“THE FOOTBALL FIELD vs. THE RECITAL HALL” … a mallet perspective.
by Gifford Howarth
Reprinted with permission from Percussive Notes, vol. 44, no. 6

There has been tremendous growth in the competitive arena over the past ten years in the United States. The indoor percussion activity has grown to an impressive size and has become a major ensemble in hundreds of high schools throughout the country. When you amass the number of competitive high school marching bands, indoor percussion ensembles, and drum corps in the United States, the numbers are impressive. It would be impossible to guess, but I would venture to say that these competitive ensembles have been a vehicle that introduces mallet percussion techniques to a large percentage of young percussionists. One can even point to this vehicle as a major reason for the growth of exposure to mallet percussion for high school students.

The percentage of college percussion majors that are involved in the different competitive groups has also increased dramatically. The mallet player in the higher level competitive groups, (DCI top 12, WGI World Class) today is most likely also a percussion major. Without being able to question every performing group that is out there, I would venture to think that 90-95% of the mallet performers are music majors.

The main question I am surfacing is as follows: Do the performance practices and techniques used within the competitive arena work well in the collegiate school of music/conservatory setting? I understand this is a touchy topic and one for which the answer will vary depending on the person asked, but I feel it is important to address some inherent issues. 

The reason for choosing this topic came from experiences I recently had while doing some work as a visiting clinician at a couple of different colleges. Several students prepared solo literature and I started noticing a trend; for most of the students that informed me they had marched in a competitive group, they seemed to have one style or approach to the instrument regardless of the literature they were playing. Projection seemed to be the main focus behind the playing. Be it a movement from a Bach Cello Suite, Abe’s Memories of the Seashore, or a high velocity contemporary work, the approach was similar. This concerned me and I thought about why it was happening. The following are my thoughts on the topic.

Before we continue, it is important to understand this is not an “anti-drum corps” or “anti-WGI” article. As someone who has taught and judged in these activities, I understand the benefits that these groups give to developing percussionists. These include greatly developed listening skills, solid rehearsal and practice techniques, a venue to build up the players’ chops, and they can help alleviate stage fright issues by placing the performers in front of large crowds.¹ (See end notes)

Let us first look at some relationships between these two arenas. A question that comes up within the competitive arena focuses on what the future holds for the activities. Focusing strictly on the mallet percussion side of things, a question that has been addressed to me is where I see the technical demands growing and developing in the future. Unlike the trend setting atmosphere within the competitive arenas for the battery percussion sections, the mallet sections are not developing “ground breaking” new techniques. They are borrowing techniques and approaches that have been established in the collegiate percussion arena and these techniques have been around for quite some time. This is important to understand. The collegiate techniques have directly influenced the competitive groups. What has happened to a certain extent is that these techniques have been adapted to fit into a more competitive structure.

There are different styles and approaches to mallet playing out there and several work well. It is not a question of “good” technique and “bad” technique. The issue at hand focuses on whether a certain style of playing or approach works well ALL THE TIME.

There are several performance “realities” in the competitive field that are somewhat necessary because of the activity itself. One, because the groups are adjudicated, there is this strive for “uniformity of technique”. Two, because of the playing environment, the need for projection is always present, and three, the type of instruments used in the competitive arenas can be different than those found in colleges due to dealing with weather elements.

The concept behind uniformity of technique simply means if you have four marimba players on the field or in the gym playing in unison, you want them to LOOK and sound the same. So instructors go to great lengths to achieve this uniformity. There is of course more than one correct approach or playing technique used to help make this happen. One of the popular approaches is the sharp, exact, all wrists, pulsed out upstroke and downstroke approach. This approach makes the group look pleasing to the eye, but should it be used all the time? This “piston-like” stroke is very valid and has a lot of positive benefits behind it.² (See end notes) However, when it is used to play at the upper dynamic ranges, a large amount of extra tension is used to produce the needed volume and this can lead to physical problems. Regardless of dynamic range, nuance, or expressive musicality, this single type of stroke seems to be used. Should this be the case?  

