Recommended sticks & mallets for a beginning percussionist

Whether you’re just starting out in the percussion section or have been ‘back there’ for a few years, you might not have all the sticks & mallets you need to be ready for whatever music your director might throw at you. In first year band you probably will only need the sticks and mallets that came with your practice kit, but soon that won’t be enough. I recommend having a stick bag with a pair each of sticks or mallets for snare drum, xylophone, bells, timpani, suspended cymbal, & triangle.

There are many different makes and models of mallets for each of these instruments, each with a different kind of sound, a different level of quality, and a different price tag. If you’re ready to spend about $200 on getting the right tools of the trade (not bad compared to some other instruments) that will last though middle school, and probably meet most of your needs in high school too, here is your shopping list:

Stick Bag: Innovative Percussion MB1 ($37*)
Snare Drum: Vic Firth SD1 ($7.50)
Xylophone: Malletech BB34 ($32)
Bells: Mike Balter 9r ($25)
Timpani: Vic Firth T1 ($25)
Suspended Cymbal: Mike Balter 23R ($33)
Drum Set: Vic Firth 5A ($7.50)
Triangle: Steve Weiss Basic Set of 4 ($10)

Add in a sharpened pencil, and you’ll have a set of quality mallets without buying anything you don’t need, and without spending too much on top-of-the-line equipment meant for college and professional players. The stick bag is large enough to fit your book and sheet music inside, so everything will travel together nicely and you will no longer get in trouble for forgetting your music! The Balter 23Rs also make a great vibraphone or even marimba mallet, which will be useful later on in their percussion career.

If you still want to get your stick bag filled out, but want to do it on a budget, Steve Weiss has options for that too. Everything (practically) on my list above has a low-cost version made my Liberty I, AKA Steve Weiss, for sale on their web page. They are not quite as nice as what is listed above, and you will probably want or need to replace it after a few years, but all of the options below will still work nicely for elementary or middle school, and for about half the price.

Stick Bag: Liberty I 01S ($17)
Xylophone: Liberty I LXM ($11)
Bells: Liberty I LBB ($11)
Timpani: Liberty I LT2 ($20)
Suspended Cymbals: Liberty I LMM ($15)
Triangle: Weiss Loop End Beater ($1)

You can buy everything on the ‘thrifty’ list for $75 plus shipping, or mix and match to suit your individual needs. I didn’t list an alternative snare drum or drum set stick; the Vic Firth SD1 and 5A drum sticks are the industry standard for general use concert snare drum and drum set, respectively, and their price just can’t be beat by anybody. However, if you’re looking to cut costs you could get away with skipping the 5A; the SD1s can work on drum set too, although they will get worn out quickly by the cymbals.

You could buy the xylophone, timpani, snare drum, and drum set sticks off the top list and the stick bag, bells, suspended cymbal, and triangle gear from the bottom for $115, and I think you’d get the best balance of quality versus price.

*Prices are from July 2016

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Cabaret setup, July 2016

Cabaret banner cropped

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First-time pit advice

Here’s selections from a thread I found on reddit that has a lot of great advice for playing in your first musical theater pit orchestra. Many of the people giving advice are professional musicians. I hope this is helpful!

[–]ChocolateDoorknob I’ve never played in a pit orchestra before and I’ve only ever been to one musical. I’ve played in classical orchestras for years and I’m hoping to do Grade 8 in November.

Does anyone have any tips for me?

 [–]cellogenius 7 points 7 months ago

As someone spending the entire summer playing in the pit orchestra for a musical and operetta company, I can offer some advice.

1) Mark your part very clearly. Don’t assume that you’ll remember a fermata, ritard, or a cut. You don’t want to be that person that plays in a rest.

2) Focus and listen. Don’t just assume that it will be the same as it was last night. Strange things will happen. Be prepared for them.

3) Make sure you’re comfortable in the pit. It will likely be cramped, but you don’t want to injure yourself by sitting in a weird position. You’ll be there for a long time, and tendinitis is bad.

[–]DairyQueenIsLife 5 points 7 months ago

Listen to what is going on around you. Watch the conductor at all times. Expect the unexpected. Play out when it’s just the orchestra playing, quiet down when it’s not.

