Bach to Bossa

Tuned percussion repertoire has enjoyed huge expansion and development over the last 20 to 25 years. When I first started studying solo xylophone and marimba pieces in the late 1980’s and early 90’s, the music available to us as students was restricted by many things, not least how much experience our teachers had in this field. I was lucky that as a 16-year-old, my teacher was a recent graduate from the RNCM and full of exciting, inspiring ideas and was very well-versed in both the technical and musical demands of the new music available. I developed my two-mallet technique through a mixture of the old ABRSM repertoire and the simpler George Hamilton-Green solos and exercises, while my four-mallet journey started with timeless classics like Yellow After the Rain and Gordon Stout’s Mexican Dances. None of this music was new at the time, the important thing was how my teacher used it to develop my technique and musicianship.

Today, we are very fortunate to have lots of music to choose from and when we are very lucky, our most curious and inquisitive pupils will arrive at their lessons with a piece that they have seen being performed on YouTube or by an older friend or sibling. There are times when we have to temper the enthusiasm of a Grade 3 player who wants to play pieces by Eric Sammut they have heard, but we are now in a position where we can at least give them the feeling that they are playing something just as challenging and impressive. Gone are the days when we might have to send them away with a piece arranged for xylophone that they might just as easily have played for a Grade 2 piano exam. It can be tricky managing such enthusiasm without knocking their confidence or dampening their drive and energy. We are lucky to be able to pick from an extensive list of pieces, all with a variety of challenges and from a broad range of genres. When you look at the list of composers on the ABRSM Percussion Syllabus, you will see it is full of established percussion soloists/composers, some of whom have been writing music for over 30 years and new composers who bring something fresh and modern to the table. There are also some wonderful transcriptions of works by Bach, Haydn and Tchaikovsky, but it is such a relief that we are no longer relying on these composers to provide the main body of our teaching material.

I have recently been working on the Grade 6 repertoire with a pupil who is hoping to enter for an exam soon. She has been really inspired by the Ney Rosauro piece, My Dear Friend. It is a fantastic piece written for solo vibraphone that employs many of the techniques that are exclusive to the vibes, such as pedalling and stick-damping. It teaches the performer about expression and phrasing whilst giving the opportunity to tell a story through the music. Learning this piece led her to want to play more vibes pieces and she quickly started on Etude in Bossa from the same book. This was great for me because it gave me an excuse to play bongos, shakers or if I was feeling particularly energetic an accompaniment on marimba using the chord symbols. I have found that a book like Ney Rosauro’s Vibes Etudes and Songs can have many uses and benefits as a teacher beyond just learning the notes on the page, so it’s a great investment for our own libraries. The beginning of the book gives some excellent exercises in dampening and pedalling techniques and I wholeheartedly recommend doing those before attempting the pieces if this is your student’s first go at the vibes. I also try to play along with them through some of these pieces as particularly with a Bossa, it’s important that they understand the feel of the music. I’m a big fan of playing them examples from Spotify and asking them to make the vibes sound like Stan Getz’s saxophone. I’ve yet to achieve much success on that front but the same could be said from my own attempts as well!

When you look through the whole of the new ABRSM Percussion Syllabus you can see a rich variety of very exciting and rewarding music which will keep your pupils and perhaps just as importantly, you the teacher, inspired for many an online lesson to come!

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