More Gamelan Forays

The last week of classes, I didn’t go to UKJGS at all, not to dance classes and not to gamelan classes. I was in the middle of a very large, very time-consuming editing project and I didn’t have the time. Plus, the dance classes were for the new girls and thus not terribly applicable to me. Gamelan lessons, on the other hand, were still applicable, and once you miss a week, it’s hard to get back into the swing of things. As I quickly found out.

When I came back the next week, we were working on a new song. A new, harder song. And the music wasn’t written up on the white board. I was more than a little lost. Worse, all the sarons had been taken by other people, so I had to sit at the peking, a slightly smaller version of a saron that (as far as I could tell) had to be played twice as fast.

I settled myself in front of the peking, folded up my legs, and smiled a little sheepishly at the teacher. As soon as he looked away, I leaned over and asked the girl next to me if she had the music written down. She didn’t. As it turned out, she’d also been absent the previous week. The boy to her left, however, had been responsible, and so she and I hurriedly scribbled down the sequence of numbers that he showed us.

Then it was time to start playing. I immediately got lost. My excuse was that the girl next to me was also lost so I couldn’t tell what was going on because I couldn’t hear. A pretty flimsy excuse to say the least. Eventually, though, she figured things out and I figured things out and we were mostly playing along with the group.

Except there was the whole double time thing. I’d never paid very close attention to the peking, but the times that I had glanced over, the player had always been hitting each note twice while the saron players hit them only once. This was fine for the slow sections, but didn’t work too well when we played anything fast. I spent a good deal of the song looking perplexed and air-hitting1.

Then the teacher came over and told me not to play double time during the fast section.

“Oh,” I said. “Awesome.”

And, the third or fourth time through the piece, it actually did start to be awesome. I liked playing faster than normal (as long as it wasn’t too fast). I tuned in to a different sets of sounds in order to play quicker; I listened to a different rhythm. I liked that the peking’s range was higher than that of the saron I normally played2. And, I’ll admit it, I liked that I was the only one on my part. I liked that I really had to be responsible for playing or there’d be something missing from the music. With saron, there are are always four or five other people playing your same part. Drop a note or two and it doesn’t really matter. Not so if you’re the only person on peking.

When the people came in for the next gamelan lesson, I stayed on saron. I got better. I started smiling. Have I found my favorite instrument in a gamelan ensemble? It’s hard to say after only trying two, but for now I can say that I’m definitely going to stick with peking.

1Similar to air-bowing, this is an ensemble technique falling under the category of “fake it til’ you make it” in which you bring the mallet down in time to the music but don’t actually hit a note because you have no idea what you’re supposed to be playing.
2Violinist at heart, I suppose.

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