Friday, October 19, 2012

Sitting in the Back Row

This semester I joined the gamelan ensemble here at BYU, the Gamelan Bintang Wahyu. The instruments are mainly percussion--bronze-keyed instruments that look something like glockenspiels or xylophones, cradled in ornately carved, gilt wooden frames. There are also gongs, drums, flutes and stringed instruments. Gamelans are very popular in Indonesia (especially on the islands of Bali and Java), and versions of them are found throughout Southeast Asia.

A typical piece of music for Balinese gamelan has a single melodic line at its core. The smaller, higher-pitched instruments cooperatively play a highly elabororated version of the melody, while the larger, lower-pitched instruments play a simplified version and act somewhat like timekeepers for the ensemble. Gongs punctuate the ends of cycles, and the flutes and stringed instruments add color to the melody, which they play along with the central percussion instruments. The performers playing the drums set the tempo and signal tempo changes.

I sit on the back row and play one of the larger instruments. Being on the back row is a pretty easy gig, just right for someone like me who is new to the whole thing. You play a note every other beat or every four beats or so and just coast along. You don’t have to think hard or even pay much attention to what’s going on. At least, that’s what I thought until a couple of weeks ago. One day in rehearsal I realized that I had a pretty good vantage point from which to hear the whole ensemble; I could hear how all of the parts fit together, and I could let the sound just wash over me. It was kind of exhilarating.[1]

I’ve been thinking ever since about what it means to sit on the back row. Typically the kids on the back row are the ones who are disengaged. They’re the trouble makers, flipping paper footballs into the front of the room and generally goofing around. They don’t pay attention, and their grades show it. But in every class there’s at least one student who really is paying attention, who is completely there. She isn’t just coasting; she’s totally involved, letting the material wash over her, trying to figure out how it all fits together.

That wasn’t me when I was in school. I was (and am) a front row kind of guy. I wanted to suck everything out of the lecture (and lecturer) that I could and not be distracted by the clowns in the back. I was aggressively active in class and raised my hand frequently. I suppose that in my mind, class wasn’t successful if I hadn’t asked a question or answered one posed by the instructor. It seemed to work for me; I got good grades, I got to know a lot of teachers fairly well, and I enjoyed my educational experience, for the most part. But on that day in rehearsal a few weeks ago, I realized that I rarely (if ever) take the opportunity to sit in the back to see what’s going on.

Now before this turns into an essay extolling the virtues of a life of contemplation, let me reassure you: I have no intention of sitting quietly on the back row for the rest of my life, either in gamelan or anywhere else. But for those of us who, like me, are used to being heard and expect to be paid attention to, it can be refreshing to just shut up for a while, sit in the back and try to figure out what’s going on.

I’m sure I’ll be surprised at what I’ll learn.

[1] To be fair, it was a realization that was pointed out to me by our director, Jeremy Grimshaw, who also enjoys sitting on the back row for these very reasons.