Homer Alaska - Opinion

Story last updated at 4:47 PM on Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Keep learning, keep living

Activities that stretch our brains, connect us with each other is what keeps us going

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer

Friday night the Friends of the Homer Public Library holds its annual Celebration of Lifelong Learning. There will be some speechifying by artist and musician Ray Troll, the Lifelong Learning Award given to naturalist and author Carmen Field, and the Youth! Learning Award given to Homer High School Senior Mallory Drover.


Michael Armstrong

I'm all for anything that encourages learners of all ages to keep on keeping on. One of my favorite science fiction writers, Frederik Pohl, once wrote, "Life is one learning experience after another, and when you've stopped learning, what you get for a diploma is, you die." I call this the shark system of life. Like a shark, as long as you keep swimming — keep that brain engaged — you keep living.

So when I hear the words "lifelong learning," I say to myself, "That is so Monday."

For the past 10 years, my wife Jenny and I have played in Shamwari, one of four Zimbabwean marimba bands in town. Shamwari means "friends," and that's what we are: seven best buds who get together every Monday night to learn and play marimba. We started out as a group of musicians of varied skills and have grown into a band brave enough to get up and play music at the Homer Farmers' Market.

I gave up formal music instruction in seventh grade at Adams Junior High School in Tampa, Fla. I can sort of read music, but that's the thing I love about African marimba. We learn village style from our instructors: I play, you play. We memorize every song, every part and how the parts fit together.

Zimbabwean music has become big in the Pacific Northwest and other parts of the United States, Canada and the world, as my friends Doug and Laurel Epps have documented in their film, "Soul Resonance." Doug is a former Shamwarian who took to the music like a water-starved desert rat finding an oasis. He and Laurel made their film after wondering how the music came to North America and why it spread.

In big cities in the Lower 48, marimba thrives, with many groups and even marimba music schools. It's not hard to hire a teacher for a weekend workshop and learn a new song every month.

Not so in the far north. The local marimba groups join together, split the air fare, and bring up teachers like Michael and Osha Breez, who first taught us in 2002. Last week we brought up Amy Stewart McIntosh and Randy McIntosh, who taught Shamwari for 20 hours of workshops spread over four days. Whew.

Instructors and founders of the Kutandara Center in Boulder, Colo., Amy and Randy have built an amazing marimba educational community there. They have youth and adult performing bands, classes for students from age 6 on up — even CDs, T-shirts, bumper stickers and work books. Plus, they are just really cool and great teachers.

With her rock-star hair and cheerful personality, Amy is like the elementary school teacher every girl wanted to be and every boy wanted to marry. She's smart, funny and vibrant. Whether for a kid just getting the hang of fine motor skills or an adult trying to recarve grooves in a crispy old brain, Amy knows how to make a running inside-out cascade part look easy. OK, that one stumped me when I actually tried it.

Randy, Amy's husband, is like the cool uncle you always wanted to hang with at family reunions. He wears a snappy little hat and, of course, has a soul patch. Randy not only plays and teaches marimba music, he composes it. He and Amy taught us one of his songs, "Shamwari," at a Zimbabwean music festival in Bellingham, Wash., in 2007. Last year we learned another of Randy's compositions, "Moon and Stars," and learned more of it this year. He also taught us a third song, "Shumba dze Makomo," which means "lion of the mountains," this year. Together Amy and Randy make a good team. While one teacher takes the lead on instruction, the other will circulate among the group, helping us learn.

And oh boy, do I need a lot of help sometimes. On some songs, like the bass part on "Moon and Stars," the notes bounce right off the marimba into my brain. Randy can explain a pattern and it clicks. On other songs, I look at my paws as if they belong to an alien creature. Huh? How do I do that? My brain hurts like I just ate a quart of really cold ice cream. Nothing makes sense. I feel like an idiot, and if there's one thing I hate about learning, it's feeling like an idiot.

Marimba humbles me. I like that, actually. I thought I was alone in this, but then I got talking to players in other bands who had classes with Amy and Randy. They all said the same thing: "Boy, did that song whip my brain."

The Danish poet Piet Hein once wrote, "Problems worthy of attack / prove their worth by hitting back." The cerebral tension that comes from learning something really, really hard only means it's going to be that much cooler when you learn it.

Like any good instruction, in marimba, most of the learning happens after our teachers leave town. My best teachers are my band mates. After our workshops, we teach each other the things we missed or didn't quite get. There's a lot more than hitting the right notes, like hitting the right notes in the right rhythm in the right order against all the other parts.

Practice by practice, week by week, our band learns. It's cool that the Friends of the Homer Public Library has a Lifelong Learner Award, but as far as I'm concerned, my band mates in Shamwari get that honor. They've been my companions in lifelong learning every Monday, and I love them for that.

That's the point, I think. In no matter what you do, whether it's music, art, writing, poetry, knitting or the hundreds of things that stretch our brains, we should all keep learning.

Every Monday night and then some, that's what I do. Excuse me — it's getting late. I need to go play with my band.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.