How to study a new piece for marimba – Part 1

How to study a new piece for marimba – Part 1

Studying a new piece for marimba is a big mess. Or at least this is what my students think.

And this is also what I used to think at their age before I actually found an effective study method.

In my next three posts, starting with the one today, I will explain what I remind my students every time – EVERY TIME – I give them a new piece to study.

The three posts will specifically deal with 3 different steps:

  1. Preliminary activities (today’s post);
  2. the actual process of studying the piece (playing the notes);
  3. the review process and final performance.

Happy reading!


Read the title

This might seem silly and obvious to you but I have noticed that my students hardly ever do it.

Start with the title. As for a book, the title often gives you some idea of what the piece is about. That is because every piece tells a story. Well, almost every piece…

For those that do tell a story, the music actually develops from one central idea, that can be anything at all, such as for example:

  • an image: “Dream of the Cherry Blossoms” by Keiko Abe (the piece for marimba which I played at my graduation);
  • a person: “Nancy” by Emmanuel Sejourne;
  • a style: “Gavotte en Rondeau” by a certain Bach;
  • a harmony: “Etude in C Major” by Clair Omar Musser;
  • … a dessert: “Marshmellow” by David Friedman;
  • etc.

In other words, a title can be anything and can evoke and suggest anything about the piece. Sometimes it evokes or suggests nothing at all. It is however worth giving it a good look and some thought.

Listen to the piece

As you are starting the study of a new piece on marimba, right after looking at the title, you should, in my opinion, listen to the music with the part in front of you.

Why? Why not directly starting, for example, with sight-reading on your instrument?

Well, this is just my opinion, but I do believe that starting from the auditory aspect of a piece and therefore from listening to it, rather than immediately concentrating on playing the notes, allows us to understand it better. And that is essential to organize the study process.

Obviously, if your part is really easy, you should try playing it right away, if you are able to. Often unfortunately, for one reason or another, sight-reading an entire piece can be challenging.

Careful, we are just talking about PRELIMINARY ACTIVITIES to the actual study process of a piece. Sight-reading holds, in my opinion, a very important role, which I will discuss in my next post.

What would Beethoven do?

So, I said that we should first listen to the piece. How can you do that in practical terms? You have three options:

  • Listen to a recording of the piece;
  • someone who has already studied the piece, such as your teacher, plays it for you;
  • Go on Youtube and watching CAREFULLY for what you might find, look for a decent execution of the piece in question, keeping in mind that the majority of the videos you will find will be live performances.

What about if you have no way of listening to it? Do what Ludwig Van and his friends did in the 1800s. Ludwig, who besides not having neither an iPod or Youtube (even though this has never been confirmed), was also deaf.

What did Ludwig Van do? He looked at the part and sang it in his head. You do the same.

Understand the meaning

While you listen to a piece (or read it), you might begin associating certain emotions to the music. In other words, you will start making sense of it.

What does the composer want to tell us with his music? What does he/she want to evoke? Obviously, that is if he/she wants to evoke or tell us anything at all, as I said earlier.

It is a continuation of the type of analysis that you started after reading the tile and it is indeed the most important aspect of all. It is what answers to the question”why…?”. Why playing this piece?

Even before the right notes, the rhythm, and all the “analytical” aspects that must be played correctly, comes the meaning. If you are not able to understand it or make sense of it, your performance will be simply…useless. In other words, it will be mediocre.

However, don’t rush it. Making sense of a piece and consequently of its execution, is a mental task that you will need to maintain and renew for the entire duration of the study process. Therefore, start immediately.

Structural analysis

Second time listening/reading: how many parts does the piece have and how are they organized?

The answer to this question is very important because it will allow you to create a sort of mental map of the piece. Furthermore, having an idea, even if in general terms, of how the music and the story it tells develop, means greater knowledge.

While you are listening, start marking the macrostructure of the piece with a pencil or marker. I don’t mean particularly complicated concepts (those taught at the musical analysis course..)..

Finding the different parts in a piece for marimba is relatively easy. Just open your ears and identify where texture changes, or even tempo, rhythm, dynamics, or harmony changes. There is almost always a clue, something that tells you, “From here on, I am telling you a different story.”

Once you identify the macrostructure, start trying to identify the microstructure: periods, phrases, sub-phrases. Again, I don’t mean particularly complicated concepts. Listen to the music; it is a language like all others. It is exactly like reading a text. Phrases are obvious; they have a “profile”. Observe it.

At this point, you have a more or less accurate map of the piece you are about to study. Now all you have to do is concentrating and starting with the first sub-phrase of the first phrase of the first period of the first part of the piece you are studying. Is that clear?

Yes, clear. There is only one more thing before you can start really studying. This time though, you can actually use your mallets: we are finally starting to work with the marimba!

Harmonic Analysis

Harmonic analysis…What? After all that theory, you tell me to get my mallets…and then more ANALYSIS?

Yes, but this time it will be quick and it is necessary anyway.

Marimba and score

First question: what key are we playing? And if there is not really a specific one, can you identify any other logical harmonic patterns such as, for example, mode?

Why am I asking this question? Simple, because at that point I will able to start working with my marimba on certain preparatory exercises, such as scales, arpeggios, intervals, permutations, and double vertical strokes.

These exercises will definitely help you to fully prepare for the part’s main passages from a technical standpoint, and to “find a strong connection” with the piece’s main notes.

The marimba is sort of a “jungle” of wooden bars. When you play it, you must be able to see the sparkle or, as Stephen King would say, the “shining” of the these bars. Let them guide you like a path through the jungle…

Most of the times, this path is actually traced according to a specific harmonic pattern. Therefore, you better get used to performing at least some harmonic analysis and before starting the actual study process, you need to warm up by executing those exercises you find most useful, in the proper key or mode.

It would be even better, if you had a teacher who could recommend some good exercises for you to practice on. If he/she does not make any suggestions, don’t hesitate to ask directly.

Conclusion and next steps

At this point, you are ready to start the actual study process, which is only the second part of the piece’s entire learning process. It is indeed the longest part, but not necessarily the most important.

The first part, which I described today, is in my opinion, an essential moment in the study of any piece for marimba. It creates the basis for all subsequent work, which would take longer, be less effective and also less fun if it was missing such basis.

I will analyze the strategy for tackling this second part of the study process in my next post. In the meantime, turn on the metronome and start getting in the mood…

See you soon!

Question: what do you do before you start studying a new piece for marimba?