How do Balinese learn and remember gamelan music?

Balinese gamelan music is seldom notated. Therefore, gamelan musicians almost never learn music from a score as one does in the western tradition. As with a great deal of traditional oriental music, gamelan is learnt by rote, passed on from guru to student. Generally, at a practice a new piece is taught in short phrases by one guru and one or two assistants. The opening phrase is first taught to the lead musician and he in turn does his utmost to mimick it. Once he’s capably remembered the phrase, it is repeated over and over until it is “etched in his soul”. Then the other parts, such as the rhythmic fill-in patterns (kotekan) and the drum parts are added. Finally, the teacher will pay attention to the punctuating instruments, in particular the gong. Only when these parts fit together perfectly will the group move on to the next phrase, and so forth until the entire piece is memorized.

Obviously, a guru and the his assistants must be skillful players of all the instruments in the gamelan orchestra he is teaching, as well as have a sound knowledge of composition. With up to twenty different parts to teach, a gamelan guru must be a disciplined and extremely patient individual.

Some of the instruments in an ensemble are very specialist; therefore the parts may require practice at home, perhaps with a friend or playing along to a recording. Other technically simpler ones, such as the gong, are learnt on the spot at practices.

Before the onset of tourism, musicians would farm by day and practise gamelan by night, every night of the week. Today, with people working in the tourist industry, maintaining busier and more material-driven lifestyles, musicians don’t have regular practices, unless it is for an upcoming festival or an overseas tour. This lack of practice means that, unless it is notated or recorded, a large amount of traditional repertoire will fast disappear.

© 2012 Mekar Bhuana

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