Music teachers are often a bit like missionaries. They want everyone to be able to experience the fun of making music. A lot of the time, if they’ve been trained as classical musicians, they tend to have a particular view of how to learn, and this is where things can fall apart. The ideal involves each student having their own instrument, individual lessons with their teacher, and lots of time spent on their own with their instrument, practising. Now this suits some kids perfectly, but for many, it’s quite a lonely journey and they just can’t stick with the programme. The classical tradition has plenty going for it (don’t get me wrong), but you know, we just can’t pretend that it is inclusive. So if our missionary-zeal to get all kids involved in music is going to have any chance of success, perhaps the classical route is not the best route.
This is why marimbas are so powerful – they really have the potential to be truly inclusive. It’s not a matter of allocating one instrument to a single student. For music teachers who are always looking for ways to get more kids playing, this post may be old hat, but here are some ideas you can try to involve as many people (learners, staff, parents) as possible in music. No matter how many marimbas you have, you probably want more. Many organisations have a set of three or four instruments, so that is what I have in mind as I write. Of course, if you have more instruments – the same ideas apply (and lucky you!).
First up, a designated place to play is a real game changer. Having to move instruments every time they’re played is a total drag (literally). Having a large enough space that comfortably accommodates the instruments is a real gift. And if that space is available any time you want it, that is a bigger gift. Many schools house their marimbas in a hall or chapel, which is usually nice and roomy, but it may be limiting in terms of when you can use the space.
Not having enough instruments for everyone in general class music is challenging. If there are too few instruments, you may end up with classroom management taking up all of your attention. If your classes are way too big to even think about using your three marimbas effectively, there are several other ways to get marimba music happening.
Bands: Start a band for each year group. This is a good way to grow your players, as the young ones come in at the bottom and, if they stick with it, you will end up with players who have had a few years’ experience as your star players. A bit of healthy competition is also a good idea – the ‘star’ band is something to aspire to, the less experienced groups can see where they are headed. It’s really important to have ways to showcase the work the bands are doing, so put those performances in the calendar and work toward them. They can be as low or as high stakes as your nerves can manage. One more idea about different kinds of bands – girls only, or boys only bands can serve a purpose, depending on your school. Particularly if boys at your school are not keen to be involved in music, having a boys only band could be part of how you change that vibe. As a way to kick start this, perhaps invite a Fantastic marimba band from a boys’ school to come an perform for your school.
Clubs: Many schools have ‘club’ activities that run for a limited time. Students can choose a different club activity each term. This is a great way to get more time to build skills and to learn a few songs. It is also easier for kids to commit to something that is short term. Depending on how the school’s scheduling works, if the time allocated for club activities takes place when nothing else happens, it might kids who wouldn’t usually be confident enough to join a marimba group to have a go.
Special concerts: It can be very effective to use marimbas to accompany singing, or perhaps join the school band or orchestra in a concert. Sometimes just getting one number done together takes plenty of time, but just that one number can have a positive spin off. Whichever students can most easily learn the parts would be a good place to start – perhaps one of the marimba bands, perhaps members of the choir who have some extra time to practice. Some numbers really lend themselves to marimbas – so keep your ears out for those and start with a simple arrangement that will work.
Chapel band: Marimbas work very well in worship. In fact, the marimba movement in Southern Africa has grown, in part, thanks to their adoption by the Catholic Church. A chapel marimba band is another option to get kids playing. The challenging part here is to get enough repertoire, as it takes a long time for students to get good enough to play as many songs as are needed. Also, accompanying communal singing takes practice. A good place to start is with music that is used in every service. In chapels that use a set liturgy, the responses can be arranged for marimba. This can be a starting point for the chapel band to learn, as the music is the repeated at every service. With the liturgical sections as a foundation, the chapel band can gradually expand their repertoire.
Staff band: Don’t forget your colleagues. So many adults regret not learning an instrument and they are just dying to get the chance to play. They see the fun the kids are having and want to have a go themselves. Scheduling may be your most difficult challenge, but what about a staff marimba band? As a starting point, you could offer a once-off workshop. Or you could offer a 6-week session. Perhaps out of these, you could have a keen group that wants to play every week and your staff band becomes an established thing. Welcoming your colleagues into the music space can build allies and support. They may be more supportive of music more generally and of students who want to focus on music.
While we’re on the subject of marimba workshops – how about a workshop for parents one Saturday morning? Again, this is hearts and minds stuff. Parents are great lobbyists for good music programmes, and they can also turn into epic fund raisers.
The common thread here is that anyone can play. Marimbas are welcoming instruments and they’re perfect for children and adults to experience the fun of making music with others, and the joy of developing individual music skills. So sweat those assets – find ways to keep those instruments working for as many hours in the week as you can. Hopefully in the process you will convince the guys who manage the school budget to invest in some more marimbas as soon as they can.