What About Music? Giraffes & Xylophones!


So, this confused looking giraffe walks into a juice bar and lays down a crisp heart-shaped note on the counter. 

Barista reads from the note: "I finally discovered the difference between a glockenspiel and a xylophone! Glockenspiels have metal bars and Xylophones have wooden bars. Is this bar here, made of metal or wood, sir?"
The barista had to laugh...

Read on for a short history of the xylophone from the website "A Fresh Approach to Mallet Percussion":

"The Xylophone
The xylophone is the best known of all the mallet percussion instruments. It is a word everyone recognizes, and is often used to identify any and all of the members of the mallet percussion family.Oddly enough, the xylophone is rarely heard in popular music. This instrument is used mostly in the symphony orchestra and in musical theatre. The tight, brittle sound it creates is perfect as a kind of "special effect" that can add punch to a woodwind section. It's sound is especially striking when coupled with flute. Broadway has always used the xylophone as part of the pit orchestra. The opening to Porgy and Bess contains a difficult and impressive part for xylophone.All three instruments, vibes, marimba, and xylophone look similar. Let's take a look at the major differences."

                                                  Photo from the website: West Music
  • "The xylophone's wooden bars produce very short, high pitched sounds. The marimba's wooden bars create more mellow sounds that have a sustaining quality. The vibes have a metal bar that can ring for a long time, like a note on a piano.
  • The xylophone is played with a hard wooden or plastic mallet. The vibes and marimba are generally played with a softer rubber mallet that is often wrapped with yarn.
  • The xylophone is used almost exclusively in ensemble settings. The marimba and vibes often perform as solo instruments, as well as members of a group.
History of the Xylophone: The xylophone received its name from the Greek word xylon, meaning "wood", and the word phone, meaning "sound". Historically, the xylophone probably had its beginnings in Southeast Asia around the 14th century.The simplest xylophones were a pair of bars that laid across the player's legs. More complex instruments were developed that were mounted on a frame. It developed further as part of the Indonesian gamelan, or percussion orchestra.  From there, the xylophone spread throughout Africa and Europe. It became a widely used folk instrument in central Europe, and was first used in a modern orchestra in 1874. From Africa, the instrument was imported to South America by African slaves, where it developed into the Marimba.
The xylophone was probably a frequent member of early jazz bands in the 1920s and 1930s. It was also a very popular instrument in Vaudville. It's bright lively sound would work well with the syncopated dance music of that time. Red Norvo, best known as a jazz vibes player, used the xylophone a lot in the early days of his career.As time passed, the xylophone was used less and less in jazz and popular music, while the vibraphone gained in popularity. A modern xylophone player, Ian Finkle, is enjoying much success performing traditional vaudville, classical, and contemporary music arranged for a large ensemble that he fronts. Ian is a virtuoso musician with impressive technique. His live performances are always exciting."

I recently found this wonderful video clip of one of the greatest xylophonists, Teddy Brown.

Check out blog # 2 in the January section of this site for a short history of the glockenspiel!

When teaching a child how to hold the mallets for playing the glockenspiel or xylophone, I learned the following trick during my training with Orff-Schulwerk Music for Children. 

It is best to have the child use two mallets, one in each hand as this is how the instruments are played in performance. 

Before holding the mallets, I ask the children to pretend that they are riding on their bicycles and so we wrap our hands around our pretend handlebars.
Then we practice holding our elbows up as if we were maneuvering our bike handlebars and we dramatically hold on as the whole arm moves in a slight see-saw motion as if riding a real bike. 

This little activity can be transferred to the actual mallets and the children love it!

Incidentally, did you know that using rhythm sticks helps very young children get ready for holding mallets for later use with the pitched instruments? (Xylophone, Glockenspiel) 

Also, rhythm sticks are a wonderful exercise for developing  strength in the small muscles of the hand which benefit all areas of fine motor development, including using a pencil for writing!

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