This may just be the most important question you can ask if you’re budgeting for new instruments. As money gets tighter, it gets harder to afford new instruments for your programmes. We know this all too well! There are a few things that make the most difference with marimba longevity.
First – their design. Marimbas are not violins or flutes. As percussive instruments, they’re going to get a hammering. They need to have a really strong, robust frame that keeps the instrument from wobbling, or swaying around when it is played. A solid frame should prevent the instrument from being knocked over in a busy practice space. There are a number of different designs used for the different marimbas available in South Africa, some are prettier than others, and some are more successful in keeping the instrument stable than others. Of course, another thing is that the legs need to be strong too, and angled in a way that prevents them from getting broken (a 3-legged marimba really doesn’t work..)
The second area to consider is how the notes are secured to the keyboards. The notes need to move a bit to allow resonance (and the best sound), but this movement needs to have a level of protection built in so that it does not slowly but surely damage the notes. If the notes themselves move around too freely, they will start to rub or bang against other marimba parts (or each other), and this will damage them. Too much movement will also compromise the sound quality, you may get more percussion than anticipated! Again, different marimba manufacturers have different systems for their keyboards. Many are fine when they are new, but in the long term, notes start to shift, or to get out of alignment. If notes are kept in place by pins, eventually the holes on the notes get larger and larger, allowing too much movement and the note has to be replaced. AMI marimbas are secured by stringing, and this system allows free resonance, without so much movement that the notes start to become worn. If the strings are in good condition, the keyboard will be stable indefinitely.
Tuning of marimbas varies between different makers. Marimbas need tuning roughly once a year, perhaps more if they are played hard, and if the weather in your area messes with the tuning. As the instruments get older, they will need less and less tuning as the wood stabilises and they will sound better and better. Do contact the manufacturers of your instruments first if your instruments need to be tuned. Each maker uses their own tuning conventions and using another might damage the marimba notes. This is especially important for AMI marimbas. AMI uses a sophisticated system that ensures a really true tuning and multiplies the resonance of the notes (yes… you can hear it, can’t you?). We’ve heard one too many horror story of our instruments being tuned beyond salvation by someone who does not understand the AMI tuning system.
A no-brainer when it comes to how long your instruments will last is how they are treated. Kids can tend to go wild if they are not taught to play with good technique that does not cause any damage. Many bands get into the habit of hitting harder and harder, but there is a point at which the notes will not get louder, they will just be more likely to break. AMI’s experience is that certain schools and organisations have a culture of care, while others have endless broken notes. It is a matter of instilling good habits because new band members tend to learn from older ones.
Maintenance and service from the manufacturer should also be a high priority. Those marimbas being sold on the side of the road may seem well priced and authentic, but when something goes wrong with them, you may not find the guys who should be responsible for addressing the problem. This is really an area where you should rely on recommendation, ask around before you buy to spend your money wisely. Ensure that your marimba supplier has a track record of reliable manufacture, consistent products and customer support. Your instruments will certainly need maintenance and tuning in the future – so find out how the manufacturer supports their customers after the sale is made.
AMI values our customers and we like to keep in touch. This is important because we can keep up with our customers’ needs and be in a position to support them better. These relationships have contributed to the design of our marimbas – we listen to what customers need and continue to tweak our products accordingly. This is something to bear in mind if you buy AMI instruments through reputable music shops. Even if you prefer to do this, we encourage you to drop us a line so we can add you to our database. This way, when we’re in the area to do maintenance and tuning, you will be notified.
As I write this, many organisations are finding that money is tighter and tighter, what with electricity cuts and the cost of everything going up. It’s so important to keep our music programmes going through it all, and it’s more important than ever to ensure that those precious budgets are used for instruments that will give years and years of great music making.