The issue of the projection of the mallet parts has always been at play within the competitive groups. A mallet choir will never win the battle against a full drumline or a full wind section. Things have gotten a little better on this front with the addition of amplification but it is still an issue. More often than not the mallet players are told to play louder so their parts can be heard. A lot of the time, especially in the younger groups, we come across what I like to call the “industrial arts class” approach. The students are not playing the instruments; they are attacking the instruments so hard that they can do physical damage to the instruments and themselves. The mallet students need to understand that when they are out of the competitive venues and at school in their auditoriums, the need for this approach is not present. Personally, I believe this certain approach should never be used. Re-orchestrate the mallet parts if they can not be heard or simply take them out if you are sold on keeping all the other musical elements present.

Focusing mainly on marimbas, there is a sound quality difference between rosewood and synthetic bar instruments. That rich, warm sound of rosewood bars is impossible to duplicate. The quality of the synthetic instruments has been getting better and better over the years and the need for these instruments are apparent. Most competitive groups use these synthetic bar instruments because they cost less, they work well out in the elements, and the bars are less likely to crack. Image what happens to a nice rosewood instrument if a student uses the “industrial arts class” approach as mentioned earlier. I am sure there have been many unhappy college professors out there spending too much money on replacement bars.

Realize that when playing on rosewood, one needs to be more sensitive. Rosewood bars are more likely to respond to subtle nuance changes in the players approach and this is something one might not be thinking about when worried about projection.

Listen to your body. If you feel extremely tense while playing and feel pain in certain parts of your arms, wrists, or hands, do not “fight through the pain”. You very well may be developing serious physical problems.

It is important for the student who is moving from one arena to another to focus on the quality of sound they are producing ALL THE TIME. Regardless if the student is on the front sideline of a football field, in a gymnasium, or on stage in their schools’ auditorium, the bottom line needs to be about getting a good quality of sound. Here are a couple of concepts that might help in this department.

Change Mallets
Start on a new solo piece and purposely use mallets that are too soft for what you need. Stick with these mallets for a couple of weeks and only play as loud as mf. Work hard at utilizing the full dynamic range within this mf limit. After a couple of weeks change mallets back to what you would use in the competitive group. Notice the drastic sound change. At this point, work extra hard and focus on playing with the same limited dynamic range from before. Notice how much harder it is to play at the lower levels. Really focus on your control at the lower dynamic levels.

Experiment with different strokes
Approach your playing from a relaxed, fluid standpoint. Purposely use more arm then normal and think of being “loopy” when you play. A term that is used that can describe this is a legato stroke. This will feel different than what you are used to. However, notice the sound difference especially in the lower ranges of the instrument. Change back and forth between the piston-stroke style and the legato style and see what you and your teacher like best.

Different playing areas
Experiment with striking the bars in different locations and see what your ears are telling you. Try in the center of the bar, off center above the resonator rail, near the node, etc. Also change the area of the mallet head that makes contact with the bar. Purposely play with your hands a little higher then normal so you change the angle of the shaft for the downstroke. The pile of yarn near the top of the mallet head will make contact with the bar rather then the center of mallet head. This will change the sound also.

Record yourself
This is something that students do not do enough or at all. You will be amazed as to what you THINK you sound like versus what you will actually hear when you are not “in the moment” listening to yourself. With the advancement of cheap recording devices like the minidisk player or recordable mp3 players, it is easy to get a high quality, instant recording of your playing. Besides “quality of sound” issues, tempo issues can also be exposed when you listen to yourself off of a recording.

The involvement of a college percussion major in a competitive ensemble can be a beneficial experience for the student. It is important for the student to understand that ALL of the skills and approaches they learn in that competitive arena may not apply well to their everyday college performance practice or experiences. I hope this article has shed some light on how to adapt your playing so it works well within both arenas.

End Notes:

¹ Keep in mind, one important skill that the competitive activity does not develop is the skill of sight reading.

² Some of our greatest professional players today use this type stroke quit a bit. However, notice how relaxed they are when they play.


Dr. Gifford Howarth is currently Assistant Professor of Music of Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, PA. He has presented several workshops and clinics focusing on mallet and marching percussion throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. He has been on the instructional staff of many DCI/DCA corps including The Cadets, the Syracuse Brigadiers, and the Rochester Patriots, along with WGI percussion ensembles including Northcoast Academy and The Project. He is a national adjudicator for WGI Percussion , Drum Corps International,  and Bands of America along with several state wide marching band and indoor percussion ensembles. For information about his publications and upcoming events, go to www.giffordhowarth.com.