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Tools of the Trade: Mini-Marimba

This week in music therapy has brought some amazing musical moments with my older adult clients in long-term care thanks to a special instrument: the mini-marimba. I began using this instrument in clinical work during my internship at MusicWorx of California, and I had to have one for my own practice by the time I left.

There are several features to this instrument that I love. First, it is visually appealing – its beautiful rosewood is smooth to the touch, and the instrument can be appreciated for its craftsmanship alone. The instrument is light and portable, so I can carry it back and forth to sessions easily and hold it in easy reach for a resident without tiring myself out. The marimba also has a gorgeous tone, and its pentatonic (5-note) scale means any combination of notes will sound pleasing to the ear. (The musical term for this is consonance.) This might be the best feature – I can tell clients that no matter what they do, they can’t play any “wrong notes.”

Here’s a short video in which I improvise a short melody on the marimba. Note that I did not prepare this music in advance – it’s that easy to play something beautiful on this instrument.

Of course, I think this instrument sounds beautiful on its own. It can also sound great with other instruments. In group settings, I will ask each group member to take a turn playing a solo while the other groups members support the soloist with other percussion instruments (e.g. egg shakers, drums). It is amazing to see people improvise great melodies on this instrument who might not be expected to be able to do so otherwise. I’ve seen folks who are generally confused and withdrawn come out with jazzy, syncopated melodies on this instrument, with a bit of musical support from me and their peers. It is an incredible thing to witness.

Now that you’re excited about buying a marimba of your very own, here’s the bad news. I put this whole post together, then discovered that I can’t find this particular instrument for sale! If anyone out there knows how to get one of these marimbas, manufactured under the brand name Tapo, please let me know. Otherwise, here are two other instruments that would work similarly:

The Sonor “Walking” Xylophone is also built on a pentatonic scale, with six fixed bars. You could position this instrument between you and another person, with three bars each. I haven’t tried this particular instrument, but it should have the same kind of tone quality as the marimba I featured here.

For a different tone quality, you could also try the Freenotes Wings. These have a longer-lasting bell-like tone. Again, they are built on a pentatonic scale, for that special “no wrong note” feature. I have played these before, and I think their tone is gorgeous – one of them is on my to-be-purchased list.

Addendum: I got an email from music therapy student Brianna McCulloch, who found the 6-note G pentatonic Kallisti marimba available in an online store. It looks pretty darn close to the marimba I featured here. Thanks, Brianna!

16 comments… add one
  • LOVE THIS! I have the Sonor “Walking” Xylophone (bought at conference in San Diego, I think) and may have to invest in the 6-note marimba Brianna found. I currently have a pentatonic metalophone by “easycussion,” made by Studio49, and I use it a lot with clients because of the fact that they can’t play a wrong note.

    • soundscapemusictherapy

      Great! Do you use the Sonor instrument in sessions much? I’d love to hear what you think!

      • I actually hate to admit that I forget it’s there half the time. I have used it before and it’s a big hit, especially with the kiddos. And, of course, it’s pentatonic so that’s great for improvisation. It has a good quality sound to it, too.

  • This is GREAT! I’m posting a video this week using this SAME marimba!!! =)

    • soundscapemusictherapy

      Awesome! I love this instrument. I can’t wait to see your video!

  • Stephanie

    Rachelle, I searched up and down for one of these when I left MusicWorx and was not able to find one. I LOVE THEM! May have to check into this Sonor version…

    • soundscapemusictherapy

      Oh, I’m sorry you couldn’t find it! It’s such an excellent instrument, I wonder what happened to the company that made them. I hope you can find a good substitute.

  • Oh, I adore this instrument .. I have one a little like it, though mine is very hand-made, if you know what I mean. It was made in South Africa from an old orange crate, some strips of hardwood, some nylon string and an old bicycle tyre. It has been consistently the FAVOURITE instrument for my clients to use, because of its beautiful melodic tone. You have inspired me to make my own YouTube video!

    • soundscapemusictherapy

      Very cool! Thanks for sharing the pic of the instrument you just bought, too.

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