Brisas school’s marimba band grows from teacher’s passion


by Chelsea Martin

mallets002Research has found that studying
music facilitates learning other
subjects and enhances skills that
children inevitably exercise in different
Kyrene de las Brisas music
teacher Karen Monks is one who boldly
preaches by those dictums.
Monks, who has been with the
Kyrene district since 1981, has been a
fervent believer in allowing children
the opportunity to engage freely with
music. After becoming the first music
teacher at Niños Elementary in 2002,
Monks transferred a year later to
Brisas, where she expanded her music
program beyond the strict 45-minute
limitations of a routine school day.
The result: Mallet Masters, a
marimba group consisting of 12 fourth
graders and 12 fifth graders.
“The start of this group was really
a spontaneous combustion,” Monks
“I bought this Zimbabwean-style
music book called “Hot Marimba” that
Mike Crill, a fellow music teacher,
mentioned he was using in his
classrooms. I introduced those books
in class, and one day I was eating lunch
at my desk and heard a small knock on
the window, ‘Mrs. Monks are you in
there? Can we come in and play those
songs you taught us?’ Once the kids
started to play and tell others, the rest
was history.”
The excitement for the new
program spread like wildfire.
“I had to start doing auditions
because there are only 12 instruments,
and close to 70 kids would show up
wanting to play,” Monks said. “It’s all
quite exciting for the kids.”
The students rotate on the
instruments, gaining time to improve
the ability to understand and
coordinate as an ensemble. Monks
focuses on teaching group-layered
ostinatos, which are short, repeated
patterns. The more experienced the
members, the more intricate and
diverse the layers become.
To keep the ensemble running
smoothly, the kids must be able to
make a two-year commitment. There
is also an initial $230 program fee,
eligible for tax credit, that covers the
“It’s supposed to come before any
other obligation, and this is going to be
the number-one thing they do,” Monks
said. “I tell them, ‘You have to want
to play these instruments more than
wanting to play outside at recess.’”
Mallet masters goes beyond who
is the best musician, but rather looks at
the whole child, Monks says.
“When the kids ask me what day
are tryouts? I say to them, ‘You’ve been
trying out since second grade,” Monks
said. “I watch the kids during class
and evaluate their can-do attitudes,
their respect for others and their
enthusiasm. Yes, they have to have the
ability to capture some musical talent,
but I’m really looking for the whole ball
of wax.”
“It’s so much more than just
the music—it’s the camaraderie, the
ensemble. It’s like a little family.”
Once tryouts are complete, the
kids attend a week-long marimba class
taught by Monks two weeks before
school starts in August. During the
school year, both grades practice one
morning a week before school and at
two 15-minute lunch recesses.
“They are very enthusiastic and we
have a lot of fun,” Monks said. “When
they come in to rehearse, some will just
start playing right away and the rest
will join in. It’s incredible.”
The group has a history of exciting
performances at a number of venues
in the Valley. The Herberger theater,
farmers markets, art walk, the state
capitol, the Kyrene district offices,
Barnes & Noble and the Chandler mall
are just a few of the places the Mallet
Masters have performed.
Quickly approaching is Kyrene’s
new event, “A Fine Art Showcase” April
4 at Desert Vista High School, where
the Mallet Masters will perform a Walt
Hampton piece.
“You will be amazed. Your jaw will
drop,” Monks said. “You should come
out if you enjoy music at all, because
it’s truly uplifting music and you will
just be amazed by these kids.”
The Mallet Masters must be
able to demonstrate a certain level of
maturity and enthusiasm, but the kids
don’t seem to mind.
“Their favorite part is getting the
opportunity to play the instruments as
often as they do, and they absolutely
love performing,”
Monks said. “Oh, and
learning new songs—
when I tell them
we’re going to learn a
new song they totally
freak out (because)
they are so excited.”
Both the kids
and Monks would
agree: the program
is beneficial and
riveting for all.
“I love my job
teaching music to
kids so much,”
Monks said. “But
having the Mallet
Masters group I can
push them; I get to
rehearse with them
more frequently and
we get to perform. I
absolutely love doing
that. Being able to do
Mallet Masters is the
frosting on the cake.”
For a complete
listing of upcoming
shows or for more
information call the
school at 480-541-

Photo by Billy Hardiman



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