The Eye of the Marimbist

The Gist of the Series:

If you’re a serious marimbist, the following query is for you: How well have you analyzed the range of motion for each joint in your hand, wrist, and arm? How well are you aware of the placement of your feet and your center of balance? How many hours have you spent analyzing in intimate detail the interactions between the hands during each complex passage?

And how well are you aware of the exact point at which you’re looking at any given time while playing? How does your eye move from point to point and does it get there efficiently? Have you ever found that an awkward passage was solved by a simple analysis of each hand’s movement? There was that one moment where your subconscious mind moved your arm toward the black keys before your conscious mind directed it to the correction location. It was just a small movement in the wrong direction, but it got “programmed” into your motion and the passage shook from its dissonance. After the analysis, you remove the dissonant error and the passage flows like the problem never existed.

If you are like me–and who knows, maybe no one else is–then you have only rarely payed [paid?] attention to the discipline of your gaze. Over the past six months, I’ve started paying attention. This series is my attempt to formalize and share what I’ve found.

The Eye of the Marimbist 1:

Battling the Marimba’s “Picket Fence”

When we begin learning about music theory, we start with the “natural” white keys on the piano, then we name the black keys by how they relate to the white keys.  As we become more sophisticated in knowledge of theory, we incorporate information about double sharps, double flats, and the fact that white keys can also be named in an un-”natural” way.

As marimbists, we take these lessons directly to our instrument.  We think of the “black” bars as fitting in between the “white” bars.  I would like to propose a different approach that solves one particular problem:  the difficulty of playing on the scales that are mostly- (or all-) “white” bars.  When I described the material of this essay to my friend (and brilliant marimbist) Dr. Jeff Barudin, he gave me the perfect term for this white-bar phenomenon:  The Picket Fence Effect!  [I’m going to dispense with the quote marks around white and black bars…]

As we play these predominantly white scales, the eyes track across the white bars looking at the notes that are being played.  As the playing speed increases, it becomes difficult to keep the black bars in view–and they are the true landmarks of our spatial awareness on the keyboard.  Sailors have long had a term for this process:  “Dead Reckoning.”  Here is the definition that google.com gives:

“the process of calculating one’s position, especially at sea, by estimating the direction and distance traveled rather than by using landmarks, astronomical observations, or electronic navigation methods.”

I have chosen this definition because of its use of the word “landmarks.”  Once the landmarks are out of view, the sailor (or the marimbist) is left to estimate position by use of movement and direction.  The estimate sometimes cannot keep up with the amount of data that is coming into the eyes and the mallets can “slip” off of the intended track.

I believe that there is a solution to this problem and that it depends upon doing two things:

  1. Apply the techniques used when sight-reading on my keyboard instruments to playing these predominantly white bar scales.
  2. Reverse the approach that we learned in our theory classes so that our eyes fall not on the white bars as they relate to the black bars, but on the black bars alone.

When sight-reading, my eyes stay on the page.  I can see the black bars below the page via peripheral vision and I can extrapolate the position of the white bars by how they fit into the visible black bars.  For instance, I see two black bars and I know that the “D” note falls directly below the gap between the two black bars.  I have a visual/spatial image of the notes I am reading on the keyboard in my mind and I am constantly coordinating this image with the black bars that I can see in my peripheral vision.  This system is not preferable to playing from memory, but it works well for sight-reading–when 95+% accuracy is an acceptable benchmark for most of us.

Boosting that accuracy level up to nearly 100% is possible during the process I am advocating for white bar scales because of a couple of significant differences between sight-reading and playing these scales.

  1. The percentage of the brain’s processing power that would be used for the reading portion of sight-reading is not being used–it can be reallocated to prediction tasks.
  2. The black bars are not being held in the imperfect vision of the periphery, they are now under our direct gaze!

If the player can combine that visual/spatial image of the keyboard onto the input coming from the eyes that are focused on the black bars, then there is a high level of coordination between the hands and eyes–the picket fence disappears and the hands can be related directly to the simple 2+3 landmarks instead of to the blur of white bars that pass under sideways motion.

To be honest, this change will take quite a bit of work for those of us who have spent years (or decades, in my case) in training our eyes to see the white bars first, but my experience has been surprisingly positive with this new paradigm of vision.  My accuracy is increasing and the additional comfort/confidence makes the process of practicing fresh again.

Here is the “line of sight” that I am working to keep under my eyes:

White bars should be imagined (in the mental image) by their location with regard to the black keys.  The “C, E, F, and B” can be found “outside” the 2+3 landmarks, while the “D, G, and A” bars can be found “inside” the 2+3 landmarks.

This information can be combined to play chords and scales.  Here is the way the a G Major triad looks when conceived in this manner.  (Note that the “D, and G” notes are “inside” the 2 and the 3 respectively, while the “B” is found “outside” the 3.)  Retraining the eyes to “see” the chords and scales in this manner takes some time, but the benefits in accuracy on the white bar scales and chords will be well worth the effort.

There are two ways to look at a marimba. This new idea is important..

One of them, I’ve known all my life.

The other of them, I’ve only discovered.

Near the end of my career.

The new embraces black What is it?

And imagines the white.

The old sees the white

And fits in the black.

All lateral scanning must be How to do it?

Learned to read a 2 and a 3.

Scanning 7 pinched together

Blinds the player. Stormy Weather.

When to use the new? Should I use it?

Should it supplant the old?

Does it stand up to the old?

Or is it for only occasional necessity?

Never before has describing Why did I just write a poem?

A technical idea for preserving.

Come in the form of a poem.

At least not to me.