Learning Gamelan Music in Bali

Learning music is hard. A lot of people I speak to talk about their experience of starting an instrument when they were a child and, when they didn't find it engaging, they gave up. Often, with hindsight, there's a sense of regret from giving it up.

So what is it about it? Why is it hard? Well, there are all the obvious things like it requires work and practice which can be boring. But, to be honest, I don't really remember what it felt like. I learnt the trombone when I was 11 and so it's been a while since I experienced first-hand learning an instrument from a teacher completely from scratch. It's about time I remembered what that feels like.

Currenty, I'm fortunate enough to be traveling around south-east Asia. One of the things I was determined to do during my time here was to do a music course in a genre I had never learned before. After a few searches and reading a few articles I found what sounded like a great program in Bali learning gamelan music.

Over the summer, I had seen a gamelan orchestra live for the first time at the Irish music festival Another Love Story (I have come to learn the orchestra are called the NCH Gamelan Orchestra). I remember thinking the music was very intriguing with lots of interesting rhythms and melodic layers.

The school in Bali is called Mekar Bhuana and was set up by husband and wife, Vaughan and Evie. I had arranged with them to do an 18 hour programme of private lessons over the course of a week and 2 days. At the start of the week, we had a brief discussion about what I wanted to get out of the course. I explained that my main interest lay in learning a new genre of music which I hadn't experienced before. In doing so, I was keen to remind myself what it feels like to learn a type of music from scratch and to be able to share some key takealways. This article contains 7 of those takeaways from this experience which, for the most part, I had forgotten I knew.

For the duration of the week I learnt the gangsa. The gangsa is a glockenspiel-type instrument which is struck with a mallet. They come in a range of different sizes and with differing amounts of tones. The gangsa I played had 5 tones with the notes in the following order A, C#, D#, E, G# with the A being the highest note. One thing I learnt quickly was that the different scalic modes gamelan uses can be quite different to traditional major or minor keys used in most western music - in a way, this is where it's appeal comes from.

The gangsa I was playing, was over 100 years old and had amazing wooden carvings on the body of the frame. It's bronze bars had been well worn in giving it a beautiful warm quality much like the way a violin's sound matures with age.

My teacher, during my time here, was gamelan expert and Balinese native Purnama. In my first lesson with Pur, three key points struck me:

1.) Get comfortable with the instrument as soon as possible

Pur started off the lesson by teaching me a very simple warm-up exercise. I played it a few times before he stopped me. He said I was focusing too hard on it and that I should try and get to a point where I would be able to play it instinctively. By getting to this point, it meant I would start to enjoy playing it more and would be then well positioned to tackle harder pieces and techniques.

2.) Turning practice into a game

After a short while of playing the exercises, Pur took out his phone and said, "time to play a game. Do you want to go for 1, 3 or 5 minutes?" "3 minutes," I said, feeling conservative. There was now a simple target - keep playing the warm-up until the 3 minutes on his phone's stopwatch was up. It was a very simple exercise but one that struck me as a great way to keep practice engaging. It made me think, what other games could I build in to my own practice to keep my mind engaged?

3.) 1 to 1 lessons are often the best

Pur told me he has taught and been taught in group settings and feels they aren't as good as one to one lessons. The reason, he explains, is if someone in a group makes a mistake or isn't getting something, it can be missed and, without the teacher realising, the person learning can easily develop a flaw in their technique which can then hold them back.

Over the first 2 days, I slowly got better at each of the exercises and was then able to start working on a new piece which had many interesting rhythmic patterns and layers of melody. It was really enjoyable seeing the improvement over the couple of days (and nice to have the positive reinforcement from a supporting teacher).

The next day was the Hindu holiday of Galungan where the Balinese mark the victory of good triumphing over evil. It is an important day and one where businesses shut and families come together. There were no lessons on this day, but Vaughan and Evie had invited me to Evie's parents home to celebrate Galungan with them. It was a great privilege to have been asked and the family were extremely welcoming.

After food and worship in the temple, the family all joined together to play gamelan together. This experience struck 2 important points for me:

4.) Playing music brings people together

All generations of this family with a wide range of musical abilities came together to play music together. Some of the pieces were known by many others only by a few. People made mistakes and nobody cared - it was completely inclusive. The act of playing together was more important than the quality of it (even though I thought the quality was pretty great!)

5.) Music in a group needs a leader with a plan

These things don't happen by accident, they need one or more persons to come with a structure and a plan particularly for beginners. In order to get the most out of a music group setting someone needs to take the lead on organizing what people will play, the arrangement and leading the group. The more that this organisation can be managed by a more experienced musician the better for the beginners who can focus on their parts and having fun.

The remaining days of the course were spent continually learning the parts to 2 pieces common in gamelan repertoire. One of the pieces is called Legong Keraton. The full version can last over an hour but it is rare that this would ever be performed. This piece, like many in gamelan, has interlocking melodies called the kotekan. The kotekan, is made of 2 parts called polos and sangsih. When played together and with the melody it creates an incredibly rich sound.

6.) Breaking pieces down in to simple parts

The kotekan I learned for this piece is quite complex rhythmically and to tackle it in one, for me, was not going to be easy. By breaking it down in to simple sections, playing it slowly and then increasing the speed makes it much easier to build proficiency. This requires patience and even when you think you've got it and then you mess up, taking it back and playing the section simply is the best route. We previously talked about this in our blog '7 Tips to Help Your Music Practice'.

At the end of the course I spoke with Vaughan and Evie for a podcast (which we will be releasing shortly) and I asked them about what the future holds for gamelan. They spoke a lot about their mission to keep the tradition alive and the important influence parents and schools can have in promoting it to the future generations. My learning from them was as follows.

7.) Make learning music accessible

Everything from having access to quality teachers to instruments being cheap enough for people to afford them affects the environment from which aspiring musicians thrive in their pursuit of their education. Simple things like young children being able to carry a particular instrument on the bus or walking to school can all add or detract from the likelihood of someone succeeding. I think perhaps the most important factor might be for beginners to have sufficient outlets to play as part of a group to help build that social support and sense of community around their music. The tradition of families playing together on a weekly basis which I experienced in Evie's family home for Galungan was a great testament to this.

In conclusion, it was a fantastic week learning gamelan helped greatly by the enthusiasm the school's founders have for the pursuit of this type of music. My overall takeaway, is the same as my opening: it is hard to learn music, but it can be helped greatly by deploying the right teaching methods, encouraging people to play as part of a music community and keeping the access to learning as easy as possible. In doing this, beginners starting off will see progress sooner and also enjoy themselves at every step of the learning process. This is certainly what I experienced during this most enjoyable week.

If you would like to find out more about Mekar Bhuana, you can visit their website at http://www.balimusicanddance.com/. They offer a range of private lessons and group workshops from their center in Bali as well as Skype lessons delivered remotely. Their website is also a great resource for anyone wanting to learn more about the tradition of gamelan so do check it out.

As I mentioned, we will shortly be releasing a podcast where I discussed with Mekar Bhuana founders Vaughan and Evie more about their center and the importance of keeping the gamelan tradition alive through education. To be notified of the release of this, you can follow our podcast here https://soundcloud.com/dabbledoo_music