Corrections or additions?
This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the July 4, 2001
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Nancy Zeltsman’s New Old Marimbas
Marimbist Nancy Zeltsman is a self-proclaimed pioneer.
Pushing into new territory, her resources consist of a couple of wood
and metal contraptions almost three yards long — her marimbas
— and a bag containing 20 or 30 mallets. The frontier that she
seeks to conquer is the concert stage, which has only in the last
50 years yielded ground to her ancient instrument. "My life’s
work," she says in a telephone interview from her Princeton home,
"is to take this primitive instrument that’s just awakening to
the music world, and bring it to people."
For roughly two weeks, beginning this Sunday, July 8, the first
Marimba Festival, Zeltsman’s brainchild, will bring together more
than three dozen men and women who will immerse themselves in marimba
matters with each other, and will present seven public concerts in
Taplin Auditorium on the Princeton campus. The culminating event is
a free, five-hour marathon concert by two dozen marimbists, beginning
at noon on Saturday, July 21. While the bulk of music for the marimba
has been written during the last half century, the festival concerts
encompass music adapted from the baroque and jazz; from samba,
folk music, and rock.
Thirty-one participants from 16 states and five countries will be
coached by the Marimba Festival’s faculty of six. "Most of the
participants have aspirations to be concert performers," says
Zeltsman. "Others just want to soak up this world." The event
is co-sponsored by the Princeton University Music Department and
One, a marimba manufacturer based in Arcata, California.
The instrument that has seduced Zeltsman and the rest of the
produces a multi-instrument effect in which bell-like sounds at
high pitches simultaneously sing out against visceral vibrations in
a low register. This is accomplished by the instrument that consists
of rosewood blocks mounted horizontally above vertical metal
tubes. The blocks are arranged to mimic the black and white keys of
the piano. They are struck with mallets, normally two held in each
hand, that vary in hardness. A concert marimba has a range of five
octaves, a little less than the span of the pianos known to Beethoven;
its lowest note is the same as the lowest pitch on a cello.
"Although the marimba is new to the concert music world,"
says Zeltsman, "it’s actually one of the world’s oldest
Primitive versions of the marimba began all over the world
— in Africa, Central America, and the Far East. They discovered
that a slab of wood has a pitch and if you put the wood over a
chamber, it has more resonance. It’s only been 100 years that
been building instruments like the one I play."
Zeltsman chalks up her impetus for the Princeton Marimba Festival
to her experience as a marimbist. "Being a marimba specialist,
teacher, and performer for over 20 years," she says, "I
it was important to study marimba in a setting where you can exchange
ideas with others who are particularly excited about the marimba."
There are no stringent admissions requirements for marimba festival
participants, Zeltsman explains. Rather, the selection process
of the knowledge that she is in charge. "Participants just pay
to come," Zeltsman says. "It’s a matter of equal opportunity.
Most of the participants are well aware of my esthetic take on things,
and are probably drawn to that. We’re going to do high level studying
here. For someone to be willing to pay $1,000 and transportation to
come here means a high degree of commitment."
The majority of marimbists come to the instrument from training in
percussion, and the resulting esthetic stresses a kind of metric
Zeltsman’s esthetic, in contrast, stresses a singing line.
"I would like to see people play marimba as an entity separate
from percussion," she explains "I would like to see people
play marimba as a lyrical instrument. It’s very challenging to create
a melodic line on the marimba, to be legato. What separates me from
other marimba players in my generation is that I’m into lyricism above
technique. On marimba you can go after more different things than
on a snare drum. I say to students, `Don’t be a percussionist.’ When
I want to criticize them I say, `You sound like a percussionist.’"
In the service of her lyrical outlook, Zeltsman has introduced the
practice of using unmatched mallets in order to achieve uniformity
of sound throughout the range of the marimba.
"For many decades," she says, "if a marimbist used four
mallets, they were four identical mallets. Over the last 10 years
or so, I’ve used graduated mallets. On the five-octave marimba, the
lowest notes sound better played with a soft mallet than with a hard
mallet. At higher pitches harder mallets produce better sound. A hard
mallet on a low note makes the overtones pop out and you don’t hear
the fundamental so much. I choose mallets that flatter the notes best.
It’s always a compromise because a piece is not evenly distributed
over the instrument."
