Here's 5 Reasons Why Taiwan Is One Of The BEST Places For Marimba Right Now
Well hello there! This feels different...
I've been wanting to write blogs on my website for a long time now, so why not start now? I'm hoping that this blog will become an extension of THE STUDIO show and will be a fun place to put my thoughts that won't fit in videos here! Thanks for stopping by to check it out :)
Anyway... recently, I went on a trip to Taiwan and Japan for several reasons - one was to accompany Therese on her trip to Japan, one was to meet new and old friends, and one was to deliver some fun masterclasses at some Taiwan schools! I'd been to Taiwan and Japan before, but I'd never done anything percussion-related in Taiwan before. I've seen Ju Percussion live, I've met many awesome Taiwanese percussionist friends and many of my favourite performances are from Taiwanese players. So of course I was excited!
Naturally, if you've ever been to Taiwan or heard about Taiwanese culture, you'll know that Taiwan is full of things like amazing street food, natural scenery, beautiful historical attractions and wonderfully kind people. Now, imagine that scale in a percussion context and you start to see what the title of this post is about!
But before we get into any of that, a big thank you to Dr Kuo-Hsuan Wu, Chun-Ting Chen and all of the wonderful staff and students at National Sun Yat-sen University, Kaohsiung Senior High School, National Kaohsiung Normal University and National Wu-Ling Senior High School for organising the four masterclasses that Therese and I presented during our time in Taiwan. It was awesome to hang out with you guys and witness such amazing performances!
Ok, I digress. Here's my 5 reasons why Taiwan is one of the BEST places to study, play and surround yourself with percussion!
1. In Taiwan, it's considered normal to learn percussion and marimba from a young age.
Here in Australia, it's normal for people to learn popular instruments like piano and violin from young ages. I started learning piano at the age of 4, and I still remember my parents berating me for not practicing it!
But I don't see many percussion students, let alone marimba students, who start learning seriously at an age younger than 12. And if they do, they tend to be just learning the basics, like learning how to hold mallets, or how to read notes.
Meanwhile, in Taiwan, both high schools we went to had students playing works like Marjan's Niflheim, Sueyoshi's Ripple and Cheung's Etude in E minor around 14-15 years old! And these guys are playing it accurately, musically and win competitions! Many of the teachers here told me that students in Taiwan will start to learn marimba and percussion in their primary school years, and it is considered a serious instrument from day 1.
Perhaps it is the mindset amongst parents that the instrument is 'equivalent' to piano and violin that encourages Taiwanese families to sign up for percussion classes. Which leads me to point number 2...
2. There are many schools and universities with huge marimba-based percussion programs and world-renowned marimba-specific faculty.
Okay, I know that we always point to the United States for the highest density per capita for school percussion programs. After all, the US has DCI and WGI type programs from middle school, and there are hundreds of conservatories and universities that support percussion studies all the way from diploma to doctorate level.
The difference with Taiwan is... their programs have a HEAVY marimba emphasis. We met many students who have been playing nothing but marimba for most of the time, and their marimba technique and musicality in high school was better than many overseas university students.
In addition, many of their professors and teachers are current or former competition winners, concerto soloists and recording artists. Some may say this is unhealthy and imbalanced, but it explains why there are such a high number of marimba competition winners and finalists coming from Taiwan, and why there is an overarching feeling of 'success' in Taiwan's marimba programs.
Which brings me to the third point...
3. Everyone is encouraged to participate in competitions, and events happen regularly all year round.
I heard from many students that they are required to play in local, state, national and even international competitions as part of their curriculum. These competitions are organised by both private and government bodies, and are billed as both 'stepping stones' and also international standard competitions.
This definitely incentivises the idea of learning percussion from young, as there are many platforms for students to perform, learn and be inspired by other percussion students. My original plan for Marimbafest was based on this idea of sharing, and it's wonderful to see that the Taiwanese percussion community is fundamentally built on this thought process.
So the next time you see Taiwanese students performing at PAS Italy, PASIC, Great Plains, SCM, TIPC etc, you can guess that it's probably not their first competition experience.
4. There is a good balance between technique and musicality in solo performances.
Many of the students that I saw playing had excellent touch and technique from the beginning. I have witnessed some competition performances that are annoyingly technique-based (e.g. Merlin at 150% speed, or an ear-breaking rendition of Mirage) and lacking musicality, and none of the performances in Taiwan were in that fashion.
Everyone is encouraged to use graduated sets (most popular mallets - Keiko Abe, anything from Resta Jay, Pius Cheung grad set) and instruments for the most part were in really good condition (very few cracked bars).
Whether or not these movements and musicality may seem 'choreographed' to some audiences is up for debate. I think it's good that they have some idea of intrinsic musicality from the beginning.
5. There are so many instruments!
Taiwan is located in the East near Japan, which means it is not only in a prime location for Japanese branded instruments (e.g. Yamaha and Korogi) but also they are in an ideal location for instruments from the US and Europe to be shipped! In addition, there are many Taiwanese manufacturers, both established (e.g. Pearl) and rising (like my friends at Buffalo Percussion - I'll make a post about this later) who have a whole range of diverse instruments, mallets and accessories.
This explains why every school we went to had world-class level 5.5 octave marimbas (e.g. Yamaha YM-6100, Marimba One Izzy, Adams Artist Classic, Korogi SP-5000). Yes, you read that right. 5.5 OCTAVES EVERYWHERE! The schools are definitely well supported!
In addition, all the students had diverse ranges of mallets and accessories, and it seemed normal to acquire more gear when needed.
So yes, you can imagine our 3 days of masterclasses was basically like jumping into a swimming pool full of marimba music. It felt overwhelming, it was new and crazy, but we loved it!