African marimbas set a new tone for music education
It is a magical moment when four skilled musicians are simultaneously introduced to new instruments.
The instruments are large and strange, and yet somehow familiar. As the group proceeds to play, their notes seem to flow – they have never used these instruments before, and yet they can immediately play together as an ensemble.
Dr Diana Blom, from the School of Humanities and Communication Arts at the University of Western Sydney, says UWS has some very talented students enrolled in its Bachelor of Music program.
"Many of our students come to us, having played their instruments for their entire lives. As educators, it is our role to vary their musical experiences and to expand their horizons," says Dr Blom.
In 2011, the University purchased a set of four traditional African marimbas – a Bass, Tenor, Baritone and Soprano – hand made by Phillip Nangle from Noordhoek in South Africa.
The instruments, which are of a traditional South African design, cost more than $10,000 to make and ship into Australia. It then took six dedicated UWS students to assemble the pieces.
Dr Blom says the African Marimbas – which look like large, ornate, wooden xylophones – will be invaluable to the education of UWS music students.
"We have set up a 'Marimba Group' that meets at the Kingswood campus every Thursday," says Dr Blom.
"The students are mostly pianists and keyboard players. They have already been taught to play in ensembles, follow scores, and experiment with their own compositions, and the Marimbas will teach them how to transfer their skills to a different mechanism. For those who are not pianists, the Marimbas offer an uncomplicated way of playing melodies, bass lines and lead lines."
Joel Bolton, 21, a Master of Teaching (Primary) student from Fairfield, has added Bachelor of Music electives to his Education degree, with the aim of becoming a primary school music teacher.
"When I joined the group, I wasn't sure what a Marimba was. I assumed that it was some kind of steel Caribbean drum. When I walked in and saw these large wooden xylophones, it was a pleasant surprise," says Joel.
"I've been playing guitar and piano for the last ten years – in comparison, the Marimba is pretty straight forward. What I have enjoyed is learning how to play in a small ensemble. Our instruments are all facing into the centre of the room, and we all work well together as a group."
Tara Niemeyer, 19, a Bachelor of Music student from Wilton, has a diverse musical repertoire. At the age of 7 she started playing the piano and picked up the trumpet for the first time at the age of 9, later moving on to learn the guitar.
In her studies at UWS, Tara is focusing on her vocal skills, as well as performance and composition. Now, she can add the African Marimba to her skill set.
"Joining this group was a fantastic opportunity, It's not often that you know someone who owns a Marimba," says Tara.
"Once you figure out where the notes are, playing is quite simple. What I like about the Marimbas, is there is no need to be so focused on the instrument itself – we are able to have fun, whilst learning how to work together and collaborate with other musicians."
26 April 2012
Photos: Alice King