December 10, 2021

Is a Marimba hard to play?

Marimba is not difficult to play. What is difficult is mastering the training. There are steps to follow and tips to pay attention to. 

The layout of the marimba

The modern marimba consists of tuned wood bars arranged in two rows. These are on two levels, one about 4 cm higher than the other. The bars are layered according to size and have holes drilled at their nodal points through which a string is threaded and held tightly.

Size

There is no standard range of the marimba. However, the popular sizes are 4.3 octaves, 4.5 octaves, and 5 octaves; 4, 4.6, and 5.5-octave sizes. The size of the marimba depends on the number of octaves it has.

Understanding resonator pipes

Beneath the tone plates, there are metal resonator pipes affixed. They are attached to every tone plate on one pipe. That makes the note resonate when hit with a mallet. The length of the resonator pipe also changes depending on the pitch of the tone plate. The lower the note, the longer.

Basic of playing the marimba

  • Learn the notes and where they are.
  • Memorize the keys by learning which bars play each note so that your mallets know where to go while playing. 
  • Hold the mallet between your thumb and pointer finger. 
  • Strike a bar gently. 
  • Practice scales.
  • Learn to read sheet music.

How do I get better at marimba?

Practice often. There might not be any better way to get better at marimba if not practice. Make time to play scales and other pieces regularly. It helps you master the keys and sound. 

Another way to get better is to listen to the recording. Know what the part you are having trouble with is and how it is supposed to sound like. That way, have a better idea of where you are going before working on a keyboard. 

You can even listen to the recording while doing other tasks and have it playing in the background. Try to sing along with the track so that when it comes time to practice at the marimba you can sing the part while you learn it as an extra guide.

What are graduated bars on a marimba?

Any modern marimba or vibraphone has bars. These are called graduates. It means that the bars of an instrument are at their largest, in terms of width and length. At the low end, they get smaller as the pitch ascends. That is in contrast to glockenspiels, and the piano.

However, it varies between instrument makers. The low octave is 7 inches wider than the top octave. You will notice that the smaller interval is more comfortable for your hand. The holder is harder in the large interval and requires more work to adjust to get there. The bigger the interval change, the more work is required.

How can I practice marimba without a marimba?

If you do not have a marimba, that should not stop you from practicing. You may have the mallets, and you can practice on the floor.  Run through different permutations, practice your double vertical strokes, single strokes, double lateral strokes, and any other stuff you wish to. 

Even if you have access to marimbas, you can still do a part of your practice on the floor. Practicing on the floor makes it easier to focus on technique without worrying about notes.

Another practice method used by wind players is a mental practice. Mental practice allows you to play your marimba in the comfort of your own space. It requires a quiet environment to go over your session as you go through the process in your mind. 

You can even do this when you are in bed. You will be practicing your scales by just going through them in your mind. If you have specific music you are working on, go through it in your head. 

Try to remember what notes you are playing. Pay attention to transitions as you shift your mallets or intervals. Sometimes there is a key or time change, or repeats. Go over mental skills and steps like that before you get to the marimba so that when you have the marimba, you can put all your practice time on the instrument, hitting the right notes. It sounds unrealistic, but it prepares you for the actual play. 

How do you play marimba faster?

Memorizing the part helps you play marimba fast.  Failure to do so requires you to look at the keyboard constantly. Of course, it helps you with accuracy due to the visual of the marimba being constant, but you take more time. 

As you keep looking at the keys, you lose a sense of connection to the rest of the players. Lack of eye contact when working with a conductor makes it difficult for you to look at him. Reading the music as you are playing it might be the best solution.  

You can memorize it through repetition. That way, you can still look around at other players and see the conductor when necessary. You still need to have a home base and keep your feet planted as much as possible to avoid mistakes. 

It may be difficult to keep feet planted and play the marimba since there is too much space to cover. Pick a spot and stay as close to the spot as possible. Put middle C on your belt buckle and shift when necessary. Always return to that place when you can. 

The process allows you to gain muscle memory as to where notes connect to you. The skill also helps with sight-reading. Practice more to the extent that you end up playing faster.  The faster you learn, the more music you can get through. It helps when you do not have time to learn the music thoroughly.

Are piano skills transferable to the marimba?

There are piano skills that you can transfer to the marimba. The musical skills are known as music theory. These musical skills include dynamics, knowledge of notes, knowledge of bass and treble clef. 

The actual playing of the piano is different from the marimba. You use a keyboard when playing piano and bars on marimba. That brings a lot of difference when playing with your fingers as you can feel the flats to help you play if you need to. 

The playing skill is good habits like looking ahead to what keys to play next. Pedaling is a skill you can copy too. However, it is a little different on piano. There are bad habits that you can carry over to your marimba, such as going over to the piano when playing.

Some users tend to have their hands more contracted and tensed up rather than relaxed and extended. That causes fatigue as it strains the fingers.  They might have borrowed it from being used to mallet technique. Some users tend to use their arms too much. Using the two instruments is the same as going from one instrument to another. Meaning any musical knowledge helps you.

Taking care of it

  • Always keep the marimba covered while not in use to prevent improper mallets and excessive moisture in the tone plates. That keeps the resonance pipes tuned and clear of debris.
  • Check the suspension cords for fraying or tearing regularly.
  • Keep the marimba as sharp and clean as possible. It has to be in one location at an ideal temperature with moderate humidity. However, high-end marimbas need to be heard, it should be in many different locations.
  • When moving it around, reduce the risk of damage by disassembling it. Make sure the transportation comes with safe packaging. Reassemble the marimba at the target location.
  • Follow the proper assembly instructions. Start with the frame, insert the resonance tubes, and lay out the tone bars. Tune the marimba to perfection.
  • Familiarise yourself with the music and play style to get the correct mallets. Never use metal mallets, only use official marimba mallets made of yarn. Improper mallets or mallet techniques damage your rosewood. You can also learn how to build your own marimba.
David D. Hughes
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