One of the best things about my life is that I live in a place that makes it easy for me to try new things. I’ve learned about gardening, how to properly bench press, climbed a rock wall, taken banjo lessons, jammed with townies, formally studied Hebrew, and played several different instruments within one long gamelan concert.I’ve grown personally and/or professionally from all of these experiences, but the gamelan experience takes the cake for musical growth. It was the most challenging musical thing I’d done in probably 10 years (since I played my final recital as an undergrad). Now five years past that gamelan experience, I still view it as one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself as a teacher and musician. It forced me to perform (better than merely to experience!) music fundamentally different from anything I had ever done.
Gamelan music is organized differently. Duh. But, what made it so challenging for me is the contrast with metric organization in Western Classical music. Like much of the music I grew up with, much of music for gamelan is organized in groups of four (or groups of 16, 64, etc…). The challenge is that all the groups of beats in gamelan music are end accented. So, while a four-beat group in my pre-gamelan world would always go: ONE – two – Three – four. (strongest, weak, strong, weak), in gamelan music it is reversed: one – Two – three – FOUR. Being the stubborn git that I am, I insisted on counting silently in my head with these different accent patterns while playing an elaborating instrument (bonang). It was hilariously debilitating. But, it was—and still is—a fun challenge, and I feel like a much more flexible musician and listener because of it.
I want my students to experience that kind of mind-blowing expansion of possibility. I want them to realize how many cool musics there are out there in the world. I’m not trained as an ethnomusicologist. Writing about these things for public view is terrifying, for fear I’ll use an unintentionally Western-centric word when it matters most. But, I’m determined to try over multiple years to find ways to help my students grow. I think there will be a lot of dud lesson plans at the beginning. I plan on chronicling all of them here so that maybe others will learn from my mistakes. ‘Cause, I know I’m not along in my desire to try!