Kevin Bobo Gives Marimba Master Class at ODU

The concert marimba is an instrument that came into classical music in the second half of the 20th century. The African roots of the instrument are ancient but no clear pattern of its origin has emerged. Most likely, it was brought to the new world by African slaves. It is the national instrument of Guatemala and it was there in 1894 where Sebastian Hurtado added a second keyboard to give a full chromatic range and Hurtado Brothers Royal Marimba Band was formed using the newly manufactured marimba. They toured, popularizing the sound. In the early 1900s the marimba band reached the U.S. Used in Vaudeville performances, the first instrument was manufactured in the U.S. in 1910 and by 1935 Clair Omer Musser gave a 100 piece marimba band concert at Carnegie Hall.

There was a handful of classical pieces written for marimba before World War II. Most classical repertory was arrangements of pieces written for other instruments. Since the war marimbas have increasingly become part of the classical musical world as the instrument has evolved. The metal resonators below the rosewood keys laid out like those of a piano give it a richer timbre than the xylophone. The expansion from a four to a five octave range, extending to a low C (known as the cello C) have given the marimba a rich, warm, resonant sound. As as result composers have been creating new repertory and players have developed enough technique to play these new virtuosic pieces. The choreography of players using two hands to hold four mallets adds greatly to the experience.

The increased length of the instruments can make it unwieldy for the player. At the Old Dominion University student master class Nick White played the Bach G Major Cello Prelude and Fugue in an arrangement for marimba. Body mechanics was the focus of Kevin Bobo's instruction and discussion as Mr. White moved his feet as he played. The experiment of no foot movement brought about greater accuracy. There was also a discussion of where the key is struck. A center strike creates more overtones than striking either end. Comfort and efficiency also enter into where the key is struck. The impact of mallet on key gives the player control of the arc of sound. Nick's choice in the Bach piece had been an even tone throughout. Bobo showed him how to create a more dramatic sound though I preferred the even tone for Bach.

Dale Paul Lazar played Little Windows by Keiko Abe with its theme and variation construction. It has a colorful, wide range of tones and pauses that divide one window of sound from another. Bobo worked with Dale, encouraging him to make each repeat unique. "Vary it each time or skip it," was the advice. You can take liberties with the time to create intensity or relaxation, a dark mood or a mysterious one, a murky or spooky one. On dynamics - slow your mallet strokes to get a higher sound. Your performance shouldn't sound like anyone else's. Kevin Bobo advised Dale to "overdo it, make it interesting, don't play it safe."

Shanon Allen is preparing Concerto for Marimba by Ney Rosauro to be played with the ODU Wind Symphony on Sunday, March 1 at 3 pm in the Atrium of the Diehn Fine Arts building. She played the second movement first and then the first movement. The wide range of emotional expression was impressive and the piece shows that a lovely, romantic sound comes easily from this percussion instrument. After commenting on Ms. Allen's good energy and playing, Mr. Bobo discussed the shape of the mallet heads, gave her round-headed ones to try and decided that the oval-headed ones she used were best for the mellow tone she needed for this piece. He whistled the orchestra part and conducted, urging her to use strokes that are more lengthy and legato.

All three students played from memory and could begin playing anywhere requested. The most impressive demonstration of the class came during Mr. Bobo's practicing tips. He asked if the students practice the hands separately before playing them together. He then played a piece without pause while he was instructed by Mr. Lazar to play right hand only, left hand only, both hands or stopping both in a random mix of instructions. The truly amazing thing here was that every time Mr. Bobo stopped both hands, the piece silently continued in real time, so that when instructed, he didn't pick up where he left off but where the piece had actually continued to in real time.

On the question of where your focus should be when playing, he had much to say. On a large marimba you can view about an octave-and-a-half. If you look to see if you're accurately hitting a key outside your normal viewing area, you can get tripped up. If you suddenly glance at that far key you're about to strike, your mind will stop and you'll lose your place. "Your brain will re-boot" but your misstep may be obvious. If you train yourself to strike those far keys accurately while looking at them, then when you're playing and suddenly glance there, your concentration will not be broken. Playing is about 50% muscle memory and 50% visual memory.

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