Skip to main content

With a gong in my heart

For a magical experience, Robbie Mitchell says young people will be fascinated by the gamelan, the percussion music of Indonesia

Two boisterous classes of Year 7 pupils (about 56 children) stand outside the Javanese gamelan room. As they are told they are about to enter a special room, and that as a mark of respect they are to remove their shoes, the atmosphere changes to one of quiet, excited anticipation. I begin to introduce the instruments, including a little about the gamelan in Indonesian culture. One of the pupils is chosen to demonstrate the sound of the big gong (gong ageng). They learn that it is often said that if you strike the ageng correctly, the whole universe changes. Then the gong speaks.

It never fails: a moment of true magic, as the deep, almost toneless vibration reaches the children, widening their eyes, their mouths, their horizons. From this moment on, I have their complete co-operation for a full hour, as they take it in turns to try out aspects of the music, each pupil having a turn at something.

That was an unusually large group, but the magic always works.

At a recent South East Arts Music conference one delegate remarked that he "could not understand the point of using gamelan in music education". Many share his feelings, believing either that "gamelan sounds like a whole load of kids bashing dustbin lids", or that the sole point of world music is to help integrate young people from ethnic minorities, and, as we have few Indonesian immigrants, ask how we can justify the use of gamelan in our schools.

It will only sound like dustbin-lid-hitting if children are allowed to do it like that. Gamelan has one of two non-diatonic tunings which to the uneducated ear may at first sound "unmusical"; this is never a problem for the pupils. And justification for studying the music of other cultures in western schools must rest on musical values rather than socio-demographic ones.

One of the great beauties of the gamelan is that it requires no specialism; it is a ready-made mixed-ability teaching tool. Particularly important is the Indonesian notion that no one in the ensemble is less or more important than anyone else. So the kethuk player, who keeps a steady beat in between the notes of the "tune" (or balungan - literally "skeleton") is as vital to the whole ensemble (if not more so) than the bonang panerus player who is busy playing rapid semi or demi-semi-quaver runs or flourishes, or off-beat pauses interlocking with the on-beats provided by their neighbour on the bonang barung. A high level of musical ensemble work is created for pupils who, because they do not learn an orchestral instrument, would otherwise never have experienced it.

Gamelan in East Sussex began with an inspired programme of development of "world" music that took place under Roger Durston, then county music adviser. After some training sessions run by Andy Channing from the South Bank Gamelan at London's Royal Festival Hall, I started an extra-curricular group, which within two years had become three groups (Year 7, Year 8 and Upper School) through rapidly escalating demand.

Head of department at Varndean school Chris Hiscock, (co-author of Heinemann's Music Matters) and I, soon realised that gamelan had an important role to play in the curriculum for all pupils. We set about formalising the way we introduced it to Year 7 pupils, and the result is Project 2 (The Music of Java and Bali) in Heinemann's New Music Matters: Year 7, published in 1998. This project is intended to be viable whether or not an actual gamelan is available; it wors extremely well when taught using a variety of different-sized classroom pitched percussion instruments such as glockenspiels, metallophones and xylophones - which come to us through the educational practices of Carl Orff, who based his ideas on the Javanese gamelan.

It can be taught just as easily using electronic keyboards. Using a keyboard voice such as vibraphone or marimba works well, as it is the best approximation to the original timbres of gamelan. Pitch is not a problem, since the slendro scale used in the project approximates reasonably well to a western pentatonic scale (such as C D E G A). For the "dead" sound of the kethuk a cowbell is ideal, and normal classroom hand drums work perfectly well for the kendhang or drum parts. The gong parts work best if played in octaves low down on a piano, with an additional dramatic splash provided by a cymbal on the ageng beats which mark the beginningend of the cycles of the balungan.

General musical concepts can be taught or reinforced easily through gamelan. Ostinato, pentatonic scale, pulsebeatmeasure, heterophony, pitch, timbre, dynamics, duration, tempo, texture, off-beats, interlocking melodies, and so on. Gamelan can be easily related to other styles of music ranging from medieval "hocketing" and cantus firmus through Debussy, Ravel, Britten, Messaien to Mike Oldfield and Steve Reich. Additionally, it might kick off cross-curricular projects such as drama and dance (including shadow puppets and masks); technology (including cookery and textiles); RE, human geography and so on.

While it is important to teach at least the basics of how gamelan music works (for example, it is more accurate to describe the gamelan as an instrument than as a set of instruments), the greatest excitement comes through thinking of the gamelan as a resource for composing new music.

In this we have been greatly inspired by the example of 6' gamelan, a group that grew out of the original South Bank Gamelan players, and which is dedicated to performing original compositions by its own members. They came to Seaford for a gamelan evening; 80 pupils were involved and at the end of the performance (their finale is a piece called Pig in the Kraton, described as "hardcore" gamelan!) the children were all on their feet and dancing.

Inspired by the band's example, my senior group began to experiment and came up with some very exciting work. One of these compositions, a fairly complex piece constructed from a number of cross-rhythms all based on a repetitive 78 cycle, formed, together with some traditional Javanese wayang kulit music, the basis of our performance in the 1998 Music for Youth festival, in which we performed (in Indonesian costume) at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Robbie Mitchell is head of music at Varndean School, Seaford, East Sussex. Tel: 01273 564346. E-mail:


For a list of gamelan in the UK contact Sheila Cude, The UK Gamelan Network,tel: 020 8340 1928.


Details about the South Bank Gamelanprogramme contact Robert Welch,tel: 020 7921 0848

Buying a gamelan costs about pound;4,000 including shipping from Indonesia, but there are anumber of scrap metal gamelan around, so a joint musictechnology project is possible. Contact Janet

Sherbournemetalworks,tel: 0118 947 7170 or Jan Scott, Cragg Vale Gamelan, tel: 01422 843315

To get in touch with 6' gamelan, contact Dave Stewart, tel: 020 8946-3217E-mail:

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you