Bonnie Anderson's students play the marimbas in class. Photo by Javier Duran.
Bonnie Anderson's students play the marimbas in class. Photo by Javier Duran.

Imagine me, a young music teacher fresh out of college. I was so excited to start my career and change the world one class at a time. I had the best training and felt sure I could get my students to love music as much as I did. I taught my students to sing, dance and play singing games. These activities lead into lessons about reading musical notation.

Because I was inexperienced, I naively believed my students were doing great because they had successfully gone through many lessons. By the end of the year, I became utterly deflated when I realized that just because they have been exposed to music reading activities, doesn’t mean they understand them or even care about them.

Imagine me a few years later, when I got a different kind of training. I learned how to add small xylophones, glockenspiels, and metallophones into my lessons. The students began to play short repeated patterns to accompany the songs. They found the instruments intriguing and were initially excited. Over time I discovered that the students still didn’t understand notation and weren’t interested in it. No matter how hard I worked to plan better lessons, the results were always the same. I felt like a failure.

Three of Bonnie Anderson's students play the marimbas in class. Photo by Javier Duran.
Three of Bonnie Anderson’s students play the marimbas in class. Photo by Javier Duran.

Now imagine me on that one day when I was introduced to World Music Drumming at my state music convention. I was instantly sold on the program and spent several sleepless nights trying to figure out how I could get my school to spend $3,000 on drums and accessories. Realizing it was useless, I charged it to my credit card. I had no kids and no family responsibilities at that time, so I could afford it.

It was an instant success. Suddenly my program was receiving recognition and all of my students were excited, including the fifth grade boys. They committed to coming to practices after school and participated in performances. However, I wondered in the back of my mind if there wasn’t something even better out there.

Forward a few years and imagine me finding “it”. What was “it”? “It” was an African-style marimba program. I saw Walt Hampton’s group play at the state convention. Their music was different and upbeat. The students seemed super excited to be playing it. I didn’t know it yet, but I caught “marimba madness.” I attended Walt’s one-hour session on how to start your own marimba program. I spent $2,000 on two of my own marimbas – a super sweet deal, by the way – and flew to the west coast to take a week-long class with Walt Hampton.

All of a sudden, my students were coming into my class in the mornings, during lunch, and after school to practice their marimba parts. They couldn’t get enough of it. They got invited to play at district and community events. Imagine me getting nominated for the Grammy music educator of the year and making it all the way to the Top 10 out of 4,500 people across the nation.

Now my students were getting national attention and were invited to play at an event where they were complimented by the mayor of San Antonio, David Robinson and the State Commissioner of Education. Most recently, one of my groups were chosen to play for the 2017 State Music Convention, on the very stage where I first encountered African marimba. This occurred in spite of having very little funding for the instruments I needed and having a constant issue of how to transport these large instruments.

Every year I watch my students transform into kids who take pride in their skills and perform in front of large audiences with confidence. My gut instinct tells me that this kind of a program is the right thing to do, but I didn’t know why until I came across a lot of research that explained that learning to play an instrument at a young age – nine years or younger – has a significant impact on cognitive growth.

This got me to thinking about what this kind of a program could do for other kids. Elementary marimba bands are very popular in Washington and Oregon, where they got their start, but there seems to be only two other groups in Texas – one in the Dallas area and one in the Houston area. The biggest obstacle seems to be the cost and manufacturing of these instruments. A good marimba program requires 12-16 instruments at an average cost of $2,000 each, plus shipping and handling.

A patient music teacher with a very healthy budget might be able to buy one marimba a year, if they didn’t have to go through an approved vendor. These instruments aren’t mass manufactured. They are hand crafted by individuals.

I am very passionate about this program, and I want as many children as possible to experience the benefits of being in an African marimba program. Through this program, I discovered that students at the elementary level should be experiencing music, not learning standard notation. This allows them to get up and start making meaningful music quickly and kindles a desire for them to learn more. Marimbas are the best way to do this, because they use gross motor skills to sound good on them. Best of all, it fires up their interest and gives them a lot of musical skills.

Some of the best musicians in the world learned music without standard notation. Sometimes this involves teaching by rote, by echo, by mirroring, writing out letter names of notes or putting my hands on top of the students. They walk away with the ability to keep a beat and maintain a pattern against other rhythmic and melodic patterns. The great thing about these patterns is that the students have the option to play the more challenging patterns or the ones that provide the easiest success for them. I change the patterns so that they work best for both the students on the high and low end of spectrum, as well as in the middle.

Every student in my room is challenged and achieves success at their own level. I have been encouraging my students to learn more complex music, and the main thing that I discovered was that their only limit was me. Now, I teach by whatever means necessary.

My mission is to share this program and grow it in my area and the state of Texas. I have seen how this program has caused my students to grow musically. I am often asked if my elementary groups are middle school age. This program allows students to play music that is technically advanced and engaging.

I don’t want my kids to be stuck in the elementary world of “Hot, Cross, Buns.” It is truly a waste of time when they are capable of so much more. Imagine marimbas in motion.

Bonnie Anderson instructs a marimba class at the school where she teaches.  Photo by Javier Duran.
Bonnie Anderson instructs a marimba class at the school where she teaches. Photo by Javier Duran.
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Top image: Bonnie Anderson’s students play the marimbas in class.  Photo by Javier Duran.

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Bonnie Anderson

Bonnie is an elementary music teacher in Universal City, Texas. She is a single mom, raising two daughters, one of whom she adopted from China. She is known for teaching World Music through the use of...