This is the first post in a series I’d like to publish regularly. Every time I teach, my students and I experience an “ah ha” moment at some level. Sometimes it’s huge! Sometimes it’s something almost unnoticeable.

The Today’s Lesson series focuses on pedagogical findings I’ve made as a teacher. I’ve found ways to articulate my thoughts pretty clearly in many areas of percussion and music as a whole. I also know there are many areas I still haven’t quite nailed down how to express my thoughts. It’s like I know what I want, but I just can’t quite put my thumb on the perfect explanation.

When I have my own “ah ha” teaching moments and learn to articulate something clearly, I’ll post it here. Obviously there are many ways of tackling the infinite skills we must have as musicians. So take these as a “first pass” in many cases. Just know that if I post it here, I stand behind it. I won’t waste your time with theoretical pedagogy.

The Lesson.

I have a student whose goal is to hit the marimba festival circuit in the next few years. She’s fairly young, but has great musical instincts. While going through some vibraphone dampening excerpts today, her performance quality turned stale. It was boring and lame. Definitely don’t want to be anywhere in this performance zone if you’re going to be competitive.

Michael Burritt was just here in KY for the PAS Day of Percussion. In his marimba masterclass, he told students that percussion is truly a performance art. How we move behind our instruments is as important to conveying musicality as the sound coming out of the instrument. Thinking about Burritt’s claim, I knew this student needed some performance work.

We first isolated the performance of the mallets.

They needed to reflect the style of the music. If the music is long and flowing, the mallets must be dripping in longness as they move note-to-note. (Sometimes I think of it as a swirling circular motion where the mallet points almost straight down during the rebound more than a vertical motion). If the music is short, the mallets must be picking off notes with super quick (darn I say jerky) motions. (Sometimes I think of this as super quick up strokes where the mallets live in the “down” position).

To work on this, I had her play a 1-octave scale up and down in a stream of 8th notes. Legato ascending, staccato descending. The key here was extreme juxtaposition between the styles.

For an amazing example of possible articulations, you’ve got to check out Evelyn Glennie playing Vivaldi’s Concerto, R.V. 443, Mvt. 2 in the video below.


Once she got a handle on this, we learned to conduct an imaginary ensemble. We put the mallets down and hands out to the “beat 4” position of a 4/4 bar pattern. At a variety of tempi, dynamics, and styles, we learned to conduct our imaginary ensemble in to start an imaginary piece. Be sure to breathe with the same energy as the music and the length of the prep beat. Also, the hands must move in-time from “beat 4” to beat “1”.

Next we added this conducting concept to our stylized scales. I’d call out a scale and she’d conduct into the first note, still legato up/staccato down. We also added phrasing to the overall scale. A standard crescendo up/decrescendo down works well here. This really started to make the pro-quality performance take shape.

The next goal was to involved the entire body in the playing.

Again we put the mallets away and used only our hands. This time, we touched a high note to our right with the right hand followed by a low note with our left hand. The hands floated back and forth as we moved. Think painting rainbows from one note to another. Bending the knees slightly, allowing flexibility at the hip to lean over the board a little, and letting the neck and head move loosely on the shoulders. We really exaggerated these motions.

We even did the ever-popular Hindu squat from marching band visual warm ups. This helped wake us up to really feel our bodies and make more extreme motions than we normally make. All motions in 4-counts.

  1. Lower the chin to the chest
  2. Roll shoulders forward
  3. Upper back lowers (arm hang slightly)
  4. Lower back lowers (flat back/arm hang a lot)
  5. Go to the ground forming a ball
  6. Reverse the order until standing


Put it together. 

My student played scales just as she had before with the stylized mallet motions. But this time we added the fully body style. The mallets swirled and her body flowed from hip to head increasingly as she crescendoed up the keyboard. Then her mallets flew off the bars with great speed and lightness while making quick head snaps with each hit as she came down the scale.

This absolutely created the result I desired! A complete remodel of her physical approach to the instrument and musical style. Not only was the exaggerated musical style a much more engaging sonic experience, it actually resulted in a much more emotionally and visually engaging performance.

Again, check out Evelyn Glennie playing with the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong. It’s the definitive example of musical expression and sensitivity.

Phew…that was a long post.

Try it with a student.

I’d love some feedback on this. Let us all know how the experience went in the comment section below!