I’m orchestrating the new piece, and I’m having a hell of a time with some of it. I always write to short score first, that is, with piano sounds playing the majority of the material. I know what a lot of solo lines will be, but a lot of stuff starts out with just a piano for playback. This is sometimes problematic, particularly when I write something that sounds good in a piano, but is actually physically impossible to play on a piano.

The current piece has a long-repeated accompaniment that simply alternates between two pitches. Are there any percussionists out there who could take a quick look at this page and tell me if the marimba part is possible at quarter note=124? It isn’t possible on piano — not at this speed, by any normal pianist. I had it split between marimba and vibes — that is, the vibes playing the top note, and the marimba playing the bottom note, so it was split between two players — but I like the sound of this better. I guess if it’s not possible for one marimba player playing with four mallets, it might be fine with two players at the same marimba — but that’s probably way too tight at the instrument, and I would worry that their mallets would get tangled up. That’s my worry about this figure in general — that it’s at a place on the instrument where the bars aren’t large enough to make this possible. Thoughts? Here’s the sample page, fully orchestrated Check out the figure that starts at measure 154, noting the key signature, and keep in mind that it’s going to repeat that figure for quite a while…


Nelson says

The marimba part is do-able so long as the player is using four mallets. (Two mallets is possible so long as the player is friends with A-Rod's cousin.)

Montoya says

Possible with four-mallets? Yes.

But I think it's VERY awkward and for a HS kid who may have bad technique... well, it's gonna promote even worse technique.

Travis Taylor says

Just took a look at it, and I agree with Montoya on this one, it will be very awkward with many percussionists. Mostly because of the minor third, with the Eb being the third.

But once the player triggers and trains the muscles that allow such a close and awkward interval, it'll come a lot easier. The only thing that I would be worried about is in the novice percussionist, and what it could possibly do to their technique over time.

Very doable to the trained percussionist, a awkward for 9-11 grade, but a 12th to collegiate level performer should have no problems with it at all, but maybe my standards are a little higher than they should be.


Montoya says

If it's at all avoidable, I say change it. But yeah... with that minor third in the left hand, it may not come out as loud and balanced as you want it.

A.B. says

I agree with the others that it would be too awkward for a lot of students. But the advantage of the minor third versus the major third is that it would get the inside left mallet more out of the way of the right hand. It just depends on who you are marketing the piece towards. Grade 5-6, I'd say keep it in. But if you're looking at middle school (or even younger high school groups), the majority of players at the middle school level don't play 4 mallets. Yes, some do, but I'm saying the majority.

On 2 players sharing, I don't think that would work very well as it would be very tight. Most parts requiring multiple players on the same instrument are spaced further apart, even specialty pieces like Mark Ford's Stubernic and Afta-Stuba which have 3 on the same marimba.

Carolyn Bremer says


I'm in a class on MAX-MSP at CSULB talking with a bunch of composers and a percussionists. The percussionist says "it's up there" for four mallets, so it is probably too hard for high school. And everybody says "hi."

Mark S. says

As an alternative, you could have C-Eb-D-F be the pattern(that being one beat).

It is possible to do on the piano, but not for long amounts of time (like a measure), so it could be used as an effect.

As for mallet useage, I have no idea, since I am not a percussionist.

Emily says

I tried it with the m3 (C-Eb) in the right hand and the left hand playing the D-F, and then it's way easier. The left hand uses the center beating spot on the Eb (instead of edge) and upper beating spot on the C, and the right hand uses the lower beating spot on the D and F. The downbeat then also falls on the right hand. The tempo is questionable for an average HS kid (even the top-band percussionists), but over a complete rehearsal cycle, they'd probably get it.

You could use two players if one approached the instrument from the accidental side and had his back to the conductor. Another potential doubling might be to take the marimba part (C and D), up an octave and do the high notes (Eb and F) low on a xylo with soft rubber mallets, since a wood doubling makes more sense timbrally than a wood-metal doubling.

As Mark said, you could maintain the same sonority if you split the 16ths up into a permutation that's doable with either 2 or 4 mallets (C-Eb-D-F sequentially). But that would be a more linear texture than what you have... which btw reminds me a lot of Foxtrot Dances for some reason.

Austin says

I apologize if I'm missing something here, but it seems to me everybody is focusing on starting the pattern with the left hand. I think that if you started with the Cs and Ebs in the right hand, it would make it very reasonable to play. The right hand would be over the instrument a little bit, but it would be in a much more natural position because the wrist would not be turned in.

I think that might create some tight space for the left hand on the D and F, but you could pull back and play those notes on the front edge of the keyboard if need be.

