Writing for Percussion: Mallets and Related Technical Issues

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The mallets that a percussionist uses can make the difference between whether an instrument sounds superb or horrible. Part of the art of playing bar percussion instruments is learning which mallets to choose for a given situation. Since mallets are constantly being invented, altered and discontinued, this is a lifelong process. Nevertheless, percussionists can develop an acute sense of which mallets will be appropriate, often just by looking at them or knowing who made them. Sometimes, very experienced percussionists can also discern the type of mallets being used while listening to a recording.

Prior to the 20th century, mallet choice was somewhat limited. Wood, natural rubber and latex were probably the most common types of materials that mallet heads were made of. Other less-common materials that were used were metal (for orchestra bells), sponge, mallets with felt coverings and occasionally yarn-covered mallets. Due to the limited availability of mallets in general, and also because of the initial novelty of using bar percussion instruments in Western concert music at all, mallet choices were often not specified unless something out of the ordinary was wanted by the composer. One of the first composers to ask for specific mallets is Hector Berlioz. He asked the timpanists to use sponge-covered timpani mallets in his Symphonie fantastique (1830). Claude Debussy gave a special direction for one of the percussionists to use timpani mallets on a suspended cymbal in his orchestral work, Nocturnes (1899). Before 1900, it is difficult to find any written music that indicates mallet choice.

The specification of exotic mallet choices in late 19th and early 20th-century music directly coincides with the composition of timbrally-oriented works of many other composers of the time, including Gustav Mahler, Igor Stravinsky, Alexander Skryabin, Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich and Béla Bartók, among others. In fact, just when bar percussion instruments were beginning to be used regularly in concert music, many composers began writing music that used these instruments as an integral melodic and harmonic part of the music rather than merely as reinforcement or enhancement of the main, non-percussion parts. Since composers of the day did not specify exactly which mallets were needed, the choice was left up to the percussionist. Then and now, clear and effective scoring often compensate for ambiguous or absent mallet choices in the music.

Synthetic materials such as plastic and rubber were first widely used for mallet heads with the arrival of the 20th century. The use of these new mallet head materials enabled manufacturers to make mallets with much finer gradations than were possible before. With the introduction of synthetics, a new world of timbral possibilities became available. Composers and percussionists could now make even finer distinctions of dynamic and attack, with gradations ranging from extra soft all the way to extra hard even within the same family of mallets.

Although some composers give specific instructions as to which general mallets to use, this often does more harm than good. Many factors can influence how the mallets will sound, such as the instruments and type of mallets being used, the hall, the conductor, etc. If “hard yarn mallets” are called for, a variety of different brands or makes of mallets may be tried before the right mallets are chosen. Percussionists will often have a variety of mallets that sound good and feel comfortable to use in the performance spaces where they play.

The differences between one brand of mallet and another can be dramatic. For example, a medium rubber mallet made by Mike Balter Mallets might sound more like a hard rubber mallet made by Musser, or a soft rubber mallet made by another company. There are many factors that determine how hard or soft mallets will be. Some of these factors are the size and shape of the mallet head, the material used, the density of the material, the flexibility or non-flexibility of the mallet shafts, and as mentioned above, the instrument being used and the performance space.

It is also important to consider whether the percussionist will need to change mallets or not when switching between two or more instruments. There is a passage in David Felder’s Six Poems From Neruda’s “Alturas…” (1990-92) for which there are four possible solutions for switching between the vibraphone and orchestra bells. The first option is for the percussionist to use the same mallets on the orchestra bells, but this might not be the best option since medium yarn mallets on the orchestra bells will not provide an optimum sound. The second option is for the percussionist to switch mallets very quickly. At his indicated tempo of quarter note = 120, this would be very difficult, or at least somewhat tricky. Since there is a four-note vibraphone chord that occurs right before the passage, four mallets need to be held, so the third option could be for the percussionist to hold six mallets, two of them being orchestra bell mallets. Since most percussionists currently do not yet play with six mallets, this is probably not a feasible option. (Although a thorough exploration of different grips and playing techniques–i.e. Stevens, Burton, traditional, six-mallet, etc.–is not covered here, it is worth considering within the context of 20th-century bar percussion development.) The last option is to divide the part in two, with one percussionist playing the vibraphone and another playing the orchestra bells. If this option is taken, the problem is solved. (A few years ago, I had the fortune of recording the Percussion 1 Part for Felder’s CD, a pressure triggering dreams (Mode 89). This particular part was in fact divided between Patricia Cudd and myself.)

