Mallet technique: practice tips, advanced techniques

In this article, I’ll cover practice tips that apply both to bell trees and bells malleted on the table, and discuss how to solve common problems.

Bell trees

The most common problems with bell trees are difficulty seeing past multiple strands of bells, and strands swinging when hit. Using the setup I described in Bell trees: basics will make it easier to see the bells.

Swinging strands result from:

1) Using the wrong equipment – The arms of makeshift stands, like an IV pole, are the wrong diameter and don’t fit the handle loop snugly. Use a bell tree stand designed for this purpose.
2) Striking the bell incorrectly and pushing the bell – The mallet stroke requires a fast rebound. Don’t let the mallet head linger on the bell. The mallet strike should angle more down than out, hitting in the curve of the bell as described in Mallet technique: basics. Lowering the arms of the stand will help.
3) Using older bells with stiff handles – Older Schulmerich handles are less flexible than newer ones, which grip the bell tree stand arm. The solution is the O-rings that come with the Peery stand. Place them on the arm, and snug them up to each side of the bell handle, as described and shown in Bell trees: equipment. I’ve also heard of using rubber bands around the arm of the stand.
4) Strands that are too long or too short – The lowest bell has no weight below to stop it from swinging. Try adding all the bells in the prescribed setup even if you don’t play them all. However, if you create a strand that’s too long, it will have more momentum when it starts to swing.

The above recommendations should resolve most swinging problems. For rogue swings, touch the end of your mallet to a lower bell in the strand during a pause in the music.

If the bells hit the pole, you can wrap a piece of pipe insulation (from the plumbing section of the hardware store) around the pole during practice, until you solve the swinging problem.

If you miss the bell when striking:

1) Keep your eye on the target. This requires moving your gaze (and body) quickly from bell to bell.
2) Start the stroke with the mallet close to the target, which improves accuracy.
3) Practice scales and arpeggios regularly, so you get used to each bell’s position in the setup and can find it instinctively. Use a double strike to improve accuracy and a single strike to build up speed in changing bells.
4) When transitioning from your practice space to the performance space, you may be distracted by different sightlines through the bells. Try moving the bell tree stand somewhere else in the room each practice session; even turning it around within the same space will give you practice adjusting to new sightlines.
5) Practice occasionally in your performance attire. Seeing multiple reflections of yourself wearing a bright holiday color can take some getting used to.
6) Practice in the same shoe height you wear in performance. As little as one inch more heel height will change your spatial relationship to the bells.
7) Consider sitting on a chair or stool. This is a more stable position, and most instrumentalists sit down. This won’t work with multiple strands, but is worth considering for a single strand.

If your arms get tired as you play:

1) Lower the arms on the stand. There’s no reason to play over your head. Keeping the bells at eye level or lower will also improve accuracy.

Drumsticks and practice pad2) Buy a drum practice pad and drumsticks. I bought the cheapest ones I could find at Guitar Center, but you can check any music store that sells drumming equipment. Hang the pad and practice striking it to build up arm strength. Use a metronome to practice rhythms at the same time.

3) Build up arm strength in the usual ways, such as small hand weights or push-ups.

4) Be aware of tension in your body, and consciously relax your muscles. In particular, don’t lift the mallets several measures before your entrance and stand poised to attack the bells. Lift mallets just before you start to play, so they arrive just in time for the prep stroke of your first beat.

Malleting on the table

Transition from a ringing passage into malleting: Write which mallets you need at the top of your sheet music, and check that you have them before you start. Always keep your mallets in the same place on the table so you can find them quickly. You might place them below your tabletop music stand, or parallel to the far edge of the table. Position the shaft of each mallet so it’s within easy reach of your hand. Consider placing the mallets facing opposite directions, so you can pick them up directly with the correct hand, instead of picking them up first with one hand, then passing one to your other hand. Experiment until you arrive at a setup that works well for you, then stay with it. Identify the spot in the music where you plan to pick up mallets, and make a note. You may need to pass a bell between hands so it can continue to sound, then pick up the mallet with the resulting free hand.

Holding both mallet and bellTransitioning from a mallet passage to ringing: Organize your sticking pattern so you can end the passage with your hand on the handle of the bell you want to ring. If the hand you normally use for that bell is awkward, try ringing it with the other hand. You can continue to hold a mallet in one or both hands as you ring the bell, if there isn’t time to put the mallet down, especially if you’re going to resume malleting.

Mallet lift: This technique converts a stopped sound to a sustained sound, and is always done on a relatively long note. You can use many of the same strategies as transitioning from malleting to ringing. Organize your sticking pattern to free up a hand to place on the handle of the bell you need to lift. Mallet the bell, then immediately lift it to a vertical position. (Don’t lift too early; the bell should be completely on the table when the mallet strikes.) Use the whole length of the note value to lift it at a consistent rate of speed to the final height, perhaps shoulder high. Match the lift to your neighbors’ bells. At the end of the note value, depending on what happens next, damp the bell on the shoulder or return it to the table. The half note below shows mallet lift notation:

Mallet lift notation

Malleting offbeats: Give your body and brain something to do on the beat. You can tap your idle hand on your leg or the padded table, tap your foot, or mallet the pad or bell handle on the beat with the hand that mallets the bell off the beat. This creates a pattern that’s easy for your brain to understand: silent hit on the beat, audible mallet off the beat. Continue this pattern until you get into it and can discontinue ‘playing’ the silent beat.

Mallet rolls: Use one mallet in each hand. If rolling on a single bell, your target is slightly off center to keep the mallets out of each other’s way. Alternate hands, using a lot of wrist motion and building up speed. Be sure to start and end the roll according to the designated note value for your bells. Think of a triplet pattern (1-2-3-1-2-3 instead of 1-2-1-2) to create a rounder sound instead of a march. A practice pad, drumsticks, and metronome are a good way to practice mallet rolls, especially when you don’t have access to bells. Here’s the notation for mallet rolls:

Mallet roll notation

Mallet roll with one handIf you have to roll with one hand, use one of the two-mallet grips and pummel the bell between the mallet heads.



Both tree and table

Dynamics: Dynamics aren’t a function of force, but finesse. With knees bent, press your feet into the floor for louder notes. Ease up and sink into your knees for softer sounds. Increase the height of the mallet rebound for louder notes, then immediately lower it to within striking distance. Though not recommended by the manufacturers, you can also strike different parts of the bell for different dynamic results. For example, softly hitting the edge of a bell tree bell will create a very quiet sound. To create a crescendo when malleting a bell on the table, practice with softer mallets than you use in performance and wear hearing protection, to encourage yourself to hit the bells hard enough to project properly in a performance venue.

Balance: Unless you’re ambidextrous, your non-dominant hand (probably your left hand) is less skilled than your dominant hand. Use video recording to verify the height of your mallet stroke and rebound is identical for both hands, and audio recording to check for balance and rhythmic accuracy. You can train your non-dominant hand by doing twice as many exercises with it as with your dominant hand, and picking out simple melodies by ear with your left hand alone.

Warmup: When performing in a new venue, if there’s a mallet passage in your program, be sure to include it in your warm-up. You need to get used to the acoustics and different reflections from the bells, just as with rung passages. Don’t ask me how I learned this.

Copyright © 2012 Nancy Kirkner,