Helen – Playing Gamelan

I’m a self-employed musician and jewellery maker, and I moved to the Durham area a few years ago from York.

How long have you been playing gamelan?
I joined the Durham group just over a year ago. I had played gamelan before this for about six years during and after my music degree in York, but I’d had a long period of not playing any gamelan in between (and had forgotten most of it!).

How did you first encounter gamelan music?
I was dimly aware of gamelan from it being mentioned in my A-level music lessons, but it wasn’t until I started university that I really knew what it was. I played in two very different groups while in York – the main university ensemble which was quite large and mostly focused on performing, and later on in a smaller group that was composition-based. The Durham group is different again from both of these groups – there’s a relaxed atmosphere, a focus on enjoyment, and everyone is encouraged to learn to play all the different instruments which makes for an excellent learning environment.

What do you like about playing gamelan?
I like very much that gamelan can be enjoyed and played at so many different levels, and that a group playing together can contain people with diverse amounts of experience. I think it’s really important that beginners can have the opportunity to be usefully included in the same group as very experienced musicians, and feel that they’re part of a continuum and learning curve – unlike in a lot of Western music, in which ensembles are normally segregated by skill level. The easier parts can be played without much experience, so players get the satisfaction of being able to play a real piece of music quite early on, and as you progress there’s always more to learn in finer detail – but it doesn’t feel like the same kind of pressure as, for example, working through the grade system on a Western classical instrument. For me it makes the learning process more enjoyable – feeling inspired to learn rather than pressured to improve.

In Durham we’re very lucky to have a teacher who’s particularly skilled at working with a group of people with different levels of experience – I’ve seen Paul incorporate a complete newcomer into the group, right in the middle of teaching the rest of us a new piece, and have them playing almost immediately, without any of the rest of us having to stop what we’re doing. I get to learn at just the right pace – I’m never bored, there’s always a new challenge, but I never feel put on the spot or completely out of my depth. And I often feel I learn new aspects of things I thought I already knew about when they’re explained to someone else, so hearing Paul explain even the absolute basics to someone new is always still interesting.

What have been your personal highlights during your time playing with the group?
When I first came to the Durham gamelan group I was in a state of burnout after a long period in which a series of musical projects failed to get off the ground. Playing in the group has definitely been instrumental (pun entirely intended!) in recovering my mental health and becoming musically recalibrated. I’ve learnt a huge amount in the past year – it’s always satisfying when something new that I’ve been trying to learn to do or understand just clicks a little bit more, week on week. And – just as importantly as the musical elements – I get to hang out with a really nice bunch of people every week!

Do you have a favourite instrument to play?
Bonang panerus. It has a very high fun-to-responsibility ratio!