Percussion Possibilities: Marimba centerstage with Fort Smith Symphony

Percussion Possibilities: Marimba centerstage with Fort Smith Symphony

“It’s mind-blowing for me to remember that because of one single request from my band director, my life has had such an incredible journey,” says Tommy Dobbs, assistant professor of percussion at Oklahoma City University and principal percussionist with the Fort Smith Symphony. “If you would have told 14-year-old me that one day I would be a marimba soloist with a professional orchestra, I would have literally said, ‘What’s a marimba and what’s an orchestra?’ I’m actually laughing and tearing up a bit.”

Dobbs was raised in the small town of Williston, Fla., and got his start playing percussion in middle school band. It was a practical choice.

“Percussion instruments are both very young and extremely old within the history of musical instruments,” says marimba master Tommy Dobbs. “Anything and anyone can be a percussion instrument. … I always say that if you can find a composer that is creative and a performer that is adventurous and brave, then the possibilities are endless.” (Courtesy Photos)

“My mom was a clarinetist and really pushed for me to play a musical instrument,” he remembers. “Also, it was either band or PE, and I wasn’t interested in being sweaty all day.”

But Dobbs traces his passion for music to that moment when his band director, John Henry, asked him to play drumset in the church band.

“From there, I started playing around town with my friends, taking drumset lessons, and eventually found out that I could study music in college,” he marvels. “If it wasn’t for Mr. Henry, I would have never known that I could … dedicate my life to teaching and performing music.”

On March 5, Dobbs will be the soloist with the Fort Smith Symphony, performing what he says is known as the “Great American Marimba Concerto” by composer Eric Ewazen.

“Ewazen’s Concerto for Marimba takes the listener into the jazz world with a work of almost pop-music-like rhythmic energy,” says John Jeter, the symphony’s music director. “The marimba is a versatile percussion instrument [with] an incredibly warm sound and can be a very lyrical instrument.”

“The marimba has had an interesting journey to what you will hear on stage with the Fort Smith Symphony,” Dobbs goes on. “Its roots can be traced back to Africa, where it’s still played today but in a completely different form. There, you will find groups of people sitting around a large trench, with giant pieces of wood laid over it, playing on the edges of the wood as a community ensemble. The trench acts like a resonating chamber, amplifying the sound.

“On the Fort Smith Convention Center stage, you will see a condensed version of the above-mentioned instrument, but instead of a community of people playing, I will be playing alone with four sticks in my hands,” he adds. “It would definitely be easier if we had a group of people up there with me for the concerto!”

Dobbs says playing the Ewazen concerto makes him feel like a piano soloist.

“It doesn’t feel like I’m playing the marimba! And by that, I mean, the way he writes, and the musical lines he selects, at times remind me of how Mozart or Beethoven would write for the piano,” he elaborates. “Big and powerful chords, sweeping gestures up and down the instrument, and drastic changes in dynamics and feeling.

“To me, it feels like a roller coaster ride both for the performer and the audience,” Dobbs muses. “Ewazen takes you through moments that are like a brick wall of sound — big, lots of energy and power. Then he immediately drops you into a soft, delicate rocking motion that relaxes you and might even make you smile. Then it’s off again! A big climb up, sudden drop, and then another relaxing ride.

“I think it’s a perfect balance of excitement and nervousness with ease and flow. Just like going down the first climb of a roller coaster and that feeling you get once you know everything is all right.

“Personally, I hope this is the first time most of the audience has ever seen a marimba,” he concludes. “Even better, I hope it’s the first time they have ever heard a symphony orchestra. Because I remember my first time seeing both: I was 19 years old, and it changed my life. And here’s a little secret, I am now 33 years old, and this will be my first time playing a concerto with an orchestra. And looking back to where I’ve come from and my path to this point, I am completely taken aback and excited for this opportunity.”



Fort Smith Symphony:

‘Classical Masters’

WHEN — 7 p.m. March 5

WHERE — Arcbest Performing Arts Center in Fort Smith

COST — $20-$50

INFO — 452-7575 or

FYI — The performance also includes Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 and Symphony No. 1 by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a contemporary of Mozart and the first well-known Black composer.

Categories: Music