A vibraphone is a unique keyboard instrument that requires a unique approach. Rather than being viewed as a marimba with metal bars and a pedal, the techniques and concepts that give this instrument its unique sound and character should be thoroughly considered and exploited. A short article won’t cover all the variables in play, but here are three quick Cs that can help you improve your quality of sound when approaching the vibraphone.
Before even playing the first note on the vibraphone, consider the harmonic indications of the music you are playing. Because the instrument has a pedal, you are able to control when the notes you strike are allowed to sustain and when the instrument is dampened. Just like the end of every line of music isn’t the end of a phrase, neither is every barline or strong beat within the measure a change of harmony. Take time to do a quick chordal analysis and determine when the harmony changes. Use those points as the primary indication of where pedaling would be appropriate.
The most frequent error I see in pedaling is motion of the pedal in parallel with the mallets. Too often, as the mallet lifts to prepare for the next stroke, so does the pedal to dampen the previous sounding notes. This creates unmusical space, as if a wind player took a breath before each note or string players lifted the bow every time they changed direction. Yes, sometimes there should be a breath or space between notes, but most often we should strive to have one note begin to sound simultaneously as we are dampening the previous note. This is only accomplished with contrary motion between the mallets and the damper bar. As the mallet descends to strike the bar before a rebounding in a legato motion, so should the damper bar ascend, touch the bars, and then rebound again off the keys to allow the newly struck note(s) to ring freely.
Beyond the damper bar, the mallets in our hands also can serve as a muting agent, able to dampen individual notes while others ring free. Facility with mallet dampening is a critical skill to musical performance on vibraphone. Whenever more than one pitch is allowed to ring at a time, there may be an opportunity to create clarity by removing individual pitches to avoid clashing pitches or simply to better highlight a note of choice. Mallet dampening can be done quickly to immediately mute a bar or to gradually fade out a pitch. Mallet dampening provides a vibraphonist with another tool beyond the pedal that is arguably much more precise and flexible in controlling resonance.
Here’s to better sounds and better music on your vibraphone!
Josh Gottry is a respected educator, accomplished percussionist, and internationally recognized composer who has been working with, and creating music for, the next generation of percussionists for over twenty years. He has served on the music faculty of college and university campuses around the Phoenix metropolitan area, works regularly with ensembles and students at all grade levels as a clinician and within his private lesson studio, and his performance record includes professional orchestras, musical theater, worship teams, jazz combos, community and chamber ensembles, as well as solo performances and recitals. Gottry is an ASCAP award-winning composer whose works have been performed at universities, junior high and high schools, and multiple national conferences, and he serves as editor for Rhythm! Scene. Along with Paul Buyer, he is co-author of The Art of Vibraphone Playing, published by Meredith Music.