Marimba Magic

Rev. Donna PritchardA few years ago I decided to learn to play the Marimba, that xylophone-type instrument from Zimbabwe. And I found in that experience some good fun, but also some good theology.

First, when you learn marimba in the manner of the Shona people of southern Africa, you do not learn anything by reading music, or even by knowing the notes. Instead, you learn it by hearing it, watching it played and by playing it yourself, over and over again. You learn, essentially, by rote.

I am reminded of John Wesley’s advice to a struggling lay preacher whose fears threatened to immobilize him: “Preach faith until you have it.” Whether learning marimba, or living as disciples of Christ, sometimes the only way to learn is by doing it yourself, over and over again.

Secondly, the music of the Shona is “layered” music, where one line is played on top of another and another until finally the sound is rich and full and complex. In my group lessons we would take turns moving from main melody and harmonic chords to runs. We quickly discovered that the song would be pretty boring if all you have is one line and that marimba is not very much fun if you are playing all alone.

It is only when playing together, mixing up the parts, that this music becomes alive, energizing and quite beautiful. The same can be said for the church community, I think.

If all we have is one line – if we limit our thinking and restrict our vision – we can become pretty boring. It is only when we mix all our gifts together, when everyone brings their experiences of God and their convictions about grace, that our community becomes alive, energizing and quite beautiful.

Third, rhythm is essential. This was the most challenging part for me. In the 13 years of serious piano study I did, rhythm was always the most difficult part of technique. And it proved to be the same challenge in marimba.

Sometimes I would imagine that I was playing a part perfectly, but the teacher would tell me I had all the right notes, but the wrong song. Because the rhythm was not quite right. With marimba – and I do believe with faith – the trick is to feel it in your bones, to let the rhythm of your own body beat in time with the rhythm of the song.

Finally, you cannot play good marimba by looking down, bending over and focusing only on your notes. You have to look up, look around, and let the music expand out into the room.

The same is true for our faith. If we insist on looking down and focusing only on our little bit of the world, we are not playing the right song. We need to look up, look around, and let God’s love expand out into the world around us. And then we will truly be singing God’s song!

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