I Play a Silly Instrument

I’m a percussionist, but I like to think I specialize on the marimba. It has recently dawned on me that I play a completely stupid, completely impractical instrument. I don’t know why this didn’t occur to me earlier, perhaps before I spent literally thousands of hours learning how to play it.

The first problem I have is the marimba is not really portable. My instrument is nine feet long, with 60 rosewood bars, and weighs at least 300 pounds. It doesn’t even fit in my car – I have to rent a van if I want to move it anywhere. And by the way, the fact that I have a really big instrument should not in any way be considered an effort on my part to make up for shortcomings in other areas.

Secondly, I find practising marimba requires you to be very sharp mentally, which has been an issue with me for several years now. You have four mallets and you’re trying to hit these narrow bars in just the right spot. There’s not much room for error, so you really have to pay attention. It’s not like playing the drums, where I can basically just turn my brain off for a while and hit things really hard in completely random order, much to the enjoyment of my family and neighbours.

Third, most of the repertoire for the marimba has been written in the past 50 years, so it’s quite modern (translation: it’s usually not pretty). While most instrumentalists can pull out a nice classical-era concerto to entertain their friends, a lot of my repertoire tests people’s patience after about two minutes. I could play some Bach, but it’s fiendishly difficult and too obvious when you hit a wrong note. Besides, if God wanted Bach to be played on marimba, Bach would have been born in Mexico.

So, I’ve been thinking about learning a new instrument. The piano is one option – we have my mom’s piano at home, I could probably practice at the NAC over lunch, and it has a broad repertoire. I think people also respect pianists – they’re seen as highly-cultured and suave.

I’ve also been thinking about the guitar. There’s something romantic about being able to pull out an acoustic around the campfire and strum a few bars (although I swear to God I’ll kill the next person who starts in on an Indigo Girls tune). As far as I know, there are only three chords to learn anyway, so it probably won’t take up a lot of my time.

I’ve pretty much ruled out string instruments (learning curve is too steep), reed instruments (too fussy), and brass instruments (I have weak lips). Any other suggestions?

5 thoughts on “I Play a Silly Instrument

  1. Variations on a theme? You could stay in the percussion family and trying something like a bodhran. Very light, portable, can accompany folk, rock, celtic, or any permutation of the above. You may not command the respect of an Anton Kuerti or a Christopher Parkening but at least you could provide rhythmic accompaniment to the Indigo Girls around the campfire.

  2. And he’s even got a bodhran. For a couple of birthdays there I was getting him percussion instruments to add to his collection. Maybe he’s worried that if he learns the bodhran I’ll bug him to play Gerry O’Kane tunes all day or worse, get out my penny whistle.

  3. Chris, what about the mandalin? its even less bulky than the guitar and you could play some classical pieces.. i think?

  4. Never underestimate the power of lips. They’re like any muscle in the body. The more you work them the stronger they get!
    What about vocal lessons? You could be an opera singer or just sing really well around the campfire…
    I’ve always wanted to learn the cello. Maybe it’s because women seem to look really hot when they’re playing it…I know. I’m vain.

  5. A former teacher once told me about going to a woman’s cello recital in New York City back in the ’60s, and she played the recital naked. It’s a mental image that has stayed with me for years.

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