It is quite common in modern Western music for percussionists to be asked to play one bar percussion instrument immediately after playing another, or even while playing another. In fact, percussionists are often asked to play many instruments at once, especially in multi-percussion set-ups. There are many examples of this in the music of American composer Charles Wuorinen, in works such as New York Notes (1982) and Janissary Music (1966). In these works, since there is often little or no time to pick up or put down mallets, the percussionist is often asked to play two or more instruments at once with the same or a mixed set of mallets. If the instruments are similar—such as the marimba and vibraphone—this works out fine. However, if the instruments are diverse and the composer requires a variety of mallets to achieve an optimum sound, using the same set of mallets could prove to be difficult. In Janissary Music, the percussionist must choose mallets that work well on as many of the instruments as possible. Wuorinen asks the percussionists to use a soft mallet on the low metal instruments and hard mallets (i.e. metal mallets) on the high metal instruments. The sound of one or more of the instruments could be slightly compromised if appropriate mallets are not used. There are often ways to work around this dilemma such as holding three or more mallets, using double-headed mallets or using mallets that have one sound when played soft and another when played loud (i.e. two-tone mallets).

At the beginning of the 21st century, it is fairly common for percussionists to use double-headed mallets. Some companies make mallets that have yarn heads on one end and plastic heads on the other, and there are other double-headed combinations as well. Some possible double-headed combinations are: yarn head on one end, plastic head on the other; yarn head on one end, drumstick on the other; plastic head on one end, drumstick on the other, and yarn mallet on one end, rubber head on the other. Although these combination mallets are not as common, it is possible for percussionists to acquire them or make them if they do not already own them.

Part of the art of being a percussionist is to know which mallets to choose for the right situation. Since composers can almost never determine what all of the variables will be when writing a piece of music, they must rely on percussionists to be well-informed as to which mallets are available and which ones will be appropriate for a given piece of music. One way some composers have tried to deal with the ambiguity of the issue of mallet choice is by specifying exact types and brands of mallets.

John Beck calls for specific mallets because he is certain that this model of mallet will work for this effect. (Beck, also a well-known percussionist who is currently on the faculty of the Eastman School of Music, has decades of experience and is well aware of specifically which mallets will work best for a given situation. Composers who are trained percussionists perhaps have an edge over non-percussionist composers in this area.) In Jazz Variants (1972), he asks Player I to bend the note on vibes by placing an [Musser] M-3 Marimba mallet on he node of the bar, striking the bar with a Vibe mallet (Damper off) and pulling the M-3 mallet (with pressure) through the remaining length of the bar. Although the specific model of mallets that Beck calls for were available when the piece was written, they are not available anymore, at least under the same model number. The best that the percussionist who is playing the Player I part can do is to research and approximate—if no examples of the mallets exist—which mallets will work best for this effect. The main problem here is that mallet manufacturers sometimes change model numbers for different models of mallets. Specifications may change on how hard or soft the mallets are, even within the same make brand of mallets. Manufacturers also go in and out of business, so specifying exact models of mallets in a piece of music is not recommended.

The best way to deal with the issue of mallet choice is to have some sort of general expectations of the percussionist. If the “optimum sound” is wanted, as is often the case, then usually nothing needs to be said: the percussionist can be expected to use mallets that sound best on the instrument in the hall in which the instrument is being played. If a special sound is wanted, such as soft yarn mallets on the low end of the marimba, then they can be specified in the part. Other than making general specifications, it is most helpful to add a description of the desired sound if necessary.

The seven basic types of mallets to consider when deciding which mallets to write for or use for a piece of bar percussion music are yarn, cord, rubber, plastic, latex, wood and metal. Although there are many variations such as different types of metal, rubber, plastic and even different types of yard and chord, these are the general types that most percussionists own or can acquire.

Certain mallets are generally used for certain instruments, situations and dynamic levels. The following chart gives an idea of which mallets are used for which instruments, and/or for which situations:


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Table 2.1: chart of mallet use on Western bar percussion instruments according to different variables
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1. Yarn

Yarn mallets come in various hardnesses, generally extra soft, medium-soft, medium, medium-hard, hard, extra hard and even two-tone mallets. Some lines of mallets include medium soft and medium hard mallets. For marimba music, these mallets are often the first mallets a percussionist will try to use, especially for solo or chamber music playing. Using yarn mallets generally guarantees that there will be very little or no impact sound when the mallet heads strike the bars of the instrument.

