The quick answer is yes. Many schools and churches use marimbas to accompany singing and they do a great job. However, there are some constraints that will impact how easy it is for your marimba band to accompany your choir.
Standard C instruments can play in C Major, and G Major – and a clever arrangement would accommodate some other keys or modes using the notes of the diatonic C and G. For instance, the aeolian and dorian modes open up lots of possibilities for tunes. The limitation of the marimba sets is that a song might be in a good key for singers, but that key is not possible on the marimbas. Singers might find the available marimba keys a little too high or too low for them. However, there will always be some songs that will work well. The thing then is to make sure that the accompaniment is manageable for the marimba players. Plenty of practice before the marimbas join the singers for rehearsals is a good rule of thumb.
The AMI E Flat marimba sets were designed specifically with singers in mind. In fact, the tuning was established to reflect the intonation commonly used by Xhosa singers in Catholic churches in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. E Flat is a comfortable key for the majority of singers, and it is the key of choice for marimba bands in many church bands and traditional ensembles.
Unfortunately – C and E Flat sets of marimbas are incompatible as firstly, they are tuned to different keys, and second, the scales themselves are different (E Flat instruments don’t use the Western, well-tempered scale).
It is always a good idea to start small. Getting the marimba band to accompany one choir song for a special performance is a manageable way to start. It’s an excellent learning experience, for the marimba players to learn to accompany the singers, and for the singers to learn to follow the marimbas. The choice of song should be determined first by the key (is it suitable for singers and the marimbas?), the difficulty of the marimba arrangement (you can always adjust the difficulty of the parts to suit your players), and the appropriateness of the marimba accompaniment for the song itself. There are some no-brainers when it comes to what songs will work with marimba accompaniment, and songs that will not, and teachers will certainly have the insight to understand this.
A marimba band is an excellent way to accompany school singing, perhaps at assembly, or to cheer on the sports team, or at chapel for church schools. The natural volume of the instruments gives the potential for really good support for singers as they are easily heard. Several churches and cathedrals use marimba to accompany singing. AMI is proud that the history of our marimbas includes the indigenisation of worship in Catholic churches in South Africa. Many worship songs are simple and repetitive, and the fact that they are sung very regularly makes it easy for the marimba players. For churches that have a set service for the mass or eucharist, a marimba setting for the sung responses is a great addition.
So, yes you can use marimbas with your choir – you just need to be creative when you come up against the limits of the keys.