By Alicia Walters, @whenintricities
Marimba doesn’t just sound good, the instrument lends itself especially well to young students because unlike the recorder, a common instrument offered to elementary aged students, the marimba doesn’t require developed fine motor skills. When students try the recorder, they have to overcome obstacles that the marimba just doesn’t pose. And although the recorder is mass produced and cheap, it rarely produces a quality sound. In other words, no one wants to listen to the recorder, especially when compared with the catchy sound of the marimba.
Playing the marimba requires motor skills children typically already have. The sensory experience of playing the marimba comes naturally for most children because it meets them at their skill level. “Playing the marimba is more like a choreographed dance; the patterns are all physical patterns,” says Walt Hampton, 5th Grade teacher of 28 years and marimba director. Within minutes of experimenting with a marimba, children can hear a quality sound they themselves enjoy, which can be highly motivating. If you give a young child a violin, they are going to have to spend a great deal of time practicing the technique required to achieve a quality sound—so the marimba is an ideal beginning instrument.
Since 1996, the Tri-city Steel Band Association based in Richland, WA including Bram Bratà and OK2Botay (steel drum bands directed by Ben Leggett) and ‘Bahuru and ‘Baduku (marimba bands directed by Walt Hampton), Tri-citians have enjoyed their summer concerts in the parks and Christmas concerts. “People in the Tri-cities are accustomed to hearing marimba, but when we perform out of town, audiences are amazed by the quality of the sound these students produce,” says Walt. Performance schedule can be found at tcsba.org.
Walt teaches marimba group lessons in the summer starting with students entering 4th Grade. Classes are 45 minutes a day for two weeks, with a performance at the end of the session. During fall and winter, classes are an hour a week for 10 weeks and students from fall and winter classes can try out for the middle school and high school performing marimba groups. They play locally as well as tour throughout the northwest and have even played recently in Hawaii.
But many do not realize that Tri-cities marimba originates from quite another place. During the 70s, a percussionist from Zimbabwe came to study at the University of Washington. The Zimbabwean taught a marimba group and people loved the catchy sound of marimba and it just caught on rapidly. Although he returned to Zimbabwe, his students established marimba bands throughout the northwest—most popular in Portland and Seattle.
Years later, when Walt Hampton was attending the University of Washington, he became interested in whether marimba would be applicable to younger musicians. He made simpler arrangements of some of the songs from his marimba group so that they could be played on Orff xylophones, typically used as classroom instruments. “I thought it would be hard for the students to pick up, but it wasn’t hard for them at all,” he said. What initially started as an experiment surprised Walt so much that he continued to make more arrangements for elementary aged marimba, which became his first book of marimba music.
Walt quickly realized that the marimba was so student-friendly that in addition to teaching marimba in the elementary school, he could open up classes after school and in the summer to incorporate middle school and high school performing marimba groups. This was more fulfilling for him personally than if he had gone a more traditional route, as in high school marching band. “I could spend my time and energy on arranging music that people want to hear at more venues than a high school football game,” he says.
“My students can play anything I can show them. If we do a song that’s in 7 or in 5, they don’t have trouble with it unlike adults who have had so many years of hearing songs arranged in 4,” Walt says. His second book, Hot Marimba: Zimbabwean Style Music for Orff Instruments is inspired by marimba music of the Shona people of Zimbabwe.
Marimba music has become so popular in the northwest that there are now several marimba makers in the region. A marimba maker in extreme north central Washington has made four sets for Walt and those sets are scattered around the Tri-cities. Walt instructs teachers locally as well as abroad how to incorporate marimba into their music programs. Now marimba bands are beginning to pop up around the entire country.
In addition to arranging music, Walt is also a composer. His popular song, “Once Upon a Time in the West” was inspired by the harmonious melodies of Aaron Copeland as well as the sounds of Zimbabwean marimba. Several marimbas play harmonious themes resulting in a polyphonic texture that reaches into the imagination and reminisces of the vast and diverse landscapes of the American West. It sounds as if the American West is being paid tribute by a sound that traditionally comes from Africa.
Despite his success as a teacher and composer as well as influencing music programs in various schools, Walt attributes the popularity of ‘Bahuru and ‘Baduku to his students. “It’s partly because of the books, but it’s really because of the public performance of these kids.” When he takes them on tour whether to Idaho, Texas or Hawaii, people want to know how their son or daughter can play in a marimba band. To make a secure contribution to the Tri-city Steel Drum Association or register your kids for summer classes (going on now), visit tcsba.org.