Learning to play with a gamelan ensemble is the easy part. Within a few minutes of being introduced to the traditional Indonesian-style orchestra instruments, a new player can participate (if a bit imperfectly).
But loving the gamelan can be the tricky part, especially for Central Oregonians. Because those who love playing on the collection of metallophones, xylophones, gongs and other instruments can have a difficult time finding a way to replicate the experience.
For years, Bend resident Linda Roberts has longed to acquire her own gamelan, which she first began playing as a college student decades ago.
Roberts describes playing the instruments in a group as if “you are inside of the music.” She calls it soothing, meditative and magical.
But owning a gamelan — which translates into orchestra or ensemble in Indonesian — isn’t like owning a guitar or even a piano. The gamelan instruments are not readily available in the U.S. and importing them from Indonesia can be costly and time-prohibitive.
It took Roberts years of research and effort before she acquired her set of six instruments, and she says she now possesses the only gamelan in Oregon east of the Cascades. While she intends to obtain a few more pieces in the near future, her gamelan is ready to be put to use.
Starting Wednesday, Roberts is offering classes for kids and adults through the Bend Park & Recreation District. She hopes each group will learn enough to be able to perform in public, and she hopes to create a few other fellow gamelan fans.
There’s an easy charm to learning how to play within a gamelan. Unlike the trumpet or violin, which might take months of practice to make a decent sound, many gamelan instruments can be played correctly almost instantaneously. Reading music is also relatively easy on the beginning pieces.
“You can literally come off the street and start playing,” Roberts said.
Each of the bars of the metallophone is labeled with a number. A piece of music includes a series of numbers and pauses (written in a line, not on a music scale). The players follow along, playing and pausing with the piece. Playing a metallophone requires two hands. One hand strikes the instrument with a mallet, the other hand dampens or softens the sound after the note is played.
While playing doesn’t require outside practice, Roberts says it does require concentration and focus because every player must follow along. “Staying rhythmically on the beat, that’s the hardest part,” Roberts said.
Roberts’ collection of instruments includes five metallophones of various sizes and a large horizontal gong. Each of the instruments was made by Ken Jenkins, who is the director of the gamelan at the University of Oregon. The style Roberts plays is a central Javanese style, which she says is more comparable to a symphonic orchestra.
Playing the gamelan is about more than making music. Roberts says it is traditional to burn incense while playing. She thinks of the experience as very meditative. While she occasionally plays by herself, the instruments are really meant to be played all together.
In Indonesia, the gamelan is often used to accompany performances by dancers or puppet theater.
Roberts first learned about the gamelan from her professor Lou Harrison at San Jose State University. She started playing after she broke her foot and wanted to find something to take her mind off it.
“Things that are very eclectic have always appealed to me.”
She found the experience of playing with the gamelan magical and entrancing.
Roberts has long been interested in music. She started to learned to play piano at age 3. When she was a girl, she demonstrated pianos and organs in the windows of shops in the San Francisco Bay Area. Later she was a member of rock bands.
Today, Roberts enjoys a wide range of musical and artistic pursuits. She teaches piano and performs and sings during local events, including the monthly art walks. She started the local jazz band Pizazz. Roberts is also a member of several local dance troupes including African and modern dance groups.
She uses the gamelan to help teach her piano students about rhythmic notation in a way that is fun and “not like a metronome.” For about a year, Roberts has been teaching informal classes in her home with the gamelan. She is interested to see how the upcoming classes through the park district turn out. Roberts, who is also a classroom teacher, says the classes for children will go at a somewhat slower pace than the classes for adults.
Her ultimate goal is to have an adult orchestra and a children’s orchestra up to performance level.