My first forays into learning gamelan

As I’ve said before, one of my biggest weaknesses in violin playing is that I’m tone deaf. After so many years of playing violin, I can tell if a note is about right. Sort of. Sometimes. For the most part, though, I rely on muscle memory to get things right.

On the other hand, my biggest strength is sight reading. Give me a piece of music and a couple of minutes and I can make something of it. Of course, if it’s hard it won’t be a very good something, but on the whole I can read along and pull it off pretty well considering how little time I’ve had to prepare.

And that basically sums up my violin playing. I’m great at sight reading, bad at being entirely in tune or playing by ear, and okay at everything else. This is pretty much true when I play recorder, pretty much true when I play cello, and pretty much true when I play flute. I figured it would be the same for gamelan.

I was dead wrong.

For the past month or two, I’ve been dabbling in gamelan, hoping that learning how to play a little will help make the music—which still remains mostly impenetrable—a little more logical and therefore a little more danceable. Mainly what I do is, when I get bored of listening to Javanese or grading papers, I pick up a set of music from Ramayana and sit down at one of the sarons to play through a song or two.

This works because I have the luxury of playing at whatever speed I want. I start slowly, focusing on properly dampening each note while simultaneously playing the next one. After going through a song several times, I usually have it memorized, which then means that I can really focus on the coordination of dampening. After a few more repetitions, I usually feel confident enough to start increasing the tempo.

Once or twice, though, I’ve actually played with other people, and this is where things get complicated. As it turns out, I am no good at sight reading on saron. At. All. I’ll be playing happily along at a slow tempo, and suddenly things will get faster or there’ll be more notes, and I get hopelessly lost. Right away.

Let me tell you a secret. If you’re good at sight reading, especially in an orchestral setting, that doesn’t mean that you play every note. You just play enough notes to get by. The point is to get to the end of the piece, so you’re always moving on, always looking ahead to the next note.

I am apparently incapable of doing this when I play saron and I’m not sure why. Of course the instrument is new to me and that accounts for some of it, but that doesn’t completely explain why, as soon as a song speeds up, I can’t even pick out the first note in every four (a very useful sight reading technique). It all just flies right by me.

I think the real problem may be the way that music is notated. Instead of a somewhat visual notation system like the one used in Western music, where if a note is higher on the staff it has a higher pitch and vice versa, gamelan music is just written through numbers: 1 through 7. In the past, gamelan music wasn’t even written down at all, which is why a specific notation system hasn’t (yet?) evolved along with it.

And apparently I need the slight visual cues that Western notation gives me. Or maybe I just need a familiar notation system. I guess in some ways it’s like I have to learn yet another new language. For now, though, I just spend a lot of time sitting, mallet in hand, feeling incredibly frustrated because something I was always good at I suddenly can’t do anymore.

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