If you are currently a student in high school who is serious about playing percussion and is possibly considering pursuing music in college, chances are your situation looks a little something like this: you are involved in a wind ensemble or orchestra program at your school; you are a member of a youth orchestra or wind ensemble program in your city or region; you take lessons with a private teacher approximately once a week; you own a snare drum and either a marimba or xylophone; you do not own timpani or a vibraphone … Am I close?
It’s possible that you may be in an environment where you are able to participate in a percussion ensemble program, chamber music program and/or own or have regular access to timpani and vibraphone. If that is the case, then that’s fantastic! And you may require a slightly more extensive collection than the essentials I have outlined below. For 95% of you out there, however, the following suggestions should serve as a reasonable and quite comprehensive starting point without breaking your or your parents' budget.
In each category, I outline the sound requirements and elements of stick/mallet construction that I feel are important, followed by my recommendations of specific models. Keep in mind that my recommendations are based on my experience as a professional performer and teacher, not on a comprehensive test of every single mallet available on the market. There may be other alternatives that fulfill these requirements, so if you know of something out there that is useful, please let me know!
SNARE DRUM STICKS
For a general concert snare stick, you will need something that produces a full sound, has a good rebound and is matched in weight and pitch between the pair. The factors that affect sound are weight and bead shape/size. The factors that affect rebound are overall stick length and the length of the taper. You will want a long stick (16.5” - 17”) with a relatively long taper and a tip whose shape provides a good amount of surface area coming into contact with the head, such as an oval or acorn shape.
Innovative Percussion CL1L Chris Lamb Birch Laminate Concert Snare Drum Sticks - Laminated birch is denser (therefore heavier) and more consistent in weight than maple; Stick length and long taper facilitate rebound; Acorn-shaped tip produces full, round sound.
For general band or orchestral playing, you will need a mallet that produces a full, bright sound that will project through the texture of a large ensemble, yet is not hard enough to dent rosewood, especially on newer instruments with softer wood. For solo playing (études, rags, etc.) something that produces a warmer, rounder sound is usually more appropriate.
Malletech OR42R Hard Rattan Xylo/Bell Mallets - Great all around, general purpose mallet for orchestral and wind ensemble playing; Full and bright sound.
Innovative Percussion CL-X5 Chris Lamb Medium Nylon Xylophone Mallets - When a smaller, lighter sound than the Malletech OR42R is required. Also sounds excellent on synthetic instruments such as Yamaha Acoustalon, which you may encounter frequently as a student. Produces more fundamental than my previous favorite in this category, Malletech OR39R.
Freer Percussion KMHR Medium Hard Green Rubber - Fantastic mallet for solo playing and practice. Full, dark sound. Also great for woodblocks and temple blocks!
For general band or orchestra playing, you will need a mallet that produces a full, bright sound at all dynamics. Shaft flexibility is more important on glockenspiel than probably any other mallet instrument due to the possibility of case noise. Rattan or fiberglass handles are ideal. Birch is NOT recommended.
Mike Balter 10R Extra Hard Phenolic Rattan - Great all around glockenspiel mallet. Full and bright, but a little lighter than the similar Malletech OR48R which can sound clunky on some instruments.
MARIMBA & VIBRAPHONE MALLETS
I'm just going to let you in on a big secret to save time. Are you sitting down? ... Marimba and vibraphone mallets are pretty much the same. 😱 WHAT!!!??? Say it isn't so!!! Well, I'm only half serious. They are both made with rubber or plastic cores attached to a shaft of rattan or birch and are wrapped with some kind of thread. Traditionally, "marimba" mallets are wrapped with wool or synthetic yarn in a way that is meant to diminish contact sound while preserving fundamental, whereas "vibraphone" mallets are usually wrapped more tightly with a much finer synthetic cord and are meant to produce a punchier sound. The fact is that many "vibraphone" mallets often sound great on marimba in the right context and some "marimba" mallets also sound great on vibraphone in the right context. All models are available on both birch and rattan shafts, but as a Stevens technique player, I recommend birch.
