There’s an idea out there about musicality – You are either born with it or you aren’t. There’s a similar idea about the ability to compose or arrange music – You’ve either got it, or you have not. I am going to save this big question for another blog, but let’s just say that this kind of thinking makes a lot of people exclude themselves from being involved in music, and from having a go at creating their own. If you run a marimba band, and you often just wish you had a nice arrangement of your band’s favourite new song, here are some ideas to get you going.
African marimba sets were developed with choral parts in mind, because the students at Kwanongoma College, where the marimbas were first developed, were used to singing in choirs. So marimbas come in different sizes/ranges – soprano, alto, tenor, and bass marimbas. There are also ‘combination’ instruments that combine these ranges. The AMI standard instruments are named piccolo, soprano, tenor and baritone. We have a contrabass and extended instruments too, but the point here is that you can think in parts when you arrange, and the different parts can fit on whichever instrument you have that suits them best.
If we start by thinking about voice parts of a choir, it makes sense that in an ensemble of different sized instruments the piccolo, soprano, tenor and baritone, each take on a distinct musical role. If you’re experienced as a choral singer, your choir work might be a good starting point for arranging.
But a marimba band is really quite different from the choral tradition – essentially because marimbas are percussive. Voices can create percussive effects, but their strengths are elsewhere. Here are some starting points that show how the different marimba parts work together to make vibey music.
Let’s start with the melody or the tune. This is the part that has the song lyrics. Most often, this will be on the soprano or the upper range of your ensemble. Melody is the most obvious starting point for young players. Aural memory does need to be developed, not all students will remember how a tune goes as they try to pick out the notes, but simple tunes learned slowly will help players grow their aural skills. Melodies, of course, can be played on marimbas of all sizes – and it’s good to give all players a bit of melody time, even if the instrument they play has another primary role (like the baritone providing a bass line). Most often a marimba keyboard will have enough notes for a tune to be played in octaves, by two or even three players. If not, adapt the parts for the players who ‘run out of notes’. Sometimes a tune works to share it between two players – Player A plays 2 bars, then Player B completes the phrase with another 2 bars. This must feel natural, so be careful of the songs you pick for this idea. Ideally the two parts should not cover the same notes so your players can have their own space. Soprano marimbas can also be used to harmonise the melody. If you have more than one soprano marimba, this is a nice way to add musical interest, and to give your players a varied musical experience. Lastly, if you don’t have a piccolo, or perhaps you just have a soprano player that’s busting to go – the soprano marimba can also be used to improvise.
Let’s think about the bassline next. Hopefully you have an instrument with lots of bass. The AMI baritone is a favourite with players because it really has loads of power. And what’s more fun than playing a bassline? Musically, it gives a foundation to the harmony, but don’t be confined to the basics here. Move from using root notes only to mixing it up and finding some unexpected rhythms to add. Passing notes and octave leaps are also good to add. Mix it up a bit – if you are stuck, then ‘steal like an artist’. How much of bassline of the song can be managed by your players? Can you simplify it but keep enough of the flavour to make it feel really right?
If the soprano and the baritone form the two pieces of bread in the sandwich, the tenor is the yummy bit in between. There are two key jobs the tenor has to do: provide the harmony and rhythm. Let’s start with rhythm, where the real fun starts. The tenor works in tandem with the bass line to create the groove. The secret here is contrast. The golden rule is ‘everyone plays their own, individual rhythm’, so if the bass plays on the beat – the tenor plays off it (mostly). Chuck in some dotted notes if nothing else, but make sure there are plenty of notes that fall on the off beats. As far as the harmony goes, please remember this is not a four part harmony exercise – don’t bother too much about rules. Different tenor players can share the different notes of the chords, using different inversions depending on which notes are in front of them. If you have two beginner players, they can play the same rhythm, but different notes of each chord. This will probably be an easier fit on the instrument, and it will give nice full chords. When players are a bit more coordinated, more complicated rhythms using independent hands will drive up the interest. The notes of the chords still determine which notes are played, but rhythm spices them up a bit. Have a look at Michael Sibanda’s arrangements in Colleen Hart’s ‘Music for Marimbas’ Volumes. They really show how the parts can play independent rhythms that together create an exciting piece.
The AMI piccolo can be used to carry the lead tune, but it comes into its own if it is used to improvise. If improvisation is a bit beyond your players, then you can teach them a part that adds sparkle to the main tune. The power of the piccolo is that it really sings out above the rest of the ensemble. Its bright tone is perfect for those players who want to showcase their chops. The flashy bit doesn’t need to be limited to melodies – it can be a rhythmic pattern that gives the music a lift.
In the same way as the piccolo is a great optional extra for the high end of the arrangement, the AMI contrabass adds extra gravitas to the bottom. Less is more – Just a simple bassline will bring extra boom, or you can mix it up to add some fun. Another optional extra is choreography. Leave some space in your arrangements for some moves. If you find this intimidating, appointing one or two ‘choreography leaders’ from amongst your players could be a life saver.
The second last piece of advice? I you have arranged a part that a player is just not managing, just simplify it. If they can’t remember the whole sequence for the song – Help them to get just 2 bars right and play those until they’re established. Then try another few bars. This will work on the tenor in particular.
The last piece of advice? Go for it.