number of the Kreisler pieces, like Liebesfreud and Caprice Viennois which you could play as well. There are several Clair Musser arrangements to look out for including Variations on Yankee Doodle. I've played Peter Kogan's arrangment of the Mendelssohn “Scherzo" from a "Midsummers Night Dream" and I really do like it.
  • 3.) Concerti. I've frequently heard people say that they're tired of the Creston Concertino. I'm sorry to hear that. I think every serious percussionist should play it, and play ALL of it. So many people sort of learn the first movement and consider it covered. The third movement is a real workout. For me, the Creston is our Mozart Concerto. Every violinist learns at least one Mozart Concerto and no serious clarinetist can get through school without having played the Clarinet Concerto. There's a lot of stuff in Creston's writing for us. Issues of rhythm and meter, scales, etc. I think Creston could have adapted that solo part to have been played by any instrument and it would still be a great piece of music that would hold it's own on any orchestra program next to a Brahms symphony.

    I have most of my students learn the Mayuzumi Concertino for Xylophone. It's a great piece of music and a lot of fun. The solo part isn't that difficult and I say that you have to play it on xylophone. People don't like to practice on the xylophone. It takes work to make it sound good. The marimba is our encouraging friend. The sound blooms and covers up our little weaknesses. A xylophone is a halogen torch illuminating your touch issues. With that in mind, I can also recommend the Hovhaness Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints and played on a xylophone. The hard part is the last two pages. If you can get that and a few things on the two pages before, the rest of it won't take that long to learn. The last movement of Daniel Dorff's Concerto for Percussion is also available as a stand alone piece for xylophone called Allegro Volante and is available with band and piano accompaniment. I was supposed to play it at an outdoor concert a while back, but we were rained out, and it never got rescheduled. I still commend Daniel's piece to you.
  • 4.) Other pieces. There's plenty of other stuff to peruse, as well. There are a number of solos and arrangements by Billy Dorn and Harry Breuer which take George Hamilton Green as a starting point but are more modern on in terms of harmony and stickings. Some people like the Earl Hatch pieces. I've played the Furioso and Valse in D Minor and the Etude 1955, and although I don't consider them essential repertoire, it doesn't hurt to have experience with those pieces. There are two mallet Musser Etudes which are pretty tricky and the rarely played Scherzo Caprice which does have a little bit of four mallets in the middle. My former teacher Joe Adato recently showed me some etudes by Wolfgang Pachla which are very interesting and I intend to pick up this month. Some people really like the third book of Gordon Stout's Etudes. I like #12 in the set.

    I hope this brief article has inspired you or offered you a little direction. Keep looking for repertoire. If you find something that you really like, let me know, I'm always looking for things to play
Mell Csicsila