© 2001 James Walker
Along with pedalling, mallet dampening is the technique (or, group of techniques) which players use to manipulate the sustain of vibraphone bars. Mallet dampening allows a player to stop the vibration of certain bars, while leaving others vibrating simultaneously. This month's lesson will address some basic techniques and applications for mallet dampening on the vibraphone. Most of the techniques addressed here deal with legato phrasing, but it is also possible to use mallet dampening to achieve a variety of articulation in one's playing.
The most common notation indicating the use of mallet dampening techniques is simply an "X" following the note to be dampened. Many times, however - especially when interpreting classical works for the instrument - no dampening indication is offered, and the lack of dampening notation does not necessarily mean that the use of dampening is not appropriate.
The basic technique of mallet dampening is to use the head of a mallet to stop the vibrations of a particular bar. The secret is to accomplish the dampening motion without making the contact of the (dampening) mallet audible to the listener. A common beginner's mistake is to strike the bar with the dampening mallet too forcefully; instead, rest the mallet on the bar momentarily, then use arm weight and slight downward force (created by the wrist, arm, and/or fingers) to press onto the bar until it stops vibrating. Practice this slowly at first; eventually, the entire process will become automatic, and will become a single motion. Experiment with how much pressure you apply - use only the minimum amount necessary to stop the sound of the bar.
There are a number of variations in the way dampening techniques are applied. The first few shown here involve creating as legato (unbroken) a line as possible, with no silences from note to note.
Opposite Hand Combinations
Basically, this is just what the name implies: using the mallet(s) of one hand to strike a note (or series of notes), and using the mallet(s) in the other hand to accomplish the dampening. If one watches an accomplished player use this technique, it may look like the dampening mallet is simply sliding laterally as it trails the "striking" mallet - but one should make the effort to follow the basic technique presented above ("rest, then press the dampening mallet") for each bar one dampens, to keep one's articulation as clean as possible.
Aim to dampen one bar at precisely the same moment you strike the next - but better to err on the side of letting the notes ring together slightly, as we are aiming for legato phrasing here.
Same Mallet Combinations
In the next example, each note is dampened with the same mallet used to strike it originally. As before, aim to keep the phrasing as legato as possible. Practice this example (and other similar examples) slowly at first - when first learning to mallet dampen, accuracy is more important than speed.
"Slide Dampening" (Single Mallet)
The name of this technique is a slight misnomer - as before the mallet doesn't simply "slide" laterally to the bar to be dampened - but the technique (best suited to adjacent bars) is to strike the new note, and then immediately dampen the preceding note with the very same mallet. This example has a left-hand part written in as well, to force the use of this "slide dampening" technique in the melodic line.
Multiple notes can be dampened simultaneously. This example shows chromatic planing of an interval, using mallet dampening to keep the notes from ringing together (while allowing the first three notes of the measure to sustain). Dampen each pair of notes with the same mallets used to strike them:
The next example uses a combination of mallet dampening and pedalling to move from a dominant seventh chord, to an altered dominant chord, resolving to a minor seventh chord (the mallet dampening is shown first, followed by the complete voicings):
A less-commonly used technique calls for the use of one's hand to dampen one note while striking another simultaneously. Practically speaking, this can only be accomplished when moving from a note on the lower manual (what are commonly referred to as the "white keys" when viewed on a piano keyboard) to the upper manual (the "black keys"). In this example, one would strike the chord on beat one, then on beat three, strike the Eb with the right-outside mallet, while dampening the E-natural with the right hand. (This is easier to accomplish with the Burton Grip than it is with the Stevens Grip.) This technique is not necessarily better or worse than mallet dampening, but in some cases it is quite convenient for the player.
Mallet-to-Mallet Dampening (Same Hand)
Just as it is possible to dampen from hand to hand as in the earlier examples on this page, it is possible to use the two mallets in either hand of a four-mallet grip, to accomplish the same effect. This is more easily done with intervals of a fourth or greater between the mallets, but it is possible with smaller intervals, with some practice.
The key here is to be able to rest one mallet on a bar, while striking another bar with the second mallet. This takes some coordination, and much slow practice, but it is possible.
Using Mallet Dampening to Achieve Staccato Articulation
In the following example, the "same mallet" technique outlined above is applied not simply to create a legato effect, but to further control the length of each note in the right hand. Note, this is not the same as using "dead strokes" (where the mallet remains on the bar after striking it) - allow each note in the right-hand part to sustain its full value, but dampen appropriately to realize the rests as they are written.
Mallet dampening techniques are a must for anyone who wishes to play the vibraphone expressively, whether performing jazz or classical works. With practice and a little thought, these techniques can become an instinctive part of the player's vocabulary.
(This page and all the materials within copyright ©2001 James Walker, All Rights Reserved. No portion of this page may be duplicated or distributed without the author's written consent.)
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