I am working on this percussionist part. Is the switching from vibes to marimba possible at this tempo? Can the marimba be put behind the vibes or at right angles to the vibes so the player doesn't have to move much? I assume there are mallets that can be used on either instrument?

Many years ago this piece was played at the LA Olympic Arts Festival, the Aspen Festival and other places, and yet I can't recall any complaints. Am I forgetting, or were there none? It seems to me now that I was making a mistake. (I remember LA Phil members telling me they faked some of Ligeti's music because it was too hard to play! I am sure they didn't tell him!)

I can't be sure from the recording whether the switch was made because the marimba plays in the loud sections and the recordings aren't that great.

vibes to marimba - is it playable

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    So... are you asking because now you are getting complaints? Or just your own concerns? Commented Apr 30 at 19:39
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    From hub.yamaha.com/music-educators/instruments/perc/… While yarn marimba mallets would produce a good sound from the vibraphone, the metal bars will damage the yarn and lessen the articulation. Commented Apr 30 at 20:02
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    It’s certainly not ideal to use the same mallets on both instruments. I’d expect a player to use the hardest yarn mallets they are comfortable with on the marimba to get the least muffled vibes sound. Harder vibes mallets could risk cracking a low marimba bar. I do think mallet switching is the biggest issue with the changes because it’s easier to silently take a few steps than to silently and quickly put down and pick up mallets. Commented Apr 30 at 23:33
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    @drburt Are you the author of this question? If so, please be aware that using multiple accounts is frowned upon. If you have issues regaining access to the "HughP" account, please try to recover it, otherwise you won't be able to properly interact (and eventually accept/vote) with the question and its answers. Commented May 1 at 2:04
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    As a percussionist, I wouldn't even question it if I got handed something like this. It's pretty standard in contemporary solo and chamber writing. As long as you aren't expecting vastly incompatible tones between the keyboards, because mallet switches would be issue.
    – Alex Jones
    Commented May 1 at 9:14

3 Answers 3


Most of what you wrote is theoretically playable, but consider that it's extremely risky, because it requires the player to:

  • use the same 4-mallet set for both instruments, which may not be advisable both for sound requirements and instrument sensitivity;
  • use the same grip technique for both instruments (more on this later);
  • have both instruments very close and positioned compatibly to their movements, which is not always possible: a 90° position between them allows fast changes, but the stage may not allow it;
  • have a copy of the part for each music stand (this really shouldn't be a problem, but you never know): obviously, if the player is skilled and responsible, they may learn the piece by heart;

In reality, I would seriously discourage that writing.
Analysing your part, I'd say that the only "safe" change is between bars 11 and 14. Everything else is strongly discouraged and a good performance would require two players instead.

Remember that while vibraphone and marimba are similar in concept, they are obviously different.

The player may prefer different techniques on each instruments: for instance, the Burton grip on the vibes, and the Stevens grip on the marimba.

While both techniques may be used on the other instruments, the player may not be so used to that usage, mostly because mallets of those instruments have different lengths, weight and balance, and your piece is also relatively fast and difficult, leaving less margin for adaptability.

Using the same mallet set may also be a problem. Besides the possible damages that could affect the instruments or the mallets, the required sound may not be compatible.

Switching instruments also requires some time, both physically and mentally. Even assuming that the player keeps the same mallet set, you need to consider:

  • the time to actually go from one instrument to the other;
  • the reasonable time required for the vibraphone sustain pedal, in order to avoid abrupt stops;
  • the mental time required to the player to "adjust" themselves to the different keyboard layout;
  • the sound stage floor (don't underestimate it, a player running to another instrument can make some very loud and annoying sounds);

Finally, remember that, as composers (and arrangers/copyists), we should always try our best to keep the musicians at their ease, leaving them the necessary time and conditions to be able to play as best as they can.

Continuously switching between instruments in a matter of seconds certainly does not meet that requirement.

Don't be afraid to write more parts for separated instruments (but don't write too many). A good percussionist, possibly the principal, will eventually be able to merge what required based on their possibilities.

A possible alternative is to write parts with multiple staves for each instruments: in this way you can still have "one part", and the percussion players will eventually manage that on their own.

In any case, consider the following rules of thumb:

