Zen and the Art of Mallet Playing

Systems of thought regarding the manipulation and practice of keyboard technique.

The developmental processes involved in acquiring a mastery of an interdisciplinary art.

A state of being wherein the coordination of mind-eye-ear-spirit interact freely within a given framework of time and space.

Theories of physics relative to reason and calculation with logistical graphics relating to creation and duplication.

Do not regard the mechanics of mallet manipulation. Think instead of the system of musical intelligence which guides your art.

The present state of your art is the boundary on the horizon of your playing. There should be no boundaries.

An exercise should be a strengthening tool administered to expand any narrow points in your playing. This is all it is.

Rely on your ear, trust it and learn from it. Music is aural, do not be trapped by the mind.

*as the apple is sliced to fit its form, thus is the vibraphone approached regarding its symmetry with the same designs of unity.... from the "Transparent Vibraphone."

Tone Production

The sound of the bar, in all of its configurations, starts with the player. The setting of the piece, the instrumental demands of the composition, and the experience of the artist all become involved to produce that first sound and all the other sounds that are generated by the first. The envelope of the sound, those defining parameters of tone, are influenced by the instrument and its physical surrounding on a larger scale and the mallet choice/stroke/location of strike and effects (shutter position or speed, electronic treatment, amplification) on a smaller scale. This aural event is defined by the overtone series: the fundamental base of the pitch measured in vibrations (i.e.: A=440Hz) and the ascending tones generated by the fundamental in mathematical ratios based on the physics of sound waves. The vibrating fundamental also produces an undertone series descending by the same mathematical ratio to produce a complete portrait of the sound wave. The sum of all these factors combined with other aural events is music.

The Overtone Series

A sine wave in music is a single tone with no harmonics as in a tuning fork.

A mallet instrument, especially the vibraphone and chimes, with their ability to sustain pitches can fill the air with a myriad of harmonics.

The construction of melodic and harmonic structures is influenced by the fundamental tone as well as the overtones and undertones of the sound.

The overtones are divisions of the fundamental ascending mathematically through the scalar sequence: from octave, fifth, fourth, third, second and upward assembling a major tonality.

The undertones are those same divisions of the fundamental descending through the scalar sequence; because they are a mirror image of the upper harmonics, they form a minor tonality: octave fourth, fifth, minor third, minor second and downward.

The entire overtone series explained through observation of water
the overtone series begins with the fundamental vibrating source. That
vibration continues in different pulsations. those ascending pulses are
the harmonic reflection of the original tone in a major mode. they begin
as larger intervals (8've, 5th,4th....2nd..) and progress into smaller ones.
when a pebble is thrown into a body of water, there is the original
contact and then diminishing smaller ripples exactly duplicating the upper overtone series.
The body of water also reflects those ripples below the surface, this corresponds to the undertone series.
the undertones are reflected downward through the vibrating mediums they
can reflect off: the instrument, floor, ceiling,objects (sympathetic
vibrating sources). Because they reflect below the major partials, their
mode is minor. each tone has all the major and minor properties of its
fundamental, thus the complete picture is more than one dimensional. The
harmonic series/over and undertones merge together to present a
complete aural picture to the listener.


Playing position, stance and attitude function as circular values, not scalar weights: being even can be illusion; there is uneven rhythm, shifting weight and tension. There are off beats and subdivisions that contribute to completion of the whole.

Exploring the edge and playing beyond boundaries does not off set balance, it re-defines it.

The yin and yang comprising the work are constantly changing within their circle, adjusting balance.

The push-and-pull of melody, phrasing, harmony, and accompaniment, mirror this balance.


The portrayal of music with written symbols is at best an attempt to define the aural aspects of the physical and mathematical relationship between the production of sound and the perception of the listener. The method of depiction is an evolutionary process filled with areas of foundation and exploration in a juxtaposition that defines the language of sound and explores the horizon of compostion.

Goals of Practice

Develop the skills required to perform the repertoire.

Coordinate the mental, physical, and aural senses so that balance is acquired.

Evolve the practice, rehearsal, and performance development through awareness and analysis of the music.

Practice the evolution of the music with awareness of the art of living.

In the role of student, the assessment of strengths and weaknesses transforms the student into teacher.

In the role of teacher, the observation of strengths and weaknesses transforms the teacher into student.

In the role of artist, the expression translates to performance.

In the role of performer, the expression becomes art.

In art, the whole is revealed.


Mallet technique is always in a state of growth and change: the examination of past development coupled with the expanding demands of contemporary music contribute to the expression of a composition, through the player, into an aural event. The challenges of producing this event is all-encompassing and defines the breadth of the artist. This definition is multiplied by the demands of modern music and its composers. The introduction of graphic notation and piece specific compositional tools brings into focus the performer as not only the player, but the composer as well. This spontaneous blend of performing and composing is accomplished through an understanding of improvisation and the ability to present a new work of art at every performance.

Goals of Playing

Establish a flow from mental creation through physical manifestation to aural communication.

Understanding the ever shifting layers of energy involved in this process will clarify the message.

Translating the message through playing transforms the player into the medium.

"The Medium Is the Message," Marshall McLuhan.


Suggested Reading: "Tao of Jeet Kune Do," Bruce Lee

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