Memorizing mallet percussion music

Today I got to draw my favorite picture on the board for my students.

That’s a percussion student standing on a dock and those are the shark-infested waters of memory slips in the water. One must build a dock with at least four pillars of support: (1) kinesthetic, (2) aural, (3) visualization, and (4) analysis.

Most developing mallet players only do 1 and 2, which is why they struggle with memory slips. 1 and 2 are important, but ultimately unreliable, especially when conditions are not ideal (e.g., cold room, no warm up, strange instrument, nervous, etc) 3 and 4 is where the real tedious work begins, but also guarantees a deeper knowledge of the piece, and is critical for preventing memory slips.

These ideas aren’t mine. Great pianists have been doing this for hundreds of years. I also learned this from Leigh Stevens when I attended his excellent marimba summer seminar in 1994. And then I learned it again in 2003 when I went on tour with Keiko Abe. Every day I would sit next to her on the bus as we went from town to town in Japan and she would have her eyes closed, in fierce concentration. Every once in a while she would pull out a score and study it for a few minutes and then put it back. She was visualizing herself playing the piece and whenever she got stuck and couldn’t remember which chunk of wood she was supposed to strike she would double check the score.

These techniques work. I tell my students about a book I read some years back that cited some research where scientists got together a group of people who had never thrown darts before. The scientists had everyone throw darts and they recorded the scores. Then the subjects were divided into three groups: a group that would physically practice throwing darts for a set time every day, a second group that would just visualize themselves throwing darts (and hitting the bulls eye), and a third group that would do a combination of throwing and visualizing every day. At the end of a period of time they all threw darts again and their scores were recorded.

The results were interesting. All of the subjects improved, but the group that improved the most was the group that did the combination of throwing and visualizing. But here’s what is really fascinating: the group that came in second was the group that only did the visualizing! The group that made the least progress was the group that only physically threw the darts.

Marimbas, vibraphones, xylophones, and glockenspiels aren’t much different than the bulls eye on a dart board. If you want to hit the right chunk of wood or metal every single time, no matter how adverse the conditions, you need to spend time visualizing yourself doing it successfully.

You also need to do some analysis of the piece so you have the structure mapped out in your mind. That works hand in hand with the visualization. The kind of analysis will change depending on the language of the piece. Obviously chord analysis won’t apply to a modern piece of chromatic music or a minimalist piece, but it really doesn’t matter how you analyze it or what terminology you use to label the different parts of the piece. What matters is that you have a road map in your head and that you can explain the piece to someone. Only then do you really have it learned.

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