Clearly Speaking (vibraphone technique article published in Percussive Notes)
by Ted Piltzecker
Can you say this sentence? “A proper cup of coffee from a proper copper pot.” If so, you’re amazing! You’ve accomplished a technical feat that might seem daunting, or even intimidating to some if you actually analyzed how you did it physically. Yet it rolled right off your tongue, and the idea of the sentence was delivered with ease. It’s part of an old sing-along song first done by the Andrew Sisters. People have sung it for decades without thinking about oscillating rapidly between two disparate sound sources in the oral cavity – one in front, and one in the back. The “P” and the hard “C” sounds both take breath to realize, but they are generated quite differently. The bottom line is that an idea was communicated, and sometimes that takes some effort.
Before discussing how this is related to Clearly Speaking on the vibraphone, a brief look at percussion in general would be helpful. One large overall difference between playing the vibraphone and playing the drums or marimba is as follows: once a drum or marimba is struck you generally move on to the next note in a phrase. The decay envelope is not something that necessarily needs to be managed. Four-mallet vibraphone performance generally requires consciousness and management of the decay envelope (often for selective notes only). The playing experience of starting sounds, and then moving forward in a phrase, versus the playing experience of starting sounds, and then stopping some sounds before moving forward in a phrase, simply feel different from one another. To further complicate the matter, vibraphone dampening and pedaling techniques also feel quite different from each other kinesthetically, using different movement sets to get the job done (think of the “P” and hard “C” sounds). Yet they must be combined in a fluid way to realize the phrase. So some re-tooling of the commands we send to our nervous system is required. Utilizing and combining these tools gracefully is the essence of four-mallet competency. The ability to do so offers valuable control over phrasing, and allows for true lyricism on the instrument.
I’ve found that when the various techniques (pedaling and dampening) are isolated and practiced individually and systematically, students progress more rapidly. It’s necessary to have command of each technique separately before attempting to combine everything all at once. Generally, when tasks are not approached progressively, the result is often an information overload and/or weak foundation building. When pedaling and dampening are carefully and gradually folded in to your playing, fluency grows accordingly. A good deal of self-evaluation is required to monitor your progress, but eventually the movement becomes habitual. And most importantly, it becomes associated with the flow of a phrase.
Can you juggle five balls while riding a unicycle and whistling the xylophone excerpt to Porgy and Bess? It certainly doesn’t take that kind of coordination to play the vibraphone effectively, but it can seem that way to some percussion students. To put it another way, imagine getting into your car and finding the controls mixed up. The accelerator means right turn, the brake means left turn, the light dimmer makes you go faster or slower, and the turn signal makes you stop. As odd as it would be at first, after a while your body would adapt. With time, you would not have to think about when to move what to get from point A to point B.
Yes, playing the vibraphone does take a special kind of coordination and control. That does not mean more coordination, just a unique type of coordination and focus. Percussionists are unquestionably coordinated. But the combination of dampening and pedaling often presents a new challenge, even to advanced players. It’s not harder—just different.
Of course, it helps immensely to hear the phrasing that you want to play before the mallets touch the bars. The musical phrase (the sentence) is the constant, the framework or bridge upon which all of the smaller details hang. Being able to sing the phrase, even silently, is invaluable, even if you don’t have a great voice. (In this case, singing relates to phrasing, not note choices in improvisation—which is an entirely separate discussion.) Singing immediately associates your music making to breath—the real connector of all of these techniques.
To place the connector metaphor in a more grandiose scale, consider this. When I travel over the George Washington Bridge from New Jersey to Manhattan, assuming there is little or no traffic, I easily roll from one shore to the other in one smooth movement. Although the bridge is comprised of countless tons of material, disparate systems, thousands of bolts, miles of cable, and reflects years of planning, my ride is an easy glide from A to B. Your audience also gets transported from one point to another by the musical phrase, and is separated from an understanding of mechanics. They probably have no idea about the dampening and pedaling techniques involved (Oh, we vibraphonists are so under-appreciated!). They just want to hear the tune.
The ideas presented at the Clearly Speaking clinic at PASIC will be a “door opener” for percussionists who are fairly new to the vibraphone. It’s important to have some facility with these concepts in order to find the satisfaction of delivering an idea to your listener. If you are interested in gaining more clarity on the vibraphone, or just being more comfortable standing behind the thing, then Clearly Speaking is a PASIC session for you. The topics will include an in-depth discussion and demonstration of various pedaling concepts (full, half, after, articulation pedaling), and dampening techniques (follow up, skip, hand, roll-off) as well as instruction on how to bring them all together to achieve lucid phrasing. Hope to see you on Saturday—the best way to learn is to experience it up close.
[Composer/vibraphonist Ted Piltzecker is a faculty member of the Studio Composition Department at Purchase College. He performs at percussion festivals around the world and has recorded four albums as a leader. Ted toured internationally and recorded with the George Shearing Quintet, headed the jazz program at the Aspen Music Festival for eight years, and has been awarded fellowships by the NY and NJ State Arts Councils, The National Endowment for the Arts, the ASCAP Foundation, and the Millay and McDowell Colonies for the Arts. His percussion music is available through Bachovich Music Publications. CDs are available at Equilibrium Records and on CD Baby. Ted proudly plays Musser vibraphones exclusively and uses his signature mallets by Mike Balter. Visit TedVibes.com for additional information.]
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