2. Cord

Cord mallets often have fewer gradations than yarn mallets. These mallets often come in soft, medium and hard. Cord mallets are generally harder than yarn mallets and have a firmer impact sound. These mallets could be described as sounding closest to being a hybrid between rubber mallets and yarn mallets. As shown above in Table 2.1, these mallets are generally used for the vibraphone but are also often used on other instruments such as the marimba. In general, yarn mallets are usually used on instruments with wood bars—especially the marimba—and cord mallets are most often used for instruments with metal bars, especially the vibraphone. The reason for this is that cord is a tougher material than yarn and can withstand the harder impact and rougher texture of un-polished vibraphone bars better than yarn. Yarn mallets tend to produce a fuller tone on marimba than cord mallets. However, cord mallets usually produce a more pronounced attack than yarn on any instrument, often times because they are more tightly wrapped than yarn mallets. The gradation between hard and soft cord mallets is also usually more slight than with yarn mallets.)

3. Rubber

As with yarn mallets, rubber mallets come in various hardnesses, generally extra soft, soft, medium, hard and extra hard. Some lines of mallets include medium soft and medium hard mallets. The relative softness and hardness can vary dramatically between different mallets by different companies. However, depending on the instrument and the range, it can generally be assumed that a soft rubber mallet will produce a relatively soft sound with a soft impact sound. Rubber mallets generally have a harder impact than yarn or cord mallets.

Percussionists often choose mallets based on how they feel, and also by whether the mallets produce a “tick” sound or not. Mallet tick is the impact sound of the mallet head connecting with the bars. Percussionists generally want to avoid this tick sound as much as possible, as it interferes with the general sound of the notes being produced by the bars. Rubber mallets can produce a slight “tick” sound if not properly coupled with the right instrument or appropriate range on the instrument.

I will emphasize here that the hardest yarn mallet will usually have a noticeable impact sound, whereas the softest rubber mallets will have little or no impact sound. It is a good idea to hear percussionists play with various mallets on different instruments and in different performance spaces in order to have an idea of what they sound like.

4. Plastic

Although there are different types of plastic that are used to make these mallets, there is no general hardness scale within one type of plastic. Rather, different types of plastic are harder or softer compared to one another. For example, mallets with acrylic plastic heads are harder than those made with “Low Density Poly” heads by the same company. Most plastic mallets sound relatively similar; percussionists usually choose one set over the other based on the size of the heads and the subtle variations between the different types of plastics. It is especially wise for composers not to specify which plastic mallets should be used since the sound difference between one set and another can be very minute.

5. Latex

Latex mallets are often used for Guatemalan marimba playing, but they are also sometimes used in Western-style concert music. They often produce a slight “slap” sound, especially with the softer models. This is the result of the many layers of latex wrapped around the mallet head. The sound of latex mallets is very similar to that of rubber mallets, with the same general scale of gradations. Latex mallets generally tend to be a little softer than rubber mallets: the softest latex mallets are usually noticeably softer than the softest rubber mallets.

6. Wood

Mallets with wood heads are used much less often than they used to be and they have many disadvantages. Wood heads crack, they can only be used on instruments with bar materials harder than the wood heads themselves and they usually cannot be used on instruments with metal bars. They were used more frequently before the wide availability of plastic or rubber mallets.

7. Metal

Mallets with metal heads are used for only two types of instruments, orchestra bells and crotales. They cannot be used for vibraphones or instruments with wooden bars because they would damage the bars. The two types of metal most often used are brass and aluminum. Brass mallets are usually used for orchestra bells: brass mallet heads have a lower density than the metal used for orchestra bell bars. Similarly, mallets with aluminum heads are often used for crotales since they are made of a lower density metal than that of the crotales. Mallets with aluminum heads seem to be used less frequently than mallets with brass heads; this might be due to their lightness and relatively thin sound. On both orchestra bells and crotales, mallets with plastic heads are used quite often, sometimes more so than mallets with metal heads.

Although composers sometimes suggest mallets in their music, the choice of whether to use mallets with metal or plastic heads is usually left up to the percussionist. Percussionists will choose the most appropriate mallets according to various factors such as the size of the hall, the volume needed, the “feel” of the mallets in their hands and whether the mallets produce a “tick” sound or not. Composers are wise to let percussionists choose their own mallets, except when a sound that is out of the ordinary is needed.

Mallet Shafts

As with most aspects of percussion instrument and mallet manufacturing, there is no real standard for mallet shaft length. The only real trend regarding this is that mallet shaft lengths generally became longer.

