The first-, second- and third-grade students at Manitowoc's Monroe Elementary took to the risers in their gym one-by-one, cradling bamboo instruments in their hands. As music teacher David Bourgeois pointed to an octave chart in front of them, groups of students shook the bamboo tubes in their hands to play a simple melody.
The sound — something close to a mix of wind chimes and a wooden xylophone — filled the gymnasium. It was a sound most of the parents in the audience had never heard before. That’s because this instrument was being played in a Wisconsin school for the very first time.
In their spring recital May 26, these students had the chance to perform songs on the angklung, an instrument deeply important to Indonesian culture.
The angklung is a traditional instrument that originated in the provinces of Java and Banten and that is made of two to four bamboo tubes tuned to octaves.
To play the angklung, students held the instrument in one hand and shook it with the other to create a note.
Although each instrument on its own can only produce one note, an ensemble — which typically consists of three or more performers — creates a complete melody.
The instrument was first introduced to Bourgeois by Indah Erdman, a volunteer in one of the first-grade classrooms who is a native of Indonesia. Erdman moved to Manitowoc from Java, Indonesia, last summer, where she used the angklung to help teach her own students. She contacted the Indonesian Embassy, which runs a program dedicated to donating angklungs to schools to promote American education and appreciation of the instrument.
“[The angklung] was always a little treat for my students [in Indonesia], it was something to motivate them with,” Erdman said. “And I thought that these students here could love it and enjoy playing it the same way.”
The embassy donated three octave sets of the angklung to the first-, second- and third-grade music classes at Monroe. This gave Bourgeois the opportunity to become the first elementary school teacher in the state to teach his students how to play the instrument.
To teach his students to play the angklung, Bourgeois first had to learn how to play it himself. After receiving the three instruments, Bourgeois worked with Erdman to familiarize himself with it. He then watched her teach the class of first-graders that she volunteers with how to play the instrument. After that, he felt ready to instruct his own students.
“I think they were really surprised by how [the angklung] sounded, because when they first were holding them, I don’t think they thought that could make any music,” Bourgeois said. “But then when they started shaking them, they were really pleased with the sound that came out.”
The students caught on quickly, “fascinated” with the sound the angklung produced. With a limited number of instruments, classes were divided into groups of eight as they were first learning, which meant each group had to watch carefully to not miss their cue.
By the time Thursday’s recital rolled around, the students were familiar enough to play full melodies together as ensembles. Each class performed a full song on the angklung.
“They thought it was so fun to hold it, to shake it,” Erdman said. “It really requires no musical background, so it was easy for all of the students to enjoy.”
That wasn’t all that was featured at the concert. With a theme of “Connecting to the Community,” the Monroe students also performed pieces such as “Let’s Go Fly A Kite” and “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” to celebrate local staples. Each grade also performed a traditional Japanese song in honor of Manitowoc sister city Kamogawa, Japan.
Looking ahead, Bourgeois hopes to bring the angklung into each of the elementary schools in the Manitowoc school district. If the instrument expands to the whole district, the Indonesian Embassy expressed interest in sending a trained instructor to teach a workshop for students and teachers. Although this project is only in the planning stages, Bourgeois believes it would be highly beneficial for local students to have the chance to try out this unique and culturally significant instrument.
“It’s exciting because it’s new,” Bourgeois said. “Anytime you can bring something new into the classroom, your students are learning. They’re learning a new instrument. They’re learning patience, to listen to one another. It’s really been a great experience for them.”