On Monday, July 9, Zeltsman appears as a duo with Jack
Van Geem, who does not share Zeltsman’s mallet philosophy. "He
uses four matched mallets almost all the time," she says. "He
developed his technique so that variations in sound depend more on
touch than on the mallet. I’m concerned with touch also, but I use
mallets to vary the sound. You can tell who’s playing because of the
difference of our sound."
The prerequisite for playing marimba, Zeltsman says, is to be very
well coordinated. "The hardest thing," she says, "is how
difficult it is to traverse this gigantic instrument and play notes
accurately. A lot of people who play piano gravitate to marimba.
read music on two systems. It looks like piano music, but it’s as
if we were playing this other piano with four fingers because we’re
holding two sticks in each hand. It takes fine coordination."
"When you play piano or clarinet or cello your hands are in
contact with the instrument. With the marimba there’s no contact until
the mallet strikes the notes. You have to pick out these notes without
touching them. It requires superb eye-hand coordination, and a strong
kinesthetic sense. Can you extend your left arm and hit the same note
each time? You need a special feel of space. It’s the exact opposite
of playing the violin. I used to work with a violinist. To play in
tune on the violin you have to be exactly on top of the note. On the
marimba you have to be just as precise, even though the movements
are bigger. We would argue about who has it harder. On the marimba
it can even make a difference if you’re wearing higher heels than
the previous day."
Zeltsman was born in 1958 in Morristown and grew up in Parsippany.
She describes herself as an only child with much older half-siblings.
Her parents, retired photographers, live in Lakehurst. "My dad’s
first career was as a musician," she says. "He was a
player in the army, and he played violin as a boy. He was interested
in getting me involved in music. My mother likes the idea of my being
a musician, but she’s not a music lover on her own."
A piano student from age 5 to 14, Zeltsman added percussion at age
13. She took what she calls "intensive mallet training" in
high school with Ian Finkel. At New England Conservatory she studied
general percussion. "I evolved my own style on the marimba,"
she says. She is married to composer, guitarist, and Princeton
faculty member Steve Mackey. The couple met when Mackey accepted a
commission to write for Zeltsman. "As a marimba player, it’s great
to be married to a composer because we’re so reliant on new
she says. Their black Labrador, Mochi, is so much a part of Zeltsman’s
life that her CD, "See Ya Thursday," shows a photo of her
and the dog eying each other affectionately.
"Percussionists are drawn to contemporary music in general,"
Zeltsman observes. "I’ve premiered 100 to 125 pieces in my
and I am very comfortable with composers." At the Mackey-Zeltsman
wedding almost six years ago Princeton composer Paul Lansky was best
Zeltsman is conscious of the athletic aspects of performing on
"The instrument is 8-1/2 feet long. It’s physically demanding
and it’s fun to watch," she says. "It affects your concert
dress. Women have to wear dresses with wide skirts, or pants. If you
wore a narrow dress with little slit, you wouldn’t make it. You would
be spread eagled. The height of your heels is very important. I like
to practice in 1-1/2 inch heels and perform in 2-inch in heels. I
like the subtle height edge. Maybe it’s just a funny ritual."
"My other funny ritual," she says, "is the superstition
that I concentrate best if I’ve eaten a lot of fish and no dairy
I start fish-loading two or three nights before a performance. The
day of the performance I have eggs also, and no dairy. I snarf down
a can of tuna at intermission."
Out there on the concert stage, Zeltsman is conscious of being a
but she insists she’s one of many. "The marimba world is
It’s generally supportive and there has to be camaraderie. But there’s
always competitiveness," she says.
Pioneer Zeltsman is ready to extend her range of camaraderie beyond
the marimba world. Her intent shows up on her website. Listing future
projects involving considerable travel abroad, she includes some for
which the details have not yet been worked out and invites web
to offer their own suggestions.
— Elaine Strauss
Auditorium, 609-258-5000. Tickets $10. Nancy Zeltsman and Bogdan
perform works of J.S. Bach and Weiss.
Geem perform works by James Rolfe, Alejandro Vinao, Steve Mackey,
and other instruments.
pop to Bulgarian folk.
vibes, and percussion.
two dozen marimbists performing a wide range of works. Free.
July 21, noon to 5 p.m.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.