  • leave at least 4-5 seconds between percussion instrument changes; possibly, double that;
  • double that again for changes between "incompatible" instruments (for instance, keyboards and drums) or even more for instruments that have incompatible accessories (eg. mallets against pair of cymbals);
  • test it yourself: if you're not a percussionist, you can safely consider your reference as the lowest assumption for that change, so if you're not able to do it, the player shouldn't have to do it (even if they could);
  • The first change doesn't strike me as bad as you make out - the percussionist merely needs to hold down the pedal on the vibraphone until about 5 beats from the change, but they don't actually play any notes from 11 beats before the change, almost exactly as long as the change in bars 11-13 (>5 seconds). I'd say the player should have sufficient time to hit the last vibraphone note in bar 4, start to change their mallets during the sustain, and then lift their foot off the pedal and switch to the marimba. No need to spend 7 beats doing nothing but holding a foot on the vibraphone pedal. Commented May 1 at 13:30
  • @NuclearHoagie Mallet changes are delicate. The other set must be very close to the vibraphone, possibly on a percussion table large (and free) enough to also hold the vibes mallets, as even trying to gently laying the mallets on the vibes may cause unwanted sounds (and they may even fall down if one's not very careful, possibly exactly when the pedal is released). As said, it's not impossible, but I'd discourage it. I understand that it theoretically makes sense to only have one player since they never play together, but changes should also be reasonable. Commented May 1 at 15:18
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    Thanks, Justhalf! I dithered and now am decided - 2 players it is! I also had some other percussion passages that two players will allow me to add! When the piece is next played, I will tell Perc 2 owes you thanks for the gig!
    – HughP
    Commented May 2 at 0:20
  • @HughP justhalf only edited the post, I wrote the answer :-) Anyway, you're welcome! Remember that if you're satisfied with an answer, you should mark it as accepted by clicking the gray tick mark on its left. Commented May 2 at 0:37
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    I’ve decided to downvote this answer because I feel like it’s too broad and simplistic. Again, the piece has been performed before. A piece with these technical challenges should only be programmed in coordination with the performers, and they would give the final say on whether it’s doable for them. Suggesting an arranger or composer who doesn’t play a particular instrument should judge playability of a passage based on their own skills makes sense in many cases, but would exclude the possibility of writing flattering technical work for concertos and similar pieces. Commented May 2 at 3:20

Speaking as a percussionist, instrument transitions aside, I notice some other problematic parts in this music:

  • Measures 9, 13, and 14 require relatively awkward sticking that would be moderately difficult to pull off with good sound at the tempo requested
  • The transition between measures 23 and 24 require quite a bit of jumping around on the board -- quite literally a large leap from right to left while playing
  • The last note of bar 24 doesn't exist on the marimba. Marimbas will bottom out at either C3, A2, F2, E2, or C2. It's possible you might find a unique, exotic marimba that might go a few notes lower, but I have my doubts that any marimba currently in existence has an Eb1
  • Likewise, the very loud dynamics prescribed in the low register of the marimba in bar 24 are a very good way to crack the bars. If this the only instrument being played at that moment, then the volume can be modulated to a degree that won't damage the instrument, but if this part of a fabric of sound with other instruments, I would seriously rethink the approach there.
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    Good catch on that lower note (but it actually is a Db). In reality, bass/contrabass marimba do exist ( lapercussionrentals.com/instruments/bass-marimba-contrabass chrysalis-foundation.org/instruments-and-music/bass-marimba ), but I agree that finding one going that low would be almost impossible for a standard percussionist/ensemble. Commented May 1 at 15:38
  • Good to know. I want to make things eay, so what if I put "ossia:omit" over this passage? I relied on the Wikipedia page for Marimba which shows a low C (cello) as the lower limit for the marimba. Not all marimbas are created equal - so if it's rare, I won't count on it!
    – HughP
    Commented May 2 at 0:16
  • Thanks, Tristan for the detailed notes - I will work thru them!
    – HughP
    Commented May 2 at 0:18
  • C2 (cello C) is the lowest you will see for a "standard" Marimba, but E2, F2, and A2 are more common. You typically won't see much lower register use out of a Marimba in ensemble settings unless the part is very exposed, as you're limited in how aggressively you can play those notes without damaging the instrument (lower notes means thinner bars). If the marimba part is at the same time as any wind instruments, especially brass, I'd honestly leave off anything lower than, say, G2, as the sound will just get lost
    – Tristan
    Commented May 2 at 18:29
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    I'll also add that for fast playing, it's important to keep in mind the tone profile of the different registers. At the low end, the attack is almost exclusively high overtones, with the fundamental not really asserting its presence until a not-insignificant fraction of a second later.
    – Tristan
    Commented May 2 at 18:32

I'm simulating this in my house with drumsticks and a couple tables, I don't own a marimba or vibraphone. But it should translate.

Space permitting, the instruments would probably be side-by-side, both facing the conductor. Without a mallet switch- 2 seconds is enough, although of course the player will need to practice orienting themselves (finding the next note) at the second instrument quickly. The player can just use soft cord mallets on both instruments with no technical issues. Your piece is cutting it close, but it's definitely doable.

If you require a mallet switch for tonal reasons, you need to allow more time. I can safely go from 4 mallets to 4 mallets in 4 seconds if the mallets are pre-set on the instrument I'm switching to. Your piece is definitely too fast for this. This would take even longer if the player is pulling from mallet bags.

  • Thanks for testing it out! Are you a percussionist? (sounds like it) Very encouraging. I will use this as a guide as well as consider the advice above regarding mallets.
    – drburt
    Commented Apr 30 at 23:57
  • Would a part long enough to need page turns be a factor also? I'm guessing you'd have two stands with the same part on both stands? Commented May 1 at 0:45
  • Right, I'm ignoring that aspect- You could get around it if you have 2 music stands with duplicate parts, or if you have a separate part for marimba and vibe, or if instrument switches happen at page turns, or if at least one of the parts is memorized.
    – Edward
    Commented May 1 at 1:46
  • Btw it’s for sextet so probably wouldn’t be conducted, but the players would want to be able to see each other. I did just see a perc recital where two players faced away from the audience to see the other players on a crowded stage, so an unusual setup might be warranted. Commented May 2 at 3:25

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