Do percussionists still play xylophone solos?


Or is it all marimba these days?

I grew up with the xylophone. Nearly every band rehearsal room had one in some state or another. Resonator tubes leaning against the wall with the other sections hidden under piles of music or even complete in the far corner of the band room covered in posters and cases invariably used as a table. The three, or sometimes three and a half, octave rickety framed wooden noted instrument was an integral part of my musical education in brass bands.

It took a few years for me to understand why most of these instruments sounded so bad with the band. It was not until I took an interest in their construction, and looked underneath the notes, that I found the reason for the obvious tuning discrepancies with the brass instruments. Many of the xylophones I played were in HP, not bought on the never never but in high pitch. High pitch was a common tuning standard in the brass bands up until the 1960s (nearly a semitone above the standard orchestral [A440] tuning) but unfortunately it was not a full semitone different so even by reorganising the notes on the instrument it sounded too flat to the 1970s brass band that had changed to a standardised pitch or very obviously out of tune if left as manufactured.

This was the instrument I learnt on, got to grips with the distances between notes and mastered the target practice. It was very rare to see a xylophone being performed as a solo instrument although Patrick Moore (writer, television presenter and amateur astronomer) was sometimes featured on the BBC performing one of his solos. Representative clip of the style from an early Children In Need special with the brilliant Deryck Guyler on another neglected percussion setup the washboard and pans.

YouTube now features a few more xylophone soloist especially the great Teddy Brown and his band playing drums or xylophone with an effortless, yet years of practice, technique. One of my solos Two Spanish Dances has even made it onto the channel, played by a 12 year old Jess, with piano accompaniment although the majority of the others solos on the channel have brass or military band accompaniments.

To have a marimba in the 60s and 70s was something special, exotic and wasn’t it just a bass xylophone? Even now having a marimba in the UK is not that common. Hopefully most music services in the country invested in one in the past, before the new funding regime came into effect, as spending that sort of money on such an instrument these days would now be regarded as too much of a luxury. What now seems to be the major difficulty for the aspiring percussionist is the access to an instrument. Having spent so much money in the past administrators have now got all the expensive assets locked away, often in storerooms rather than practice rooms and finding the instrument, let alone being able to practice on it, needs determination and guile.

Last week there were many posts and tweets by percussion friends from PASIC 2015 organised by the Percussive Arts Society held in San Antonio, Texas. In a separate event on November 8th Kutztown University organised an event celebrating the life and work of Clair Omar Musser, ‘150 marimbists on over 75 instruments’ was advertised in the press release. Here in the UK we can only admire the spectacle and hope for similar investment somehow in the future. I could find 75 xylophones fairly easily in my locality but that number of marimbas in the country would prove a challenge even taking into account university and conservatoire percussion departments.

I will continue to compose for both instruments and would love to write for a large ensemble of marimbas though getting to hear a performance may be too difficult. The great organisational work by Liz Gilliver and future performances of the Manchester Marimba Orchestra could be an inspiration to UK based composers to explore this set of sounds but this project needs a benefactor as do most music projects in this country.
The sheet music for the Ten Xylophone Solos book with piano accompaniments is available to order from Southern Percussion and the suite Mutual Marimba Music and the new book 12 Solos for Xylophone with CD of accompaniments can be ordered from or as a download from either in sterling or in dollars.
The xylophone and timpani were the start of my musical vocation and I hope you enjoy the xylophone, marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiels, bells… any and all of the keyboard percussion instruments, I have and continue to do so.

© P. R. Birkby 2015


About derangeddrums

Composer, percussionist, musical director, teacher and educator. My music has been written for audiences in palaces and in the street. Music is my vocation and my passion and I hope you enjoy it too.
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