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Artisans of Michigan: Making marimbas

Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
Matt Kazmierski of Planet Marimba plays an instrument in his workshop. (see video below)

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Some of the wood blocks waiting to be tuned.

Earlier this year, Stateside traveled to Plymouth to visit Planet Marimba. That’s the workshop of Matt Kazmierski. It’s actually the garage at his home. When we arrived, he was working on a practice marimba which basically is a scaled back marimba with no resonator which makes it quieter.

If you’re a college music student, getting into a studio to practice can be a challenge. But, if you’ve got a practice marimba, you can practice at home and not disturb the neighbors.

The real trick to making a marimba is making wood bars that are in tune when you strike them. It’s not easy.

“Every bar you make you kind of know what you’re getting into and sometimes they agree with you and sometimes you just have to keep on remaking bars and remaking bars,” he said.

Kazmierski is working with organic material. It’s going to be a little imprecise because each piece of wood has its own character.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Matt Kazmierski uses his ear and a scope to determine whether a wood bar is tuned correctly.

As he gets closer to the size and shape he needs he strikes the wood and uses his ear and a scope to test what he needs to do to get the right tone. This is as much art as it is mechanics. To get to the right tone, you have to remove material. He uses a sander. Go too far and it’s scrap.

The wood he’s using is not cheap. A great deal of the price of a marimba is the materials, maybe $3,000 of a $7,000 marimba.

“And we don’t know how much rosewood is left. It’s a market that’s going to kick us in the butt pretty soon,” Kazmierski said.

He says it bothers him to have to use wood from a rainforest and he’s been making marimbas out of alternative materials such as a wood from Africa.

“Padauk. And I’ve also experimented with native woods like, uh, sassafras works pretty good. Osage orange works alright. But, if you want a high quality marimba, you have to use Honduran rosewood. There is no alternative,” he said.

This year he made one rosewood marimba. The other ones are padauk. He added that the rosewood he used mostly came from another instrument.

This summer Kazmierski made his 63rd marimba. They’re not all the same. Marimba players sometimes ask for extraordinary changes such as a marimba which goes two octaves lower than is typical.

Kazmierski is a band director at a middle school, so he builds the instruments on weekends and summers. He does all the labor himself. He says you can imagine big marimba manufacturers don’t have a lot of money after materials and paying skilled workers.

“There’s probably a very narrow margin of profit when you’re making lots of marimbas,” he said.

There are not a lot of people making marimbas in the U.S. Kazmierski has trained a few people and one of them is now making marimbas in another state.

Matt Kazmierski of Planet Marimba is another Artisan of Michigan making magic in his garage. 

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We found today’s artisan through the Michigan Traditional Arts Program of the Michigan State University Museum.

Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

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Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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