Editor's note: “Hall Passages,” is a weekly education feature in the Missoulian. Each week on a rotating basis, K-12 education reporter Jamie Kelly visits a private or public school in the Missoula Valley to see what’s new in the halls and walls of our learning institutions. This week, Kelly spent some time at Lewis and Clark Elementary.
The fifth-grade ensemble at Lewis and Clark Elementary waited for the downbeat last Thursday during an all-school assembly.
Their eyes were focused on their bandleader, their instruments ready to deliver the first tones.
And suddenly, the music started – sounds that cut through the gymnasium and echoed off its walls, as the audience quickly tuned their ears to music quite unlike they’ve ever heard.
“Meong, Meong,” an Indonesian children’s song, was the first on the list for this performances of the Lewis and Clark Gamelan Ensemble.
This was not your typical fifth-grade band concert, nor was I Made Lasmawan (pronounced Ee Mah-Day Loss-Mah-Wan) your typical band leader. The Bali musician, in town to visit the University of Montana, led the fifth-graders in a performance featuring one of the oldest classes of musical instruments in the world.
Each Indonesian gamelan is a collection of gongs, drums, metallophones, bamboo whistles and other instruments, uniquely constructed and colorfully designed. The music they create is simultaneously haunting and rhythmic, beautiful and cacophonous, striking and inviting.
This particular gamelan belongs to Lewis and Clark music teacher Dorothy Morrison, who has been teaching students in the ancient musical discipline for the last six years.
“I bought it knowing I wanted it to be a teaching tool for kids,” said Morrison, a former UM music teacher who first met I Made Lasmawan 11 years ago when he was invited to play with the UM Percussion Ensemble. Lasmawan returns every other year to Missoula, and spent time with Morrison’s fifth-grade students to teach them about the fine art of gamelan playing.
Gamelans go back at least 1,400 years to Indonesia and Asia, where they were first used for burial rituals. But their instruments and their usage have evolved over the centuries, and are now used for celebrations, funerals and in competitions. Like Western instruments, they have both secular and sacred uses.
Morrison’s interest in them dates back to 2001, when she first met Lasmawan. Morrison founded the UM Gamelan Ensemble, and also the Missoula Gamelan Ensemble.
Last Thursday’s performance featured children dancing, dressed colorfully as animals in the performance of “Meong, Meong,” which means “Cat, Cat.” That performance told the story of a rat eating all of the community’s crops, and the community’s cry to get a cat to end the famine.
Next up was “Selamat Pagi” – “Good Morning” – which featured a colorful array of cloth representing the shade of the sky throughout the day.
The overtones and harmonics of the gongs mixed with drums and children’s voices in a mesmerizing performance.
Children learn that each of their contributions is unique, and that the instruments themselves are very fragile and valuable, said Morrison.
“It’s a powerful teaching tool for respect,” she said. “They have to really respect these instruments.”
For one month every winter, Morrison teaches the gamelan to all of her music students. It’s a way to break up the usual routine of music education in her classrooms.
This year’s Lewis and Clark Gamelan Ensemble was excellent in terms of their mastery of the instruments.
“I have to say I had whiz-bang musicians,” she said. “This particular group is just made up of phenomenal musicians.”
Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at email@example.com.