©2001 James Walker
With the exception of certain models of orchestra bells, vibraphones are the only mallet instruments which make use of a damper pedal mechanism. Many mallet percussionists come to the vibraphone only after beginning their studies on xylophone or marimba, and as a result, pedal techniques are often misunderstood, if not overlooked entirely. What follows here is a "primer" of sorts, an introduction to the mechanics of, and basic techniques associated with, damper pedal mechanisms.
(NOTE: Pedaling techniques are only a part of the equation when it comes to dealing with the sustain of notes on the vibraphone. This lesson only addresses the related to pedaling; a future lesson at malletjazz.com will deal with mallet- and hand-dampening techniques, which are often used in conjunction with pedaling to express one's phrasing.)
I. How the Damper System Works
On a basic level, it's quite easy to understand how a vibraphone's damper system works: a pedal is attached to a damper bar, which has some sort of material such as felt fastened to it, which rests against the bars of the vibraphone, preventing the bars from ringing freely. If one presses down on the pedal, the damper bar is pulled down, allowing the vibraphone bars to ring freely (in other words, to sustain). However, there are some subtleties involved, which players must be aware of if they are to phrase properly on the instrument.
Adjusting the damper bar
There are several elements which may be adjusted, on almost all vibraphones, related to the damper mechanism. One is the tension on the pedal - how hard one must press on the pedal to lower the damper. This should be adjusted to suit the player's tastes: if the action is too easy, the precision of one's pedaling may suffer; if the action is too stiff, the player will be expending more energy than is necessary to operate the pedal.
Another issue is the height of the dampening bar itself. If the bar is set too low, some of the notes on the instrument will not be dampened properly. If the bar is set too high, it will take too much effort on the part of the player to lower the damper bar and let the notes ring.
To find the optimal height for one's damper bar, do the following:
A common design flaw on most vibraphones is the way in which the damper bar is supported: most instruments have the bar supported at a single point, in the middle. An unfortunate side-effect of this is a natural bending of the bar, such that the ends are lower than the middle. As a result, most damper bars will not dampen evenly across the instrument, dampening the extended high and low ranges less effectively than the middle range. In recent years, however, several instrument designers have created liquid- or silicone-filled damper pads, to replace the traditional felt material commonly used on vibraphones. Because the material used to fill these pads are fluid, the damper bar presses much more evenly over the entire range of the vibraphone, improving the mechanics of the damper system.
Adjusting the pedal height
The height at which the pedal is set (not to be confused with the height of the damper bar itself, discussed above), is tied directly to the technique of pedaling the instrument. A common mistake when pedaling is to depress the pedal (and in turn, the damper bar) more than is necessary. The pedal should only be depressed enough to allow the notes to ring freely. Once the damper is separated from the bars, any further lowering of the damper is wasted motion, which will detract from one's pedaling technique.
There are two different approaches to setting the height of the pedal. One is to set it at such a height that, when depressed to the floor, the pedal lowers the damper bar enough to let all the notes ring freely. The only real drawback to this approach occurs if the pedal can be heard striking the floor each time it is depressed. Most vibraphones come with some sort of padding on the bottom side of the pedal, cushioning the pedal as it hits the floor. If that padding is not on your vibraphone, be sure to set some sort of towel or small piece of carpeting underneath the pedal, to eliminate the sound of the pedal striking the floor.
A second approach to setting the pedal height, is to set the pedal a little bit higher, and simply depressing the pedal far enough to let the bars ring freely. This leaves a little bit of space between the pedal and the floor at all times, eliminating the issue of any noise created by the pedal striking the floor. (This is your author's preferred approach, but it is not automatically superior to the other approach.)
II. Pedaling Techniques
The most obvious technique is to depress the pedal, then strike the note(s), releasing the pedal when one wishes to end the sustain of the note(s). However, there are other techniques, incorporating more subtlety.
Half-pedaling ("Flutter Pedaling")
Try this experiment: Leave the pedal up. Hold onto the end of any one of the bars on your vibraphone, clamping it between your thumb and fingers, and strike the bar normally with a mallet. The sound will be very short and clipped, with little or no tone to the sound. Now, let go of the bar, leaving the pedal up, and strike the same bar again. You'll hear that the sound, while still staccato, has a fullness and tone not heard when you were holding the end of the bar. This shows that even with the damper pressed directly against the bars of the instrument, there is a small amount of sustain when you play.
This demonstrates the fact that pedaling a vibraphone is not an "on/off" issue the way it is on an electronic keyboard - and this is the key to flutter pedaling. This technique involves repeatedly depressing and releasing the pedal, but only slightly, and not enough to completely separate the damper from the bars. This will add a slight amount of sustain to the bars, making for more legato phrasing, without allowing all of the bars to ring together excessively. This sort of pedaling helps one's phrasing on the instrument, and it is suggested that one experiment - whether playing composed melodies, or improvising - with the pace and rhythm of the pedaling.
Another experiment: repeatedly strike any bar, while gradually depressing the pedal. As the damper is pulled slowly away from the bars of the instrument, the sustain of the bar you're striking will gradually increase, until the damper is no longer in contact with the bar, allowing it ring freely.
A challenge to anyone initially learning how to pedal on a vibraphone, is legato phrasing. The obvious way to use the pedal is: first depress the pedal, then strike the bars one wishes to play, then release the pedal to end the notes. Unfortunately, when playing a series of notes consecutively, this approach will cause audible gaps between the end of one note and the attack of the next. These gaps in the sound will destroy any sense of legato when playing longer phrases; here is where the technique of after-pedaling comes into play.
"After-pedaling" is just that: pedaling after you strike the bar(s) (or pedaling so that the damper hits the bars simultaneously with one's mallets), taking advantage of the fact that even when the pedal is up, the bars still sustain for a moment. By not releasing the pedal until you strike the next note(s), you guarantee that the first notes will sustain until the next attack, helping one to play with a legato approach.
To get an idea of how this works, strike a chord on the vibes, but don't pedal until after your mallets hit the bars. Experiment with how soon or how late you pedal, after the mallets strike. Listen to the amount of volume you get, and listen to the amount of sustain you get, and let your ears help to coordinate this "afterpedaling."
Then, take a series of block chords such as these:
Play the first chord. When you strike the second chord, experiment with the timing and coordination between the mallets and the damper bar. Listen to how much the first chord sustains into the next chord (if at all), and listen to hear how even the volume is from the end of the first chord to the attack of the second chord.
Try inserting these techniques into your practice routines, whether playing chords for a jazz standard, or practicing a composed piece for the vibraphone. Eventually, these various approaches to pedaling will become instinctive, and your decisions as to which technique to use, will be made by your ears as much as your brain.
A future lesson on malletjazz.com will deal in detail with musical notation specific to the vibraphone, including pedaling markings. One thing to keep in mind, for the time being, is that composers may or may not mark every pedaling decision for the player. Some may make no indications, others may mark everything, and (most common) some may indicate the specific pedaling for certain phrases, but leave others to the discretion of the player.
There is far more to pedaling a vibraphone than initially meets the eye, and if a player explores these options, then his/her playing promises to be much more expressive and musical. As with everything associated with music making. let your ears be the final arbiter when making creative decisions.
(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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