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A Band Director’s Guide to Buying Basic Mallet Percussion Instruments

Author - Woodwind & Brasswind

As a middle or high school band director, you need instruments that are durable and offer the longest life for school situations. This guide can help you create a purchasing plan for mallet percussion pieces. Instruments are listed in the recommended buying order and information is provided as to why these instruments are a great choice for schools. Below each option are helpful hints offering substitute suggestions and how to get optimum playability from each instrument. Tips on how to care for these instruments are included as well, but the ideal situation would be a room dedicated to mallet percussion for long term storage and practice. Height adjustability was also a huge consideration when compiling this list as it offers the best value to band directors and percussionists. Allowing each student to play at the ideal height promotes proper technique, which is very important. And one last thing to note…advanced middle school bands can choose from the list suggested for the high school percussion section, while the only thing that limits advanced high school groups is their equipment budget.

Middle School

Concert Bells

  • 2 ½ octave aluminum bars (R135)
  • Bell stand (R121-ST)

More economical and much lighter than steel bars, aluminum bars offer great sound projection, making them perfect for middle school students.

Helpful Hint: When played with softer mallets, bells are an ideal alternative to a vibraphone, celeste, chimes or crotales.

Xylophone

  • 3 ½ octave synthetic bars (R320)

Synthetic bars are more durable and economical than rosewood, and the adjustable height feature accommodates any size student which is ideal for developing proper technique.

Helpful hint: This is an excellent instrument for developing keyboard skills, and when played with softer mallets, the xylophone can substitute for a marimba. There are plenty of instruction booklets that are both fun and educational for the ragtime soloist. When not in use, instruments should be covered and protected so be sure a drop cover is included when purchasing your xylophone.

Chimes

  • 1 ½ octave, 1 ¼” diameter brass or chrome-plated tubes (R500 or R505)

Depending on your budget or your preference, both of these options are equally exceptional. Brass tubes create a bright, rich sound while chrome-plated tubes provide you with a darker, mellower tone. Keep in mind that the 1 ¼” tubes are lightweight, more economical and easier to transport than the 1 ½” diameter tubes.

Helpful Hint: Rawhide mallets are an excellent choice for chimes. Acrylic mallets can also be used but they aren’t as durable. Ensure a cover comes with your chimes as they should always be covered and protected when not in use.

Marimba

  • Four octave synthetic bars (R415)

Since most beginning and intermediate literature is played within a 4-octave range, this marimba is an appropriate choice for middle school. A height adjustable feature on this instrument is also beneficial. Adding the marimba to your percussion ensembles allows students to consider the marimba as a solo instrument.

Helpful hint: The R410 (a 3-octave) is a suitable option if you’re looking for something more economical. When not in use, marimbas should be covered and protected so be sure a drop cover is included with your purchase.

Vibraphone

  • Three octave silver bars (R705)

This vibraphone is ideal for middle school music departments. Height adjustability accommodates different sized students which is beneficial for proper playing technique, the wide bar design helps develop the tactile sense needed for playing keyboard percussion instruments and its durable design will certainly hold up to the rigors of young percussionists.

Helpful hint: Single-locking casters on a vibraphone stop the wheels from spinning but don’t prevent them from rotating so the instrument can move as you pedal, while heavy-duty double locking casters eliminate swivel and rotation to allow for trouble-free pedaling. You can substitute a vibraphone for both harp and piano parts with some transcription. Be sure to cover your vibe when not in use for added protection.

High School

Concert Bells

  • 2 ½ octave steel bars (R120)
  • Bell stand (R121-ST)

At the high school level, steel bars are an excellent option for providing full resonance and tonal clarity.

Helpful Hint: When played with softer mallets, bells are an ideal alternative to a vibraphone, celeste, chimes or crotales. Since most percussion ensemble literature calls for 2 bell parts, the ideal set-up for high school programs is to have 2 sets. That way, the steel set can be used for concerts, while an aluminum set (R135) that won’t rust but still provides good sound projection is perfect for marching band.

