There are many factors that go into how a percussionist sounds in performance. We aren’t always sure what model of instrument we will be performing on, or how it will sound in a particular hall. One of the ways we navigate the myriad of variables is by having an ever-deepening roster of mallets. I may spend every rehearsal using a particular mallet for a passage of music, only to find in my first rehearsal (or performance) in the hall that the mallet projects too much, or not enough, or doesn’t blend into the ensemble. There are so many mallets available to percussionists that, in my opinion, the composer shouldn’t be concerned with managing them. In this post, I will address how to instruct percussionists to produce the sounds you want, and illuminate the degree to which you should expect to have control.
Tl;dr: Mallets matter, but you probably don’t have too much control.
The best way to get the sound you want is to simply tell us. Percussionists are (or should be…) quite sensitive to the sounds we produce, and if we know what you want, we can select the right implement (standardized umbrella term for mallet, stick, beater, etc.) to achieve the desired musical effect. If a composer writes a xylophone part with the marking ‘hard plastic mallets’, I have several options for what to choose, and could pick a mallet that goes against what the composer really wants. If the composer writes ‘bright and thin’, then I have a much better idea of what the musical goal is. By specifying style and intent, you are helping the percussionist make an informed musical decision.
It is worth noting that while mallets greatly impact the sound being produced, we also modify the sound using touch. So you might have a passage that is marked ‘bright and thin’, followed by a passage that is marked ‘bright and full’. It is unlikely that I will change mallets in that time, but instead adjust my touch to achieve that sound.
Now, while stating the musical effect is very helpful, there certainly are times that a composer should specify mallet selections, mostly when there are different types of mallets being used. Most mallets are one of the following: yarn/cord, rubber, plastic, and brass/aluminum. They generally come in the gradients of hard, medium, and soft. Hard/medium/soft are not absolute descriptions; mallets come in all types of hardness. Also, brass is brass, though it could be lighter or heavier, but not really harder or softer. If I am performing on glockenspiel, there is a big difference in sound between most brass mallets and most plastic mallets, so composers should specify if they want one of those sounds. Another example - if I have no mallet instructions on xylophone, I will default to a medium plastic mallet until I know what I should change. If the composer wants a hard yarn sound on the xylophone, or a rubber mallet, that is good information, as it is different from our default sound. Samuel Solomon’s How to Write for Percussion is a good resource for information on implements and which implement can be used on which instruments.
Tl;dr: Be descriptive, and trust your performers to do the best the can with what they have.
NOTATIONAL AND LOGISTICAL CONSIDERATIONS
Mallet changes should be written in text above the staff, once the new set of mallets is being used. (see example below).
The composer may decide to add a marking instructing the player to switch to mallets at the end of the passage utilizing the first set of mallets, but this might add a bit of clutter. (see example below).
It is a good idea to let the percussionist know if they will need two or four mallets, especially if rehearsal time is limited. Some passages can work for two or four mallets, and in those situations it may be better to let the performer decide what to use.
As with any switch, please keep in mind that performers need time to switch between implements. It always helps to physically move through the motions. Often, the mallets are on a trap table or towel on a music stand, which is located at one end of the instrument. So, performers may have to walk or lean one way to access the implements.
Tl;dr: Keep it clear, keep it consistent.
Percussion and composer friends – please feel free to add your thoughts below! What topic would you like to hear about next?