I cringe when I notice a student lean, place something, or put their hands on a keyboard percussion instrument. It’s not a table, bookshelf, or recliner – it’s a musical instrument that has to potential to be the source of amazing sounds. I’ll save instrument care and maintenance for another day, but this reaction triggers an additional thought worth mentioning here … when it comes to keyboard percussion instruments, we don’t touch them to play them. Instead, our mallets are the vehicle for every nuanced musical effect we intend to create on our marimba, vibraphone, etc. Each time we prepare a solo, perform in an ensemble, or simply practice our scales, the sound we create is at the mercy of the mallets we hold in our hands. In short, mallet choice matters!
So how does this concept work itself out in application? First, as percussionists we should be continually educating ourselves about mallet choices. This can be done experientially simply by trying out a variety of mallets (from a teacher, a colleague, etc.)or can be a product of research (websites, reviews, mallet specs and technical descriptions, etc.). Second, we should be expanding our mallet collection. No, you don’t need to own every mallet that Mike Balter makes, but there is a reason for the wide variety of mallet choices available! Even choosing to purchase one new set of mallets each year, each semester, or each quarter will constitute the first step in creating a wider palette of sound options. Third, we should listen critically to the sound we make with our instruments, not only to evaluate the impact of our stroke and technique, but also consider the implication of our mallet choice.
Every factor that goes into the creation of a mallet (shaft, core, wrap, weight, length, etc.) determines a context of sound possible when we use that mallet to strike our instrument. Every time we approach our instrument, our first concern should be that of the mallet we choose to define the sound for that instrument, for that piece, for that room, for that situation … or from a larger perspective, to define our sound.