Great instruments for community music-making
by Heather McLaughlin
I have been a keen fan of homemade marimbas since the very first community-built instrument was made in Australia, at a family music conference in Melbourne in 1991. As I now come to the end of my teaching career in schools, I’ve realised that the absolute favourite part of my job in recent years has been getting kids and adults playing marimbas (often along with xylophone and other melodic percussion). I also really enjoy helping people to make marimbas, and a one-day working bee with a group of families can result in an instrument that will last for years. For adults in the community they are a perfect step into playing music in groups. (One of my most satisfying workshop sessions was getting some novice 90 year old men playing marimbas.)
In the early 1990s, Jon Madin and Andy Rigby began what is now an international movement by adapting the marimba-making model Andy had learnt about in Botswana. Ever since then, playing marimbas, encouraging others to play them, and making them with school and community groups has been a big part of my life.
Some of the instruments I have been using in schools recently were made in the early 1990s and are still going strong – with perhaps a few bars replaced over that time, and a bit of re-tuning every few years.
What’s so magical about Marimbas?
- Lots of things! They are so big, you can make them yourself, they are made of lovely wood, they can be played by anyone, they always sound good, and you can play with your friends! Someone can play just a two note bass and others can add in other patterns and it will sound good. Or you can play more complicated things like the “Can Can” which is great fun. All levels, all ages.
- I just love the sound of a room full of marimbas booming away, whether it’s school kids or top-level musicians or a mix of all ages or beginner adults.
- Anyone can sound good on a marimba within ten minutes.
- With carefully selected pieces, even a new group of players can sound terrific in fifteen.
- Marimba playing = Immediate gratification!
As a foundation to a classroom set of xylophones and other percussion, they have now become common in music programmes, especially in the Australian states where music specialists are regular members of staff in primary schools (Victoria, Queensland etc). Ideally they are the Jon Madin design and have been made by parents and children at the same school, for feelings of ownership and empowerment.
Carl Orff, a German composer and music educator, inspired an approach to learning music that encouraged playing and singing as a group, integrating music and movement or dance, and used instruments that were easy to play.
The set of instruments used in an Orff-inspired music programme is called the ‘instrumentarium’ and usually consists of ‘melodic percussion’ or barred instruments: xylophones (wooden bars), glockenspiels (the little high-pitched metal ones), and metallophones (larger, lower-pitched metal ones), Percussion instruments such as drums and wood blocks, and recorders, are also part of the ‘Orff Instrumentarium’. Marimbas are an ideal addition to this collection, and are common in primary schools around Victoria. One of the enormous bass marimbas added in gives great ‘oomph’ to the music and is always popular with students.
The Victorian Orff Schulwerk Association (VOSA) runs lots of workshops and other events for teachers and other adults interested in music and/or working with children. Carl Orff also emphasized improvisation, and marimbas and percussion.
- sound great, look impressive
- are really satisfying to build (for $300 or less)
- are perfect for schools and community music-making
- improvising is easy, with a visual aspect
- are good for people with varied musical background
- can be used for quick group music
- are a non-threatening introduction to instrumental music
- are ideal for social interaction.
The large size and physical nature of the marimbas make them appealing, especially to older students and adults, and they give a good bass to the other instruments.
Ideas that work
Many of the musical pieces Jon Madin and others have developed over the last twenty years have a quite simple bass line – often only a few notes – and use similar ideas to those developed by composer and music educator Carl Orff after his interest in African and Indonesian traditional music:
- repeated patterns or ostinati
- segments that are visually and aurally separate
- sometimes removal of some of the notes to make patterns easier
- familiar tunes (from the Pachelbel Canon to Hell and Toe)
- catchy rhythms can emphasise the percussive nature of marimbas
- a small number of notes
- avoiding big jumps
- songs which tell players which letters to use
By combining a simple bass with a middle part which is not too difficult, and perhaps a more complex top part or melody which is fairly quick to learn, groups of novice musicians can be led to group music-making that is immediately satisfying.
Jon Madin’s “Boris the Bassman” has been a great favourite for 20 years because it incorporates these elements.
Community Marimba Playing
There are regular events where you can play marimbas. Weekends such as Community Music Victoria’s Treetops Music Camp, Turramurra Bush Music Camp, Roses Gap/Charnwood Folk Camp, and the monthly playing sessions in West Heidelberg (HeidyMarimba) all offer opportunities for everyone to try these instruments.
You’ll see them at some festivals. Look out for Jon Madin and his marimbas (plus all those other surprising instruments such as Musical Bikes and DingBoxes). Andy Rigby may be there with some marimbas as well as harps or flutes of various types. The annual Melbourne Wood Show has a stand where you can see an instrument being made, and try them out. In Geelong, and at the Port Fairy Folk Festival, you may see the Tate Street Primary group playing. Maybe your local primary school has a couple.
Marimbas are all around, especially in Victoria – hooray!
Want to know more? Want to play? Want to make one? Contact CMVic or like Marimba Victoria on Facebook
Jon Madin: Make Your Own Marimbas ; Jon Madin: Marimba Music 1 etc. (Four books/CDs of pieces and songs);
Walt Hampton Hot Marimba
Gerard van der Geer Marimbamania
Andy Rigby Marimba!
Click here for Jon Madin’s website