GOOD VIBES

Crane School has been making some sweet music lately. And they’re not afraid to share it.

Vibes, a 14-piece xylophone group at Crane, recently returned from its first “tour” to Los Angeles last month with a 17-foot U-haul jammed with instruments.

The group played five performances at three schools and were met with “rave reviews and standing ovations,” says Debbie Williams, director of admission at Crane, whose son Christopher is a Vibes member.

Toni Mackie, Crane’s music teacher, started the group three years ago.

The group is part of an extracurricular activity offered only to seventh- and eighth-graders. All students are eligible to learn how to play traditional smaller xylophones called Orffxylophones.

At Crane, the music is based on Orff-Schulwerk, says Mackie, a term named after German composer Carl Orff, who composed Carmina Burana. Schulwerk means “schoolwork” in German.

“This developmental approach to music education is…a way of looking at music that deeply involves them in its creation with speech, movement, singing, playing xylophones and percussion instruments,” says Mackie.

Every December, Mackie assembles a volunteer “Orffestra” to play during Crane’s annual holiday show. Three years ago, 11 fifth grade boys asked to put together a xylophone-playing group that would continue through their upper school years. Soon after, the first group, The Mallet Masters, was formed.

The Mallet Masters played what Mackie calls a mix of “surf tunes, classic rock ‘n’ roll, and even some classical pieces with a new sound and strong beat.”

The group was such a hit with other students that it has continued to this day.

“It’s a different kind of music; you don’t usually hear a xylophone group,” says Williams.

Eight out of the 14 kids in Vibes have been with the group since its beginning. This is the first year that students have had the opportunity to tour and perform. The idea to go on tour came after the group played on live television for the local Unity Shoppe telethon last Christmas.

“The reaction we got from people was so overwhelmingly positive, it seemed that we should be taking them out and showing them off a little bit,” says Williams.

The music that Vibes plays today has fast-paced African marimba beats and is multi-layered, starting out with one set of xylophones with the whole group joining in and eventually dropping out and ending with the one xylophone player that they started out with. The kids wear colorful African-inspired dress during performances.

Their next performance is a free concert on May 25 at Crane’s Cate Hall Theatre. The performance begins at 6:30 pm and is open to the public.

Even though it is initially nerve-wracking to get up onstage in front of a few hundred people, “the nervousness kind of fades away with the music,” says 12-year old Vibes member Jack Stegall about performing.

The group’s fast pace with the mallets and catchy beats seem to resonate with audiences.

“The students love to play this vibrant marimba music and add their own touches and improvisations,” says Mackie.

Joan Martin, director of Crossroads School in Santa Monica, where Vibes performed in April, said her students couldn’t stop “toe-tapping and finger-snapping for the rest of the day.”

There are 14 instruments in Vibes and every child has learned to play every one of them. They are much larger than Orffxylophones and are “quite dramatic-looking, with white resonator pipes that extend below the keys,” says Mackie.

Instead of concentrating on just one instrument, the kids have learned to play all of them, often switching with each other in between songs.

For Williams, it is almost surprising that the group is so talented, considering that they only get two half-hour mornings a week to practice their instruments, and none of them have xylophones at home.

“My son will come home and try to play the xylophone parts on the piano and gets frustrated because he can’t play as fast,” says Williams.

Despite the time limits, the devoted kids have discovered ways to become successful.

“The [kids] have been willing to get up forty-five minutes earlier than usual” to go to practice, says Daryl Stegall, Jack’s mother. “It’s fun to watch them get excited over something a little bit different.”

Instead of using their recess to relax and play, many Vibes kids will devote that time to work together and take advantage of the power of teamwork to better learn their parts.

“Vibes is such an incredible experience watching how the kids pull together and create this incredible music,” says Daryl Stegall. “The kids appreciate the success of each other, not just their own successes…they have a lot of respect for each other.”

Jack agrees: “[My favorite part of] Vibes is the teamwork and relying on one another,” he says.

For the graduating eighth-graders, leaving Vibes doesn’t necessarily have to mean the end of the group.

“The eighth-graders are so into this right now that there is definitely talk of creating an alumni group to meet once a month,” says Williams. “It is one of the things at graduation that they’ll be the saddest to see go.”