Sellwood Middle School's Marimba Band 'plays for joy'
On Saturday, March 17th, when over two hundred people gathered at the Sellwood Community Center in support of all of Portland's local community centers, a centerpiece of the rally was live music by the Sellwood Middle School Marimba Band.
Bending over twenty-six marimbas placed on the patio, twenty students tapped out one joyful song after another.
Begun eighteen years ago by Sellwood Middle School math teacher Heidi Perr, and funded by grants, the school's marimba band is still flourishing, under the direction of math and marimba teacher Nathan Beck. Over the years, it has become quite regionally famous.
Beck graduated from Lewis and Clark College in 1992 with a minor in music. Prior to his studies at Lewis and Clark, he played drums in the Santa Clara Vanguard Drum & Bugle Corps (1986-88).
In 1992 when he heard "Boka Marimba", a local band which plays Zimbabwean marimba, he was captivated by the joyful melodies and funky rhythms – and, after a few months and a workshop, he started playing with that band. He then spent sixteen years teaching marimba at Lewis and Clark while playing with Boka.
"I spent one and a half years in Zimbabwe (1996-98) learning traditional music, language, and culture," remarks Beck. "When I returned I started teaching marimba in the community, and arranging music for Boka Marimba."
Beck has continued to play with Boka for twenty-six years now. He has also been teaching the Sellwood Marimba Band for four years. His schedule at Sellwood is teaching one class of math, and four elective classes of marimba – the latter, involving a total of 110 students.
"Marimba is becoming more popular because it is such a great vehicle for teaching kids. It is really good for kids at that age [middle school] on so many levels," smiles Beck. "It requires memorizing, using motor skills, and using different parts of the brain. It's physical, and it is based on rhythm and patterns.
"Learning marimba also brings kids together really quickly. And for some kids, it's the point of success in their day. They may have struggles with math or other academic classes, but they have success in marimba, and that is really beneficial!"
The 26 Sellwood Middle School marimbas were all made locally, with several actually made by a former student. The keys are made of padauk, an African wood. They are mounted on a frame, and held together with cords.Every summer, Beck takes a group of about twenty students to "ZimFest" – a Zimbabwean Music Festival, hosted by various colleges in Oregon – where they learn and play marimbas while living in dorms. This year, August 9-12 they will be at Western Oregon State University in Monmouth, southwest of Salem.
On Wednesday, May 9th, at 7 p.m., the Sellwood Middle School Marimba Band will play a one hour and fifteen minute Spring Concert – free, and open to the public, at the school, 8300 S.E. 15th Avenue, two blocks south of Tacoma Street.
If you're among the few who haven't yet heard them in person and would like a preview, search online for: "Sellwood Marimba Band - Zomba - Westmoreland Park 5K Performance". And then plan on attending the free concert.