Encore NZ3B Nancy Zeltsman Medium Hard Birch Marimba Mallets (2 pair) - Excellent sound; Good weight; These mallets work across the widest range of the marimba and will be your goto set of medium mallets for 4-mallet and 2-mallet solo playing and practice.
Encore NZ4B Nancy Zeltsman Medium Birch Marimba Mallets (1 pair) - These are one notch softer than the NZ3B and will serve as the bass mallet if/when you need a graduated set (see note below).
Encore NZ2B Nancy Zeltsman Medium Harder Birch Marimba Mallets (1 pair) - These are one notch harder than NZ4B and will serve as the soprano mallet if/when you need a graduated set (see note below).
Note on graduated sets: My recommended graduated set for younger students to start with is one NZ4B, two NZ3Bs and one NZ2B. That way the inner two mallets, which would usually be responsible for any alternating single-line passages, are the same.
If you're a more experienced marimba player and can handle a slightly heavier mallet, I would consider using the same configuration of Encore Nanae Mimura series mallets - two pair of NM4B and one pair each of NM5B and NM3B (all $38.50/pair). In my opinion, they produce a richer sound with more fundamental than the Zeltsman series. They're sometimes too heavy, however, for students who play Stevens technique and are still building strength in the fingers, hands and wrists.
Mike Balter Pro Vibe Series Birch 23BXL Medium Blue Cord (2 pair) - These mallets have been around forever and there's a reason. They are really useful! Great for vibraphone in large ensembles, especially in wind ensemble when a "soft" mallet is called for. Also great for marimba in large ensembles and chamber music when a punchier sound than you can achieve with a yarn wound marimba mallet is required. Shafts are the same length as standard marimba mallets which will better facilitate accuracy.
Mike Balter Pro Vibe Series Birch 22BXL Medium Hard Green Cord - A harder version of 23BXL above and great for vibraphone and marimba in the same large ensemble context.
More money is wasted on timpani mallets by young percussionists than on any other type of mallet. Trust me. I’ve wasted it. This is because different timpani mallet designs are specific to a particular technique, playing style and/or head type to a much greater degree than mallets for any other instrument. A mallet that is designed for a German-style player using timpani with calf heads is most likely not the best choice for a student studying a more American tradition on a set of Ludwig Professional timpani with plastic heads, especially if that mallet costs three times as much. Furthermore, most high school students do not own timpani and therefore rarely get as much experience practicing it as they do snare drum or mallet instruments. As a result, their timpani playing doesn’t get solidified until much later on. So a mallet that once worked well for a student in high school may not work well in college when he or she changes teachers, gains more playing experience and goes through various changes in technique. The takeaway: buy less expensive, more generic mallets to start out with until you really have a handle on sound production and mechanics. These four models are a great starting point and provide the full range of color and articulation that you will need in orchestra or wind ensemble. There will be a day when you rarely use them, but you will have only spent 1.5-2x the price of only one pair of some of the most expensive mallets for all four pair!
Vic Firth Tim Genis GEN5 - Tonal - Excellent general mallet.
Vic Firth Tim Genis GEN6 - Hard Tonal - When more articulation is necessary, but still round and full.
Vic Firth Tim Genis GEN1 - Roller - For rich, smooth rolls at all dynamics or for single notes with little attack.
Vic Firth Tim Genis GEN7 - Articulate - When articulation is of primary importance.
So ... What's the damage for all this? $484.30 excluding sales tax and shipping at the time of this writing. Does that sound like a lot? Well, I spent much more money than that as a high school student guessing my way to a comprehensive mallet collection. Now you don't have to! Furthermore, it's less expensive than that Xbox One Call of Duty Bundle you just asked your parents to buy you for Christmas and a LOT less than a violin. ;) Happy shopping and happy practicing!!!