AMI Blog


A quick warning – I am going to take a while to get to the bit about marimbas. You see, the problem is that in the world of music education, we seem to be hung up on notation and being ‘literate’ in the sense of being able to read – preferably sight read,music scores. This five-century long tradition has served Western art music pretty well, and because formal music education has come out of a Western art music paradigm, notation has a central place.  The thing is, music that you hear and play is feelingful – it fires up neurons in your brain and lights up your muscles and emotions which are a million miles away from the neural networks on which reading depends. Think about what a long process it is for children to learn to read in their own language. Ideally, they have had lots of experience with books and texts years before going to school. Once the formal learning starts, it is baby steps the whole way – a few words at a time, story books that repeat and repeat simple words over and over again. By the end of year one, young readers are not expected to read Shakespeare, they have books appropriate for their reading age and their emotional age. Yet we seem to think that learning to read notation should somehow take less time than it does.

In my experience, it’s always the learners with good ears that are rubbish readers. Of course they are, their ear works way too fast for them to patiently do the slow work needed to get fluent in staff notation.

We need to think seriously about when notation is useful, and how and why we should teach it. If you run an orchestra or wind band, or even a choir, it is a no brainer – the rate the group can learn new music depends partly on the reading skills of the players and singers. For music that is chromatic, and linear in its harmonic logic, staff notation is a useful, sometimes necessary, tool. Notation adds value in that it provides musicians with a vocabulary with which to talk about music – to refer to sections without having to play them to make a point. Scores allow analysis, whether it is the harmonic structure, the compositional techniques, or the form. Having it all printed on pages that go from left to right makes sense to us as readers. We can literally ‘see’ the music and as we become more fluent, we start to hear it in our imaginations as we read. Great stuff.

There is something very fundamental that is often missed by teachers who themselves learned to read so long ago that they don’t get why their students are reluctant. Remember the 6-year-old, with their story book, reading the same words over and over? They have used the words in their everyday language for several years, they understand the words, they say the words, the hear the words – and they see the word in print and say it as they put their finger on it. All of that experiential stuff underpins and supports the leap into the symbolic, more abstract meaning embedded in the letters forming the word.

Let’s take learner flute players as an example: they feel their fingers on the instrument, sense the air as it passes out of their bodies, hear the sound of the notes, experience the changing notes as they change fingering, see the notes on the lines and spaces and slowly link them to the experience of making the sounds. Meaningful understanding of the score can only develop within the context of touching/blowing/feeling/playing. A music theory lesson, away from the context of playing the instrument is so dislocated and abstract, many learners just never join the dots. Being able to link the experiential with the abstract is something that we learn – and not all young learners have mastered it. (Mastering abstraction, by the way, is crucial to being an education person).

I started this with the intension of saying something about marimbas, so here we go. Marimba traditions have developed in Southern Africa and they have one foot in African tradition and the other in a more Western influenced tradition. But there are some principles on which this new tradition has developed that are wonderfully African. Here they are:

  • Marimba music is strongly rhythmic: with a strong beat, often driven by the bass/baritone, and lots of syncopation, rhythm drives the music.
  • Marimba music often uses short, repeating harmonic cycles. This means that the music can be built on riffs that repeat (or ostinatos if you want to be old school).
  • Diatonic marimbas (the majority of AfroMarimbas are diatonic) simplify the key possibilities, so learners do not need to memorise a variety of scales
  • Marimba music is communal – the different players learn together and though each may have a different part, they learn to play together to create the groove. It’s essentially social – the place where powerful learning can happen.

These features of marimba music together make it quite manageable to learn by ear, and not use notation at all. Short phrases can be learned relatively quickly, and tunes built up part by part, or section by section, with students memorising the music.

Learning by ear is a powerful way to learn. There is direct relationship between the ear and the hand – the sound and the action that makes the sound. As with any learning, the muscles, tendons, neural pathways that are used get stronger with exercise. Learners don’t end up in the situation where if they haven’t got their ‘music’, they can’t play. This ear/sound/instrument relationship builds confidence in picking out new tunes – hearing something and being able to play it. Improvisation too is a closer step for ‘ear players’ than readers. In fact, readers find improvisation one of the most impossible barriers to crack. Playing from memory increases the possibilities for communication between players, and makes it easier for players to dance and move as they play.

These are all powerful learning experiences that build musicianship. I suggested above that we need to think about why we teach notation. If the musical genre functions well without it, there are good reasons not to spend time teaching students to read.

The musiek tannie (music aunty for those who don’t speak Afrikaans) in me feels I have to qualify this just a little. There are all sorts of good reasons for music students to get fluent in notation. If you have lots of time (lucky you) you may consider working progressively with your marimba band to develop their reading. But only if you have lots of time. And only if you are prepared to give the kind of connective experiences I outline above. The marimba tradition – new as it is – is doing just fine without readers.