Before I became an experienced music teacher, I went to the University of Miami to study classical percussion. There, classical percussion meant studying concert snare drum, timpani, xylophone, vibraphone, crash cymbals, all kinds of shakers and wood blocks, but mostly, the marimba. I believe at least an introduction to the marimba is in order when studying percussion lessons.
What is a Marimba?
If you are not sure what a marimba actually is, don’t feel bad! Most people don’t. To put it into terms most non-percussionists understand, a marimba is basically a really big xylophone. There a big wooden bars that you strike with mallets that each produce a different note. Below the bars are long metal tubes called resonators that help shape the sound.
How big is it?
The standard size of a modern classical marimba is about six and a half feet wide. The height is often adjustable so each player can be comfortable playing any given marimba. To determine the height, basically you want the bars to be about as high or just below your hips. Your percussion lessons teacher can determine that right height for you.
The marimba is laid out just like a keyboard. While the bars on the marimba are often all the same color, there is a differentiation between “black” keys and “white” keys. The “black” keys are arranged on the marimba slightly higher than the “white” keys and also follow the same grouping pattern of 3, 2, 3, 2…etc. Scales on the marimba are visually the same as scales on a keyboard or piano.
There are different standard sizes of the modern marimba. The most common ranges are four octaves, 4.3 octaves, and 5 octaves. The 4.3 octave marimbas are the most common and 5 octave marimbas are most desired because of their beautiful low-end sound. Percussion lessons at a university are so great because they will often have access to all different sizes of marimbas.
One thing that differentiates a marimba from a xylophone or a vibraphone is that a marimba has graduated bars. This means that the size of each bar changes with each note. At the very left of the marimba where the bass notes lie is where you will find the thickest bars on the marimba. As you move to the right and the pitch becomes higher and higher, you will find that the bars become smaller and smaller. This can make sight reading very difficult on this instrument!
I believe that the marimba is possibly the most difficult instrument to sight read music. That being said, a portion of all percussion lessons should really go to sight reading on marimba. This is so difficult because there is a lot of movement involved when playing this instrument because it is so large. Also, an octave at the low end of the marimba will feel completely different than an octave at the high end because of the graduated bars. The feel of the entire marimba must be memorized, and this can be achieved through practicing scales up and down the entire marimba without looking!
Commonly, the marimba is played either with holding one mallet in each hand or holding two mallets in each hand, producing up to four notes at any given time. I have even seen some masters holding three in each hand! People ask me all the time if it is extremely difficult to play with two mallets in each hand. The truth is, it was difficult at first, but it’s just like anything else: You practice, you get better, and eventually, it’s second nature!
The marimba can be a difficult instrument to learn how to play and there isn’t a wealth of classical repertoire for the instrument, but learning to play one is well worth it! The sound that is produced by a marimba is one of my favorite sounds in the world, and playing it is just fun! You get to move your body and arms around, almost like a dance. I am very grateful for my years studying the marimba and I wouldn’t change it for the world!