Javanese Gamelan Course Makes Welcoming Space for Lorain County Youth

December 11, 2017

Amanda Nagy

students playing gamelan
Students from the Salvation Army Learning Zone, an after-school program in Lorain, Ohio, play with Oberlin College Gamelan on December 3.
Photo credit: Doug Menefee

For five weeks this fall, Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology and Anthropology Jennifer Fraser and students in her Gamelan as Community Engagement class joined the Salvation Army Learning Zone in Lorain to facilitate an after-school community music program for students in kindergarten through seventh grade.

Fraser oversees Oberlin’s Javanese gamelan collection, which includes gongs and bronze keyed instruments.

The course, part of the Conservatory of Music’s new Pedagogy, Advocacy, and Community Engagement (PACE) division, provides students with focused and rigorous curricular and cocurricular opportunities to imagine, research, and practice how their musical work will impact communities beyond Oberlin.

Although the partnership with the Salvation Army after-school program came together at the last minute, Fraser says it was her intention to focus her efforts in Lorain County beyond Oberlin.

“We designed this music intensive to be deeply collaborative and inclusive,” says Fraser, who teaches courses in gamelan and has directed Oberlin’s ensemble since 2007. “We made it a welcoming space to get greater participation and a sense of ownership.”

The beauty of using Javanese gamelan with children is that they don’t need any previous musical experience or musical literacy to participate. The nature of gamelan—an ensemble from Indonesia that mostly consists of percussion instruments, including varying sizes of gongs and drums—makes learning accessible because participants can easily produce sounds.

The music intensive was held on campus for one hour per week. Oberlin students took turns facilitating musical concepts, such as rhythm, call and response, collaboration, and theme and variation. The music is not designed to feature the contributions of any individual, but rather a collective, group effort.

“Not a lot of people know what gamelan is,” Fraser says. “The music was new to everyone, which made it more democratic and equalizing in that regard. The kids were very excited to see us. They’ve been a pleasure to work with.”

At the end of the five-week intensive, the Lorain students performed at the Salvation Army’s Thanksgiving Dinner on November 21. They returned to campus December 3 to perform in “Gong Fest,” a collaborative concert with students of Oberlin College Gamelan.

Peter Ogbuji, an independent grantwriting consultant who helped connect Fraser's class to the after-school program, says he received positive feedback from parents. He says the youth were eager to learn because of the curiosity and enthusiasm from the Oberlin student facilitators. 

The students enrolled in the fall PACE course each had some familiarity with gamelan. They also had a desire to teach and work with children. Second-year Momo Suzuki, a comparative literature major, says the class has been transformative because it has shaped her interest in teaching and using music to build community.

“I got to see how malleable and un-elitist music could be, and how much music could influence one’s self-esteem and mood,” said Suzuki, who is from Ridgewood, New Jersey. “There was one instance where one of the students was very upset and unresponsive, but was smiling so widely and laughing after just 30 seconds of playing the drums in the ensemble. I want to make more spaces for people to experiment with that.”

Fraser will teach the course again in the spring, and she plans to continue the partnership with the Salvation Army Learning Zone. She is currently looking for a new group of students to enroll in the course, and she hopes that two of her current students will return as senior facilitators in the spring.


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