At UBC, it is strongly encouraged to branch out and try something new. After all, how many opportunities are you going to get to just figure out what you like and learn about it with some of the best in the world?
This term, I decided to do just that and signed up for the Gamelan Ensemble. (Note: I am no expert so my terminology may be off in some places.) The gamelan is a Balinese instrument sort of similar to a xylophone, and here at UBC the instructor for the course is one of the most sought after Balinese musicians of his generation. Wow. The ensemble is open to all, no experience required, and they start you from scratch. (Actually, we’re looking for a few more members to fill out the ensemble, so if you’re interested, the class is from 1-3 PM every Monday and Wednesday all year.)
Today was the first class. I walked in uncertainly, as I tend to be anxious any time something new or unfamiliar is happening (you should have seen me the day my harp showed up). Dr. Tenzer told us to take off our shoes and have a seat on the floor. I immediately questioned my choice of wearing a skirt today, and sat down. Sudi, the instructor, explained to us that the most important thing we can do in this class is come, and be focused. 70% of the grade is based on attendance, and only 5% is based on skill. Very beginner friendly.
We sat down at the instruments and started to learn. How to hold the hammer, how to dampen the sound. The gamelan is made of brass, and thus has a very harsh sound; the ensemble playing together is also very loud. I’m definitely bringing my earplugs to the next class. Hearing is very important to a musician!
We began to play, and I noticed that nearly everything about the music is practically opposite of Western traditions. There is no score; we learn everything by ear and by practice. The gamelans are tuned “out of tune” from each other on purpose; that is, the same note on two gamelans are slightly off from each other, because the Balinese like the sound of the waves that the difference produces. The music is very chaotic, and very fast (well, so far we aren’t very fast). The scale used is not the diatonic scale – that being said, much of Western music has abandoned diatonicism at this point.
To be honest, I’m not sure if I like the music right now. I like the concept of the course, and I like the idea of trying something new. However, the music doesn’t seem to inspire me as it does some of the others in the class. I tend to fall in love with sweet harmonies and soft and soulful melodies; perhaps this is why I take so well to the harp. This class also seems like it will be taxing on my body; the volume level playing on my ear drums could be made better with ear plugs, but sitting upright for so long is difficult when my shoulders are already giving me trouble. Holding the mallet or the hammer for so long makes my shoulder ache, and my feet started to go numb at a couple of points today. I could probably work through these issues, but still.
However, if I switch to a different ensemble where I would play the harp, it would mean more stress for practicing the harp because I’d have more pieces to learn in a shorter amount of time with more pressure, and my fingers would be working double time.
More stress for my mind, or my body? Which should I choose? I think for now I’ll stick with the gamelan ensemble – it’ll probably be good for me in the long run, and I probably won’t have another opportunity for it later on in my degree.
See also: Gamelan Ensemble – Part 2