AMI Blog

BUILDING A MUSIC PROGRAMME WITH MARIMBAS

Marimbas are not just for the kids who play in the band – there is so much more you can do with them. As classroom instruments they are unsurpassed. They are robust and stand up to quite a bit of tough use. The notes are easy to play – just hit the note and it sounds! Notes have note names, or letters on them – so students find it easy to find the right notes for a song they are learning. The different sized marimbas create different ‘voice’ parts, similar to a choir’ (Soprano, alto, tenor, bass). The parts for each part can be made simpler or more complex for learners with different abilities, and students are drawn to the sound of a particular instrument (the bass is enduringly popular!). Students can swap instruments too – learning the different parts of a single song.


The principles developed in the Orff Schulwerk method are easily transferred to marimbas, with the advantage that marimbas are much louder and together with the strong bass make them ideal for classroom work with teens. So students who have outgrown the small xylophones are perfectly at home of marimbas.

All sorts of music works well on marimbas. Although chromatic marimbas are produced by African Musical Instruments, many schools find that the diatonic instruments with added F#s are more than enough for an exciting school programme. Musically, this may be because marimbas are essentially rhythmic, and the exciting rhythms make up for the limited key options. Of course, marimba sets as we know them were inspired by traditional African traditional instruments. As such they are perfectly suited to African songs, whether traditional, like the Zimbabwean mbira style music for marimba made popular by Michael Sibanda, South African struggle songs, African gospel, or African contemporary pop. 

Marimbas are an asset to any music classroom where lessons focus on developing broad musicianship. Students can learn songs from their teacher, they can work out song they know by ear, they can improvise, they can develop solo and ensemble skills. Many music concepts can be demonstrated on marimba – Major, minor, modes, intervals, inversions, triads, chords, harmonic progressions, treble, bass. Marimbas offer teachers a chance to embed their music theory teaching on the notes of the marimba – allowing learning that is far more profound than abstract lessons with manuscript paper.

In South Africa the opportunities for students taking music for matric to choose marimba as their instrument. Marimba Jam has produced a syllabus that is being used in the Western Cape and I think it’s a matter of time before other provinces catch on. In the Eastern Cape students use a chromatic soprano marimba and play pieces prescribed and graded by the examination boards, Trinity, ABRSM and UNISA.  It’s interesting to see how the school curriculum is slowly responding to the growing marimba movement even if it’s a little patchy depending which province you are in. When it comes to marimba players being recognised, it’s teachers who have driven the progress thus far, and I am sure that teachers will drive the structural changes needed in South African education for marimba players to be fully served.

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