A Lawrence musician is a world-renowned performer on the marimba, a popular folk instrument.
What's a marimba?
It's all right -- you don't have to be embarrassed if you don't know.
Most people don't.
They think it's either a new ingredient used in fusion cooking, or the latest Latin dance craze.
"Even music professors around the country have come up to me and asked what the difference is between a marimba and a xylophone," said Linda Maxey.
At least they were asking the right person.
Because if anyone would know what a marimba is, it's her.
Maxey -- a longtime Lawrence resident -- is a world-renowned marimbist, having performed in hundreds of concerts in almost every state of the union.
For the last 15 years, she's also taught master classes in marimba to top students in universities across the United States.
Maxey was the first marimbist to be added to the prestigious roster of Columbia Artists Management in New York, the largest such agency for musicians in the country.
She has been a featured soloist at the Percussive Arts Society International Conventions in Philadelphia and San Antonio.
And in the first week of November, Maxey will perform and teach master classes at the Journees de la Percussion Festival in Paris at the Conservatoire.
Her latest adventure was a five-month stint in the Baltic region, where, as a senior scholar in the esteemed Fulbright Program, she taught a master class in marimba at the Lithuanian Academy of Music.
So thrilled was she with her experience there that Maxey applied for -- and received -- a two-month extension to her scholarship grant.
She leaves Lawrence on Saturday to return to the academy in Vilnius, where she'll teach another master class until December.
Her husband is Larry Maxey, a professor of music history and clarinet at Kansas University since 1970.
The couple are well-known to music lovers in Lawrence. They've performed joint recitals here every year for the last 36 years.
They'll perform again, accompanied by pianists, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at KU's Swarthout Recital Hall.
Roots in Africa
So, what's a marimba?
It's a percussion instrument that, yes, looks like a xylophone -- except it has resonant, metal tubes hanging under the wooden keyboard.
You play it with different sets of mallets, which have walnut-sized knobs with varying degrees of hardness.
You use the harder mallets to play the keys in the upper, xylophone range, and mallets with softer, yarn-wrapped knobs for keys in the lower, bass marimba range.
The marimba has its roots in Africa and China. It is the national instrument of Guatemala, Maxey said, and a popular folk instrument in Mexico.
Maxey's old marimba was 8 feet long and weighed 350 pounds. It broke down into 14 parts, which went inside six cases Maxey used to schlep through airports to concerts around the nation.
She just took delivery of a new, custom-made marimba that features tubes made of aluminum, rather than brass, to cut down on the instrument's weight.
The keyboard is made of Honduran rosewood, prized by marimbists for its vibrant tonal qualities.
Douglas DeMorrow of Arkadelphia, Ark., who plays with the Little Rock Symphony Orchestra, hand crafted the marimba to Maxey's specifications. Maxey had placed the order for the instrument back in January.
A new marimba, by the way, goes for $10,000 to $20,000.
Maxey started studying piano at the age of 4 and the marimba two years later. Her mother, a piano teacher, kept a small marimba in their home.
"I just started playing it -- the keyboard's just like a piano," Maxey said.
"I fell in love with it when I was a little girl. I remember thinking, 'I wish everyone could hear how beautiful this instrument is.'"
By the time she was 11, Maxey played a solo on the marimba -- accompanied by her mother on piano -- for the Kiwanis International Convention at Madison Square Garden.
She went on to earn a bachelor's degree from the University of North Texas, followed by a master's degree from the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester in New York.
Maxey also studied privately with Gordon Peters, the principal percussionist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
For 14 years, Columbia Artists Management booked her for solo concerts across the country and in Canada.
She has taught master classes in marimba in the United States and Europe for the last 15 years.
Maxey, who arranges for the marimba and piano, has published about a dozen pieces of music. And in 1994, she released a compact disc, "The Artistry of the Marimba."
The CD includes her performances of "Flight of the Bumble Bee," "Amazing Grace," "Greensleeves" and Bizet's "Carmen Suite."
Played with passion
Maxey savored her time as a Fulbright Senior Scholar in Lithuania.
From the end of January to June 21, she taught a master class to eight accomplished musicians.
Her face lit up when she spoke about her time there.
"It was a musical high that lasted for five months. I expected there to be a dip, or some downtime, or to get homesick. But I never did. There was too much to do, to be a part of," she said.
Music has a special place in the life of people in that country.
Vilnius alone boasts one opera ballet company, two large orchestras sponsored by the state and many smaller, chamber orchestras.
"You go to concerts, and they're filled. Audiences love and support music, so it was inspiring to be there," she said.
Maxey found her young students receptive and talented, hungry to learn.
"Their work ethic is good. They are excellent sight readers -- they can take a new piece of music and play it just by looking at it."
The students proved to be not only technically proficient, but intuitively talented, as well, interpreting the work with emotion.
"They get down inside the music and play it from the inside out. They're mature musicians for their age," Maxey said.
She was saddened to learn that the academy, lacking funds, was missing many of the requisite instruments found in a well-equipped, classical percussion studio in the United States.
Her Fulbright grant provided her $1,500 to buy necessary teaching supplies, which were to be left behind for the students in Vilnius. So she went out and bought them new pieces of sheet music, mallets for the marimba and CDs.
Then she went one better.
Maxey gave her old marimba -- the one she'd carried around the United States for 11 years and had had shipped to Lithuania -- to one of her students.
The man, Saulius Auglys, is the principal percussionist with an opera orchestra in Vilnius.
"I knew it would have a good home, where it would be played and loved," Maxey said.
She reflected for a moment.
"It's been a wonderful career. I've traveled places I never would have been able to go. I love sharing this instrument.
"I would not have wanted to be in any other field."
-- Jim Baker's phone message number is 832-7173; his e-mail address is email@example.com.