The vibraphone in the university setting is the “elephant in the room.” The instrument has fascinated a lot of percussionists, but it scares them to death as they realize there is a lot more to this instrument than just hitting the bars with a mallet. The pedal and the ringing bars are the problem. It’s much easier to control all playing aspects on the marimba: if you want a note to sustain, you roll, and there is no pedal and no ringing notes.
Then there is the issue that the vibraphone has been associated with jazz from its conception. One is then expected to know chords, modes, and have the skillset to improvise and create chord voicings on the fly with proper voice leading and correct use of tensions (9, #11, 13, etc.). It’s too complicated. Just play Bach on the marimba and all is good. I see more college percussionists playing nice marimba than I do playing nice vibraphone pieces.
Yes, the vibraphone is somewhat complex to play well; however, it is obtainable with proper coaching and knowledge and, of course, practice. This is the reason that I started the “Ask Jerry” series, to help clarify the mysteries of the vibraphone. As a professional mallet artist/clinician, I frequently get asked questions regarding vibraphone technique, harmony, improvisation, mallet selection, dampening and pedaling, etc. I not only get these questions from private students but during my clinic events and through emails. I began by answering these questions one on one, but started to realize as I was getting several redundant questions that there is a strong desire for common knowledge on the vibraphone. I decided that instead of answering question one at a time, I would put together a video series titled “Ask Jerry Tachoir.”
We are now finishing season two of what is becoming a popular series on YouTube and is available to all percussionists across the globe at no expense. I’ve received great comments on the series, as this has been a great format to help educate and answer common questions, especially for those who live in remote areas and are unable to find a local vibraphone teacher. If you want to ask me a question, go to my website at www.tachoir.com and click on the upper right contact tab. Fill out the information and ask your question, and I will offer a video answer and post on YouTube or on the education tab on my website.
Sadly, many university percussion teachers are not proficient on the vibraphone, and that is understandable, as the percussion world requires knowledge on so many instruments. Playing vibraphone well requires a lot of time learning to control the ringing bars through proper dampening and pedaling techniques. Being a good vibraphonist takes a lot of clinical observation and harmonic knowledge of what notes can ring together and not sound bad and what notes really need to be dampened. Ringing half steps and seconds, for example, can sound horrible, unless you want a specific dissonant effect. Intervals larger than 3rds can sound fine and be allowed to ring to help support the harmony. The vibraphone offers the ability to sustain a chord and play a melody or improvise on top while the harmony is sounding. This, again, requires a great deal of dampening technique to pull it of and sound clean.
Another issue I’ve noticed with mallet players in general is a lack of dynamics. Everything tends to be loud with a lot of arm motion. You need to reduce motion of the arms and mallets to increase accuracy and speed; with less motion, you are more likely to NOT hit a wrong note. Sensitivity on the instrument through dynamics and phrasing creates a very musical performance, which is the desirable outcome. Don’t rely on sheer strength to play loud; use microphones to enhance the volume and prevent injury to your wrists. Playing too hard takes the subtleties out of one’s performance and inevitably causes technique problems. Playing clean, clear, with stimulating improvisations and lush harmonies comes with keen observation of all these mentioned techniques.
I haven’t even mentioned finding a mallet that works for you and gives the desired sound. I’m not one for using a hard mallet to be heard. I dislike the harsh sound of the vibes played with a hard mallet. I prefer a subtle, slightly softer mallet that offers a full tone from the bars without a lot of the attack. I’m very lucky to have worked with the Innovative Percussion Company to create such a general mallet that covers the entire spectrum of the sound I’m looking for, from soft to very aggressive and everything in between, even on the marimba. Having recorded several albums with these mallets, I truly believe I get the best vibe sound — very full, very lush without the obnoxious clanking and attack sound.
Recording the vibraphone is a bit of a challenge. There can be issues with frame rattling, pedal noises, dampening bar sounds, and the transients associated with the bars themselves. That would be a whole other article, but trust your ears and be flexible to adjust your technique and mallet usage to get a good recorded sound. You will be pleased with the outcome if you put the time into it.
Even thought the vibraphone is known as a predominant jazz instrument, it can be used in any situation. I’ve played on pop albums, bluegrass albums, and rock albums, and have played gigs throughout my career in many different styles of commercial music. It creates a nice novelty look and sound to the group. Next time you book a gig, consider a four-mallet vibraphonist instead of a keyboard player; you might be surprised how well this goes over.
Yeah, the vibraphone is the elephant in the room and that can be the real star of the circus. Enjoy.
Jerry Tachoir is a Grammy-nominated contemporary jazz mallet artist and a graduate of the Berklee College of Music. He is the author of Contemporary Mallet Method – an approach to the Vibraphone and Marimba, published by Riohcat Music. The Jerry Tachoir Group has performed at most of the major jazz festivals and concert halls throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe. The group’s latest CD, Stories, has received rave reviews and international airplay. (www.avitajazz.com). The Duo Tachoir (piano and vibes) is popular on the jazz and college circuit. Their new recording, Shades of Blue, has also received rave reviews and international airplay. Tachoir has served on the faculty for Berklee College in Boston and Belmont University in Nashville. For more information visit www.tachoir.com.