The language of music

College View School Principal Jay Schwartz was having trouble containing her excitement for a visiting marimba troupe, so it was no surprise that smiles were ubiquitous among her students, some of whom shook rattles and tambourines from wheelchairs.

The ensemble, Masanga Marimba, brought the lively sounds of West Africa and Latin America to the school, which serves students with severe mental and developmental disabilities.

With the music echoing throughout the school compound, students pounded drums and mimicked the rhythm of the troupe with precision, Schwartz said.

“They all seem to be really, really accurate today because they can feel it,” she said, explaining that the vibrating harmony of the West African instruments had brought a unique energy to the school.

Ensemble director Ric Alviso, a music professor at Cal State Northridge, led the students through musical sets, prompting the group to change tempo and volume.

Alviso and his group wore colorful West African shirts, called dashikis, as they played for students under a pair of trees outside the school.

Some students popped out of their seats to dance with teachers and assistants, while others sat calmly between drumming peers.

The energy created by the collaborative performance was likely a joy for everyone who participated, even if some students did not physically express themselves as much as others, Alviso said.

“It doesn’t matter what your musicianship level is,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether you know a discipline or not, music is a language that everybody has the capability of feeling.”

Students had an opportunity to play the marimbas at the end of the performance, and took a variety of approaches with the unfamiliar instruments.

Some used one drum stick and others used two, rolling them along xylophone-like panels, or tapping them lightly. A few were able to imitate the professionals, pounding the marimbas with vigor.

Anoush Haghverdian, 18, took a curious look at the instruments, tapping the panels in different locations to find the most musical points.

When Alviso pointed out the best spot to strike the panels, Haghverdian wasted no time.

She immediately began playing musical scales and forming her own tunes.

Although College View students frequently participate in music activities and field trips, the interactive visit from a professional marimba ensemble was special for the school, said teacher Ken Yee, who coordinates a drum circle at the school.

“This population is the population that’s always swept under the rug, so it makes them feel involved,” Yee said. “It makes them feel wanted and it makes them feel joy.”

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