[–]nycellist 4 points 7 months ago

As you are new at this, leave it to others to wear inappropriate clothing and other such things. You want people to know that you take your responsibilities seriously; that is how you get a good reputation. Leave it to others to goof around, do not participate. Musical theater is not like standard orchestral playing, there are things going on on stage that can alter how the music flows, so you must be alert to tempo changes and dynamics that you did not rehearse. Pay attention. Never play loud enough that you cannot hear your principal (also true in a regular orchestra). Watch the conductor, but play with the principal at all times. You will get more work from other cellists, so you want to be well-liked and professional. A good reputation will take you further than funny shoes or chess games. I have played on Broadway for almost 40 years, so I’ve seen it all.

[–]IndigoLaserJoyful Music Creations 2 points 7 months ago

Watch for the conductor’s cues. He/she is responding to the actors on stage, so the timing could be different than what you rehearsed. This should be a lot of fun!!!!!

I used to know a couple of guys who played in the Philadelphia Opera pit orchestra. It was the same opera over and over again. Often a long time would pass without any duties. They kept a miniature chess board and would play some chess (double bass and English horn or percussion, I forget their exact instruments) when they had nothing musical to do. However if you try something goofy like this, you have to be really, REALLY careful to be aware of what is going on in the musical and be ready for your cues.

[–]ChocolateDoorknob[S] 2 points 7 months ago

Considering that it’s my first time, I don’t know the musical very well and the fact that I’m 17 playing with adults, I might stick to being sensible this time…

 [–]nextyoyoma 2 points 7 months ago

There are a couple of solos in the book that are a bit tricky. Mostly it’s a pretty easy book though. Develop consistent practices for marking cuts/repeats/vamps/fermatas, but mark lightly! There may be changes made as late as right before the performance. Also, be prepared for ANYTHING. Sometimes actors will accidentally skip over part of a scene, or will be late with an entrance, requiring the conductor to make a quick change like putting in a vamp or repeat where none is marked, or stopping the song early. Playing for any kind of dramatic production requires extra attention to the conductor.

Don’t be afraid to bring out your part when it’s important. Since you are the only cellist, this is especially important. Obviously don’t overdo it, but if there are winds and brass, sometimes you have to adjust your dynamics to match theirs.

 [–]nycellist 3 points 7 months ago

This brings up some issues of nomenclature and conduct. A vamp is when you repeat a passage (usually short) over and over until the actor can finish some stage business and sing. There are three ways to end a vamp, the voice comes in the last time, the voice comes in at the beginning of the measure after the vamp, or the voice comes in in the middle of the vamp and you jump to the next section. Normally, the conductor will hold up their left index finger during a vamp and drop it at the end to signal this, but some can’t manage such things well, so be alert. It helps to make a note in each vamp where the voice comes in, or to write a dialogue cue into the part. When you are asked to tacet (not play some music), mark it in parenthesis or circle it, because it can change back, or the next production will not choose to tacet it. This is also what we do in recordings for songs, TV and film music. When marking cuts, do not scratch out (in pencil or otherwise) the music that is not played, for the same reason. If the show is “frozen” (the “artistic staff decide there will be no further changes), you can cut out blank paper to cover the cut music. Remember, you are not the last person who will use this part, so you must make any changes easy to remove.

[–]nextyoyoma 2 points 7 months ago

There is a big cello bassoon duet in one of transition pieces. Awkward page turn too. That’s another thing, plan your page turns. If you have to, make copies and tape them to the page so you can turn when it’s more convenient (be sure to use something easy to remove from the score, like washi tape).

[–]fajita43 3 points 7 months ago

When you are in an orchestra pit, no one (in the audience) can see your feet, so wear goofy bedroom slippers! we would have tux’s and then crazy shoes. I do recommend you check with others first… although you don’t have to!!! =)

Also, I don’t know about Oliver, but especially during rehearsals, when the talking bits get long, I put a magazine on my stand and read. Remember that the audience usually can still see your head, so you prolly don’t want to drop your head and check twitter on your phone, but your music stand has a light so reading is perfect!!! haha!

ahhhh the good ol’ days.