Emily says

Whoops... I flipped some stuff around. That should read, "I tried it with the C-Eb in the right hand and the left hand playing the D-F, and then it’s way easier. The RIGHT hand uses the center beating spot on the Eb (instead of edge) and upper beating spot on the C, and the LEFT hand uses the lower beating spot on the D and F. The downbeat then also falls on the right hand."


John says

I love all of these suggestions. Thanks, guys...

Emily, my friend Wataru -- the best orchestrator I know -- also suggested using low xylophone with a soft rubber mallet. He thought maybe I could have the xylo play a pedal tone that would sound higher than marimba, and have the marimba play 8th-notes instead of 16th-notes. I haven't played with that yet. But you're in good company on the xylo suggestion. (He also had a crazy-amazing idea to use glock in 16th-notes for the 16th-note motor, but use a yarn or rubber mallet, so you'd get the clear 16th-notes, but not as much pitch.)

How hard is it if I make it so only one hand is playing two notes at once? That is, C & Eb on the first 16th, but Eb alone on the next 16th, then D & F on the next 16th, then F alone on the next 16th. Repeat. Is that much easier, or still terribly awkward?

John says

Here's another thought... What if the whole thing were transposed up a whole step, so it became D/F and then E/G -- making the whole thing "white keys." Does that make it a whole lot easier, or is it still too tough?

John K says

Write what you want and let us figure it out :)

no, really, it's playable by a good HS kid or any college (well, most any) college student, either with the right hand lead sticking, or just a little practice. when I was a kid, I always wanted a "target", so to me the Eflat isn't a big deal.
last thing, I would rather play this on marimba then xylophone - smaller playing area for a quick 4 mallet passage... but that's just me.
great stuff as always John - later!

Montoya says

White keys does make it easier.

Just remember John, not all bands will have Chuck Fishcher's percussionists. And honestly, not EVERYONE can play four-mallets in HS. Lastly, while it is possible to play RH first, I again point to having great technique. If a kid with bad to mediocre technique does it, it's just not gonna get better... and his hands could get worse.

Moving it to white keys is the easiest route, and will prove to be the most successful.

Travis Taylor says


Don't you think that at q=124 with 16th notes is a little fast for "white keys?" Considering that you'd have the 2nd and 3rd mallet crossing over, and placement of the either the 1st & 2nd or 3rd & 4th would be closer to the node, depending on your preference of placement.

This would cause problems in both technique and sonority of the instrument, the node produces much less sound than the center of the bar above the resonators (I know you know that already). The last thing a novice percussionist needs is to get comfortable playing in a not-so-great spot and getting the mallets tangled up because their hands can't keep up with the tempo.

It seems to me that moving it to the "white keys" would only cause more strife than relief. I could be wrong though.


Montoya says


I completely misunderstood what John meant.

Honestly Mack, the "better" options would be:

Ab/Cb - Bb/Db

Eb/Gb - F/Ab

But then you would be putting the band in "not so friendly keys" for the sake of the marimba player.

Alex says

I don't know about the Marimba thing - but that G in the first alto sax is looking a little high :D

Mark S. says

The high G is possible.

I've done it in a piece that went about 140ish.

But that isn't what this is about :P

Gabor says

Two players can play from opposite sides of the marimba, as Steve Reich requires in Drumming, and is common in African balophone playing.

aaron says

hmm, at home without a piano right now. but going back to thinking about piano instead...

I wonder if I can layer my hands on top of each other so that one hand handles the first sixteenth, the other the next. then repeat for D and F. Hands would be in close proximity, but I think one hand could just use the top part of the keys.

I'll try tomorrow morning, and get back to you on this.

Doug Martin says

Whoa! Has there EVER been a post on this blog that has generated so many comments?
A little more context - John's not kidding about it going on for "quite a while" - try 30 bars of almost-uninterrupted 4/4.
Isn't it great that John's so open about his creative process, including the challenges and difficulties he has along the way? I'll tell you that I know he's played with some of your suggestions, as well as other ideas I don't see mentioned here. But I have no insider information on what the final answer is going to be.
And: Montoya, no, I don't like those keys. :)

Devin says

Perhaps you could keep the figures as they are, but just have 2 marimbas instead of one. Then you are allowed each player with 2 mallets easily being able to execute the passage. Many schools do have 2 marimbas, so that could be an option.

Joel says

What if you broke up the pattern so that say, the marimba player was playing a 16th-note pattern of C-Eflat-D-F in succession, and then have like the vibraphone or xylophone in its lower range playing a 16th-note pattern of E-flat-C-F-D...you won't lose the drive of the 16th notes and you'll still get each the chords...you could double it with the piano too. It'd be a good technical passage. =)

Kasey Warren says

I say to give that line to the trumpets. = D

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