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Pretty much as the title puts it. I haven't found any literature (so far) that covers it well, and I don't have any percussionists among my current acquaintances (more's the pity). Essentially, what sort of "hand spans" can I expect? What intervals are hard to manage in one hand? Are there any "gotchas" I should keep an eye out for when writing for them? I'd prefer to work with ranges that I can safely expect from a well-trained professional, not the exceptional cases.

I've got a sketch hanging fire involving vibes, more or less jazz (which is outside of my usual comfort zone), that I was given to collaborate on by a jazz composer of my acquaintance. Unfortunately he's a bassist - not his particular expertise either.

  • I'm curious about this, but don't know enough to answer. @jjmusicnotes you answered a four mallet question elsewhere, maybe you can answer this? – Xavier Shay Jan 19 '15 at 22:26
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Hmm. On vibes I think you can safely and easily expect each hand to be able to reach an octave span; it depends some on the player and what part of the instrument you're in generally (e.g., on marimba you can probably get a noticeably wider range - maybe out to a 10th - at the upper end of the instrument, where the bars are closer together). On vibes that extension is probably not going to be as noticeable, though I think you could still ask for a 10th at the upper end.

Range between each hand, in my experience, depends a lot on the length of the arms of the player. I wouldn't get too crazy -- maybe an octave to 12th or so between the inner mallets -- especially since you may begin to lose agility and accuracy as the hands get too far apart. Think about it - the pianist can touch the keys without playing them and know where they are, but the percussionist needs to look at the keys all the time. If they have to turn their head back and forth to see both hands, you're likely going to start getting flubbed notes.

The biggest "gotcha" I've encountered actually relates to voicing. Given the distance and placement of the accidental bars, if you have a 4-note chord with two black keys and two white keys, it is easiest for the percussionist to play the two black keys in the middle. That way, their hands are splayed outward (hold some sticks and try it, you'll see).

It is also pretty easy to play both black keys in one hand, or black key on the bottom/left of both hands (though in the latter case note that the percussionist may need to move their body to the left or the right of the instrument, making fast jumpy passages trickier). It gets difficult when you start voicing the two black keys on outsides of the hands; the player will have to turn their arms in in order to hit all four notes at once. This also sharply limits the distance available between the hands.

Furthermore, in fast passages you probably don't want to jump around between different "configurations" of the voicing so that the player has to keep switching which mallet on which hand is playing on the black vs. the white keys.

Also, small intervals on the same keyboard (white keys vs. black keys) within one hand, if I recall correctly, can be awkward too. Think about trying to get the two mallets that close together with the standard grip. The player might turn their hand so that the two mallets are playing at different parts of the bars.

The physicality of percussion in general is one of the most important oft-overlooked things I see in writing for it. They're moving around so much, and it will really help your work to try - as best you can - to replicate the basic physical actions necessary to play the part you're writing.

There's plenty of other things to keep in mind, but I think this hits most of the highlights.

Disclaimer: I'm not a percussionist by any means, just a composer who has at some point made every mistake single described above :)

  • Thanks, that's fairly comprehensive. I hear you regarding making all the mistakes, and I feel your pain. Been there, done that, got the teeshirt, wore it out and went back for seconds... :D – user16935 Jan 21 '15 at 1:51
  • You'd also want to take into consideration whether you're letting the notes ring or not when using mixed black & white key chords. You can cheat a little when the pedal is down and play on the ends of the bar, like on a marimba. Doing that while the pedal is up won't sound very good. – cjm Jan 31 '16 at 6:20
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To add my $0.02 -

There is actually a really wonderful text for percussion writing called How to write for percussion by Samuel Z. Soloman, which is fairly comprehensive (and has some really handy beater charts!)

Remember to think of physical distance - a simple 4 octave jump that would be easy on a piano might mean a marimbist having to move 6-8 feet!

For four mallet technique, most percussionists can handle an octave to a tenth in distance per hand. It is hard on their hands and is tiring though, so use intervals larger than an octave sparingly. The exact opposite also holds true: intervals that are close together are sometimes just as obnoxious as large intervals.

The most comfortable intervals fall between 3rds-6ths.

I want to also support remembering your voicings. Percussionists sometimes have to put their arms in really awkward / funny positions in order to achieve certain voicings. It takes time, is awkward, and is most of the time not worth it. If you can, try visualize how a percussionist might play each voicing. If you can't, get some mallets, go to a school, and try playing yourself. Seeing how the notes fit on the instrument can be a humbling experience.


Since we are discussing intervals, I also just want to mention that it's important for you to remember the context of your piece. If the tempo is slow and you give the percussionist lots of time to prepare the large intervals, then great, use them! But if it is fast / loud, they will become tired much more quickly.

  • 1
    Thank you! I wasn't aware of that book - I shall have to look it up. So far, actually, it looks like what I've written is not too bad - fast single note scalar passages, separated by rests from alternating dyads of a 3rd to a 6th spaced at the crochet in fairly close harmony, with the inner mallets doing most of the movement. – user16935 Jan 22 '15 at 3:44
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The pro-style 4 mallet grip allows for a very wide selection of intervals and easy switching between them. It gets kind of fidgety at the extremes, but a good player should really have no trouble reaching anything that the mallets can physically reach. For context, I am by no means a great percussionist and I honestly have little problem playing any intervals that are physically possible.

I agree with the others about voicing. One particularly nasty thing that I once watched someone else (a very good percussionist) practice was a switch between a chord that was black-white white-black (so both hands turned inwards) to one that was white-black black-white (so both hands turned outwards). Even though the notes didn't move much, it was a very extreme motion and was giving him a lot of trouble.

  • I'm trying to imagine this (the voicing problem). Does the grip constrain wrist motion? I can see it as a real problem if the motion must be done with forearms and elbows. – user16935 Jan 22 '15 at 8:33
  • Evidently it does - was just watching Jean St-Jacques (ex-UZEB) on a malletKAT. It's a more compact layout than vibes, but I imagine the stick technique doesn't change much, and his elbows were going in and out... – user16935 Jan 22 '15 at 11:33
  • @Patrx2 Percussionist employ several types of grips depending on their playing style and application. Some grips offer wider range while other grips offer more versatility / dexterity. Just write the music, let the percs worry about the grips. – jjmusicnotes Jan 23 '15 at 13:09

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