Schools are busy places. There are two things that you can say about the folks that work in schools that are true most of the time: First, teachers are busy people. Second, teachers are highly motivated to do what’s best for the students. (Actually, when these don’t apply, perhaps the teacher is in the wrong profession!). Many schools have just never got around to starting a music programme, and don’t have the budget to hire the staff or buy equipment. Some schools have had music in some form in the past, but for different reasons it came to an end. Perhaps a key staff member left, or a timetable just seemed too full, and music was the thing to go.
There is no doubt that music is hugely beneficial for schools. A school choir is often on the wish list of schools with no music – after all, it doesn’t need money to be spent on instruments, can be run by just one or two teachers, and brings all the benefits of communal singing. In my experience (I am a singer who has worked extensively with choirs) establishing a choir is a challenging task. The choir conductor is absolutely central to this – there is a certain something that is hard to pin down that determines whether they will be successful or not. So, finding the right person is tricky. Singing is closely tied with our sense of identity, so primary and secondary children (who are trying to figure out who they are) need to feel comfortable with the music they’re given to sing. You need buy in from the singers if your choir is going to succeed. While a choir may be an attractive option in that it does not need a great deal of expensive equipment, what it cannot do without is quality time. Protected rehearsal time must be guaranteed. A good choir is a precious thing that has taken a long time to build. It can be a huge asset to a school, both for the singers who have a sense of belonging, camaraderie, and pride, it can be one of the most important experiences of their lives. For the school, it sends out the message that this is a community that values the arts. A good choir is a symbol of cooperation and excellence.
Where a choir may require only a few committed staff members, a band or orchestra programme is really greedy when it comes to people, time and money. Different instruments most often need to be taught by different people, so staffing is considerable. This is usually managed by part time staff teaching a few hours a week. Instruments are expensive and need to be managed. Sometimes students can hire instruments from the school, but this adds to the administration load. Teaching and rehearsal space need to be thought about carefully. Band rehearsals are noisy, so their impact on the rest of the school must be considered if there are not purpose built spaces for band. If there is the will and the budget, band or orchestra programmes bring huge benefits to schools. Schools will most often focus on a single ensemble – perhaps rock instruments, strings, or winds. This narrows the focus and makes the goal of a functional ensemble more realistic.
Many South African schools have discovered that marimba bands are an exciting and achievable way to boost their music programme. In some ways, they have changed the playing field. Firstly, unlike band and orchestral instruments, students do not need years of practice to play something successfully. This is because marimbas rely on gross motor movement, not the fine motor movement needed for violin, or guitar, for example. Striking a marimba key with a mallet will immediately give you a lovely warm, woody sound. Second, simple parts that can be learned by memory and when they are put together, the resulting music can be surprisingly complex and vibey. Many bands learn entirely by ear- they do not rely on music notation. There is a big conversation to have about this, but essentially, the challenge of learning to read notation is one of the things that slows music learning down (Read more about music notation here). It is time consuming, and in busy schools, this is time that most often gets taken away because of something else that is more urgent. So learning by ear is the fastest way to learn marimbas. It works because the Afro marimbas are diatonic – they don’t have all the sharps and flats. Most South African marimbas are in diatonic C and have F sharps as well as F naturals, allowing C Major, G Major, and the related modes. This simplifies the learning process substantially. The limited keys do not limit the music because marimba music majors on rhythm. The strong percussive nature of the sound of the keys being struck creates a rhythmic palette that lends itself to contemporary music. Any music can be played on marimbas (within the limits of the diatonic scales), but the powerful bass and the percussive potential will usually give it a rhythmic kick. This is an enormous part of marimbas appeal to school aged learners. There is nothing like the feeling of standing behind a baritone marimba and thumping out a bass line. All the benefits of playing music together that choirs, bands and orchestras offer are available in a marimba band. As far as costs go, a basic set of marimbas would possibly buy 2 or 3 band instruments. Marimbas stay in one venue – the students come to the instruments, they don’t have one instrument all to themselves which they take home after rehearsals. This means that a single set of marimbas can be played by many students though the school week. Schools most often start with a set of three or four instruments and build up the ensemble over time. As far as staffing goes, marimba bands are most often run by a single staff member. An existing staff member who is a keen amateur musician can get a band going with a bit of guidance. In South Africa there’s an increasing number of freelance marimba teachers who work in several schools running marimba programmes. Successful marimba bands, like any worthwhile music programme certainly don’t happen overnight, but in comparison to building a choir, or a more conventional orchestra programme, marimbas are a quick win.