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Playing the Gamelan Broadens Students’ Musical Experience

By Sally Jongsma

Students in Dr. Benjamin Kornelis’s “Music of Non-Western Cultures” class may not have known what a Gamelan was before they enrolled in the course, but they certainly do now. Toward the end of the semester, they even got to play one—or pieces of one. A Gamelan is really a collection of Southeast Asian instruments—the equivalent of an orchestra—made up of gongs of different sizes, xylophone-type instruments, metallophones, and drums.

Students received instruction on playing the Gamelan at the National Music Museum, located on the campus of the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, South Dakota, an hour’s drive from Dordt College. The museum is world renowned for its collections, which include more than 13,500 American, European, and non-Western instruments from virtually all cultures and historical periods.

The National Music Museum’s Gamelan was built by the best instrument maker in Java and is played regularly by the museum’s Gamelan Ensemble. In fact, the class heard the ensemble practice the same piece they had played for their lesson.

“Because there is a basic simple melody, it was not so difficult for students to begin to play a stripped down version,” says Kornelis. But their real appreciation for the instruments came when they were able to hear the elaborate melodies and rhythms performed by more experienced players. “It was like lacework around it,” adds Kornelis. He believes that the experience helped students see concretely what he hopes they take from the course: when musicians take the materials of creation and make music they do so in an amazing variety of ways.

Kornelis hopes that the Music of Non-Western Cultures course helps students be less willing to dismiss unfamiliar music without at least trying to understand it.

“People often say, “I don’t know much about music but I know what I like,” he says. He believes what is often really meant is “I like what I know.” If he is right, the course may help students become more open-minded about music—and more open-eared, he says with a smile. “Understanding something always makes it feel more legitimate,” he adds.

The Music of Non-Western Cultures course, called World Music in some institutions, is a new course that fills some specific needs as well as helping students better understand and appreciate music of other cultures. It better prepares students who teach in states that test music educators on their world music knowledge. It also offers a popular elective to both majors and non-majors.

“There’s so much cross-pollination in music today—between classical and pop, between classical and world—that it’s a shame not to explore it,” says Kornelis. It also offers students a music department offering that fulfills the college’s cross- cultural requirement.

The course includes “lots of listening” both inside and outside of class. Because the class was more popular than he expected, Kornelis had to modify some of his expectations for the number of hands-on learning experiences, but he says that South American and African rhythms are easy to do with clapping, which gives everyone an instrument.

“It’s actually increased my map skills,” Kornelis says. “I now know where Bali is in relation to Java.” Geography matters in other ways too. Southeast Asia is gifted with natural copper and tin, the elements necessary for making bronze, of which many of the Gamelan instruments are made.

The course has been even more interdisciplinary than Kornelis expected. Students learned not only geography but also a great deal about visual art, as well as the history, religion, and politics of cultures.

“There’s a strong reciprocal relationship between music and culture,” he says. “You understand the culture better if you understand the music and vice versa.” He hopes that he’s begun to help dispel the sense of superiority of Western music and help his students see that “primitive” music is often anything but primitive. It is just a different musical system—often a very complex one. In his syllabus he shares with his students a quote by musician David Byrne: “Maybe it’s naïve, but I would love to believe that once you grow to love some aspect of a culture—its music, for instance—you can never again think of that culture as less than yourself.”

At least some of his students agree. “I’ve found that it’s impossible to learn about the music of another culture without learning about the culture itself. The two are inseparable,” says Senior Tim Vande Griend. “The music of other cultures around the world is often so different to what our western ears are used to hearing that it’s a challenge to ‘stretch your ears.’ But once you’re able to get beyond accepting only the music you’re used to, you’re suddenly opened to an enormous amount of beautiful music.”