 [–]ChocolateDoorknob[S] 1 point 7 months ago

Thanks for the help! Band call is tomorrow night so I’m excited to try playing with real people rather than YouTube recordings.

 [–]nycellist 2 points 7 months ago

have fun!

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Music education research

A study of 8 to 11-year-olds found that, those who had extra-curricular music classes, developed higher verbal IQ, and visual abilities, in comparison to those with no musical training.

~ Forgeard et al., “Practicing a Musical Instrument in Childhood is Associated with Enhanced Verbal Ability and Nonverbal Reasoning,” PLOS One, 2008.

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Wizard of Oz percussion setup

2016 Wizard of Oz (RSC) EHK12

Here’s my percussion setup for the recent production of “The Wizard of Oz” at Edmonds Heights K-12, with Mike Corey as the music director. We used the RSC version, as opposed to the MUNY version. I was playing both the drums and the percussion book, so I wasn’t able to squeeze everything in. However, I think I did pretty good with the space I had. Most of the playing was snare/bass/hi-hat and bells, so I built everything else up around those instruments. I found a big aluminum wash basin at Home Depot to use for some Tin-man sound effects. There are two drum triggers on the left side of the setup; Mike the MD had that rig and wanted me to use it for the timpani hits. Here’s all the included gear:

Drum set: Mapex Tornado fusion kit, Pearl 3″x13″ piccolo snare, Sabian AAX fusion 13″ hats, Zildjian 15″ A custom crash, Wuhan 8″ splash, and Sabian AA Metal-x 20″ ride.

Everything else: Yamaha DTX-3 drum triggers and brain; wash basin; Steve Weiss anvil; Korogi 2.6 octave xylophone; little plastic siren; Deagan bells; Rhythmtech DST tambourine; LP Black Beauty cowbell; LP 72-bar studio windchimes; LP jam block piccolo, high,and medium; Alan Abel triangle mounted on a Miller Machine. Not pictured: whistle.

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Practice instruments for percussion students in band

When it comes to home practice, a percussionist needs two main pieces of equipment: a xylophone or bells set, and a snare drum. I’m going to list a number of practical options that range from inexpensive to extravagant. Any of these options will work, especially for the first 2 years or so. The main difference is tone quality vs. the size of your percussion budget.

pearlThe Pearl PK900 Percussion kit has everything you need for a very affordable price. Similar starter kits can vary greatly with price, but if you buy this from a reputable dealer it will ring up for under $200. It comes with a set of concert bells with a range of 2 octaves plus a fifth- which is more than enough to get a student through middle school and beyond. It comes with a practice pad instead of a full size snare drum.  You can buy this kit for $164.99 at www.steveweissmusic.com.

korogiThe main drawback to kits like this is that the bells simply don’t sound very good. If you’d prefer something slightly more melodic, and still at a reasonable price, the next step up is a tabletop xylophone. Xylophones use wood bars instead of bell sets that use metal. The tabletop xylophone I recommend is the Korogi EK032 Desktop xylophone. There are also similar models made by Yamaha, Musser, Wang, and Kori among others. They don’t come with a drum pad or snare drum, so you’ll also have to purchase that separately. Korogi xylophones are currently selling for $315 at http://www.percussionsource.com.

musserIf you don’t want a student instrument and you’d like to get something a little more professional, the Musser M47 Xylophone is an excellent choice. There are many other models to choose from, but the M47 includes a fantastic 3 ½ octave range, aluminum resonators, adjustable height, and the reputation of one of the oldest and most reliable brands in the industry. This particular model is selling for $1399 at several web sites including interstatemusic.com.

The next step up in quality and price is a marimba. Marimbas can range in price from $2000 to $15,000 and are the primary solo instrument of the percussion family.

When it comes to drum pads and snare drums, you don’t want to invest too much initially. This is because if you decide to buy a drum set later, it will come with a snare drum anyway. For now, just get a drum pad or inexpensive snare drum that comes with a stand. There are multiple models for sale on the internet for $40-$70 plus shipping. You can usually find pads and snare drums for half price on Craigslist if you are comfortable buying from strangers.

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