When working with students who are learning four-mallet marimba chorales, I emphasize the use of roll speed and roll variations as an extra element of musicality and tone color. While there are some works for marimba in which the composer specifically writes for the use of ripples rolls (often with an “S” notation in the note stem), I feel artistically that the performer can also choose when to implement a ripple roll, lateral roll, or traditional 2+2 roll.
Both Leigh Howard Stevens and Nancy Zeltsman define a ripple roll as being distinctive from a double lateral roll. Stevens defines the differences in an article published in Percussive Notes Volume 19, Number 1 (Fall 1980) http://publications.pas.org/Archive/8010/articles/80.10.60-61.pdf, and Zeltsman details ripple rolls in her method book, Four-Mallet Marimba Playing: A Musical Approach for All. In short, the ripple roll is traditionally executed by allowing the inside mallet to “flop” behind the outside mallet, creating a sort of flam effect, as opposed to using a twisting motion like when executing a double lateral stroke. This is especially evident in Zeltsman’s marimba recordings, including her recordings of “Merlin” and “From My Little Island.”
To execute a true ripple roll, players should start in the same manner that they would for a traditional 2+2 roll. This should include wrist strokes of alternating double vertical strokes. Depending on the grip, the player will allow the inside mallet to be loose to strike after the outside mallet. But it’s important to start with the double vertical stroke, or else the speed of the roll will be too slow. Think of this more like executing a double stroke roll on snare drum, where the player uses one wrist stroke and allows the stick to bounce a second time.
If the player uses Stevens technique, lift the middle finger off the base of the inside mallet. This will allow the base of the mallet to move “up and down” inside the palm of the hand. Next, use a wrist stroke to prep and strike the marimba. What should happen is that because the inside mallet is free to “flop,” it will lag behind the outside mallet and therefore strike after the outside mallet.
If the player uses either traditional cross grip or Burton grip, the operation is similar. This time, instead of lifting the middle finger, the player should lift the thumb so that it is not pressing down on the inside mallet. From here, it’s the same; as the player preps with a wrist stroke, the inside mallet will lag behind the outside mallet as it is not being pressed into place by the thumb.
It can be challenging for some percussionists to feel comfortable with this approach to executing rolls. The alteration to their grip can make players feel like they are losing control of the inside mallet. A good practice strategy could include the following steps:
1. Practice one hand at a time using a wrist stroke and allowing the inside mallet to “flop” after the outside mallet. Do not worry about speed, how much space is in between the two notes, or the overall sound. Simply look for the flam to occur.
2. Practice alternating between a traditional 2+2 roll and a ripple roll at a medium tempo. This could look like 4 or 8 alternating double verticals (R L R L), a pause, then 4 or 8 alternating strokes where the player allows the inside mallet to “flop.” This purpose of this is to train the player to use the double vertical stroke and not to twist the wrists.
3. Play a chord with traditional 2+2 roll at a comfortable roll speed, then lift where necessary to create the ripple roll.
For further questions about how to execute a ripple, please feel free to reach out to the author via email: Christopher.email@example.com.
Dr. Christopher Wilson is the coordinator of percussion at Washington State University, where he teaches applied percussion, conducts the percussion ensemble, and serves as Assistant Director of the Cougar Marching Band. He performs as principal timpanist in the Washington-Idaho Symphony and Walla Walla Symphony Orchestras. Dr. Wilson has an active presence in the Percussive Arts Society, where he is the president of the Washington Chapter and a member of the PAS Education Committee. Withing the Education Committee, he chairs the PASIC FUNdamentals subcommittee and regularly contributes to the PAS Classroom series.