At what age do children in Bali start learning gamelan?

Outside of Bali, a child who starts playing music at a kindergarten age is often considered naturally gifted, sometimes labeled a genius, a prodigy or similar. In Bali, however, this is not always so; and in fact it’s expected that children play music (and dance) from a very young age, basically as soon as they can walk. Why is this?

Since Balinese culture is based on a communal, community based system focused around the Hindu Dharma religion that encourages creativity and devotion through art, from birth children are surrounded by music. In Bali, this music is called gamelan: a collection of mostly percussive instruments ranging in number from two to fifty and made of a variety of materials, most commonly bronze.

Interestingly enough, a century ago it was in fact less common for young children to play gamelan than it is today, particularly in one group together. I’ve come across the odd photo from the 1930s of children incorporated into an ensemble but never an entire group of kids practicing or performing gamelan. Perhaps this was because it was very expensive for a village to purchase instruments and then fix them if they were damaged.

Around 1936, Colin McPhee, a musicologist and composer from Canada and resident of Sayan in Ubud, funded a children’s gamelan angklung group; at the same time encouraging a revival of the then-rare bamboo rattles once included in these ensembles called angklung kocok. In fact, he wrote a book about it called A group of Small Men. He claimed that this group became a real attraction, a talking point amongst villagers, which suggests that it may have been the first of its kind.

Nowadays, children’s groups are very common with kids as young as four or five years old joining in. Initially, they only featured in temple or banjar ceremonies but today you can see them at festivals and other government-sponsored events. Since the advent of gender wayang (a 10-keyed xylophone that uses a difficult two-handed technique) and kendang (double-headed drum) competitions, we are seeing more and more really young kids getting involved and even competing well against the older kids. In fact, many more middle class parents are engaging private teachers so that through their kids they can “keep up with the Jones’”.

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