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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the July 4, 2001

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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

Baroque Marimba , Princeton Marimba Festival, Taplin

Auditorium, 609-258-5000. Tickets $10. Nancy Zeltsman and Bogdan


perform works of J.S. Bach and Weiss. Sunday, July 8, 8 p.m.

Marimbas, Coast to Coast , Nancy Zeltsman and Jack Van

Geem perform works by James Rolfe, Alejandro Vinao, Steve Mackey,

and Stravinsky. Monday, July 9, 8 p.m.

Life Partners , soulful blends of styles for marimba,


and other instruments. Friday, July 13, 8 p.m.

Invitational Showcase , a program ranging from American

pop to Bulgarian folk. Monday, July 16, 8 p.m.

Rhythm on Rosewood , works by Lansky, Levitan, and others.

Tuesday, July 17, 8 p.m.

Alone Together , a program of improvised jazz for marimba,

vibes, and percussion. Thursday, July 19, 8 p.m.

Marimba Marathon , an afternoon-long marathon concert with

two dozen marimbists performing a wide range of works. Free.


July 21, noon to 5 p.m.

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