Xylophone

  • 3 ½ octave synthetic bars (R320)

The adjustable height feature accommodates any size student, making this xylophone a practical choice for high school concert band programs. And because it’s unaffected by weather, this instrument can also be used for marching band pit.

Helpful hint: This is an excellent instrument for developing keyboard skills, and when played with softer mallets, the xylophone can substitute for a marimba. There are plenty of instruction booklets as well that are both fun and educational for the ragtime soloist. An ideal scenario for high school programs is to have a synthetic bar for outdoor play and a rosewood bar xylophone (R320) for indoor concert use. When not in use, xylophones should be covered and protected so be sure a drop cover is included with your purchase.

Xylophone

  • 1 ½ octave, 1 ¼” diameter brass or chrome-plated tubes (R600 or R605)

Depending on your budget or your preference, both of these options are equally exceptional. Brass tubes create a bright, rich sound while chrome-plated tubes provide you with a darker, mellower tone. For optimum sound projection and resonance, consider the 1 ½” diameter tubes.

Helpful Hint: Rawhide mallets are an excellent choice for chimes. Acrylic mallets can also be used but they aren’t as durable. Ensure a cover comes with your chimes as they should always be covered and protected when not in use. Some high school level tablatures may call for the use of 2 mallets.

Marimba

  • 4 1/3-octave octave synthetic bars (R420)

The 4 1/3-octave range on this marimba allows advancing students to explore more percussion ensemble and solo literature, which is very beneficial when attending competitions as well as all-state and college scholarship auditions. High school band directors will appreciate the height adjustable feature, and because it’s unaffected by weather and extremely durable, this marimba is perfect for outdoor use for marching band pit.

Helpful hint: When not in use, marimbas should be covered and protected so be sure a drop cover is included. For something more economical, a 4-octave instrument (R415) is certainly suitable and parts not accommodated by a 4-octave piece can easily be arranged to work.

Vibraphone

  • 3-octave vibraphones with silver or gold bars (R715S, R715SF or R715G)

Choosing gold or silver makes no difference in sound. It really comes down to which one you find to be more visually appealing.

Helpful hint: Single-locking casters on a vibraphone stop the wheels from spinning but don’t prevent them from rotating so the instrument can move as you pedal, while heavy-duty double locking casters eliminate swivel and rotation to allow for trouble-free pedaling. You can substitute a vibraphone for both harp and piano parts with some transcription. Be sure to cover your vibe when not in use for added protection.

Wood Bar Marimba

  • 4 1/3 octave marimbas with rosewood bars (R420W or R420WF)

Band directors will find having both synthetic and rosewood mallet instruments on hand to be very beneficial. Synthetic xylophones and marimbas are more durable and ideal for “pit percussion” while the rosewood instruments can be used solely for “concert percussion.” With each one dedicated to a specific use, you’ll extend the life of both instruments. It’s much the same as having “marching horns” and “concert horns.”

Helpful hint: Having 2 mallet instruments also allows you to expand your percussion program to accommodate literature that requires more than 1 instrument.

Final Notes

Since more parts are written for bells than any other musical instrument, and they’re an ideal alternative for other metal bar instruments, bells should be your first priority. The xylophone is second because it’s the best wooden bar instrument that can fill in for a marimba. Third are chimes as there are many parts written for them in conjunction with orchestra bells. What you add to your percussion section next depends on whether you have a strong classical, concert or jazz program. A marimba is a practical choice for the first two while the vibraphone is perfect for the latter.

Please keep in mind that this purchasing plan is only a guide. You may want to buy instruments out of order if your budget surplus allows for a more expensive instrument. Or you could purchase the instrument that’s next on the list and stock up on much needed accessories instead. The level of your students and your school program, as well as your budget, should ultimately guide your decisions.


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