Once percussionists began to play with four mallets, the length of mallet shafts generally increased due to the extra length needed to push the mallets further down in the hand. This development was probably initially geared toward “cross-stick” grips such as the “traditional grip” and the Burton Grip.

During the 20th century, there were many experiments with different types of mallet shaft materials. Two companies in particular, J. C. Deagan and Musser, successfully manufactured mallets with shafts made of synthetic material. The Deagan mallets are no longer manufactured, but mallets with Two-Stage Fiberglass handles are still made by both the Musser and Mike Balter companies. (The synthetic material made by the J. C. Deagan company tended to warp slightly; this may be why they were discontinued.) These “two-stage” handles are made of a fiberglass “core” with a rubber handle. This produces mallet shafts that are virtually indestructible and also have a comfortable grip with a little bit of “give”.

The following photo shows an example of these mallets:


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Musser mallets with Two-Stage Fiberglass handles

Synthetic shafts are particularly useful for school percussion sections in which the mallets might be subjected to extreme temperatures, humidity or rough use. This is a valid consideration, since natural materials such as rattan and wood tend to be affected by weather and have more of a tendency to break if not properly cared for.

The most common types of mallet shaft materials are currently wood and rattan. Stiff shafts made of wood are often the preferred choice of percussionists playing marimba and vibraphone, especially if they are using four or more mallets. The refined hand movements needed to manipulate four or more mallets necessitate the use of stiff shafts so that the mallet heads do not move around unnecessarily. Rattan shafts, if they are not stiff enough, could make manipulating more than one mallet in each hand excessively difficult. However, vibraphonists and some marimbists sometimes use mallets with very stiff shafts made of rattan. Rattan shafts are more commonly used for two-mallet playing, and especially by orchestral percussionists. The benefit of using shafts made of rattan is that they are a little more flexible, and therefore are a little easier on the hands. Less hand movement is necessary if the rattan handles provide a little bit of give.

As with many aspects of mallets, shaft material and length are personal choices, since these factors directly influence the way the mallets feel in the percussionist’s hands. The shaft material and length also determine how much work the percussionist has to do in order to achieve a good sound. Too much flex might cause the mallets to move around too much, too little flex might make the percussionist work harder than necessary to move the mallets.

In general, the material the shafts are made of often has very little to do with the actual sound of the mallets, especially if used by a seasoned percussionist. However, depending on the instrument used, the shaft material (e.g. very stiff wooden dowels versus a material like flexible rattan), the mallet head material and the shaft length, the mallet heads may give more or less contact sound when striking the bars.


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Table 2.3: approximate contact time of mallet heads on bars—relationship between different variables, i.e. head material and shaft material



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As illustrated by the chart above, the harder the material of the mallet heads and the more stiff the shafts, the more chance there will be contact sound on the bars or more contact time of the mallet heads on the bars. The length of the shafts also plays a role: the shorter the shafts, the stiffer they will be and the less they will be able to rebound. This will cause the mallet heads to be in contact with the bars for a split second longer. Percussionists compensate for this by consciously lifting the heads away from the bars more quickly. The stiffer the shafts and the harder the heads, the more they might lift. This, coupled with the type of material the heads are made of, directly influences how much contact sound or “tick” might occur. Although the contact time could probably be measured in fractions of a second, the impact sound of the mallet striking the bars will definitely sound different if two dramatically different mallets are used on the same instrument, but with the same amount of lift. This may seem like a trivial detail to a non-percussionist, but too much contact sound can make bars sound somewhat un-pitched and non-resonant.

Other Shaft Materials

There are a few instances where the shaft material does have an affect on the sound. For example, the American percussionist Julie Spencer wrote a work called Tribeca Sunflower (ca. 1990) that requires the marimba to have a “buzz effect.” The mallet manufacturer Mike Balter makes mallets designed specifically for this piece with thin dowels surrounding the handle. When performing with these mallets, the thin dowels slap against the handle to create a “buzz” effect. Although it will not sound quite the same, this could be an alternative to playing on a bar percussion instrument altered with other materials (i.e. paper, aluminum foil) or instruments with buzzing membranes in the resonators.

Conclusion

The 20th century saw the introduction of seemingly endless varieties of mallets. Although there are many types to choose from, certain types of mallets are definitely more appropriate for certain situations than others. It is usually wise for composers to let the percussionist choose which mallets will be appropriate for a given situation unless a special sound is desired.