When Bruce Landmark plays the marimba, the audience can hear anything from Bach to the blues.
Landmark is a master of coaxing complex and unlikely music out of what he describes as “an eight-foot xylophone.”
The 59-year-old Ponoka-area resident can also play a mean glockenspiel and drums, and is eagerly passing along his considerable percussive skills to a younger generation of musicians.
Youths from Red Deer to Lloydminster are learning to drum according to a fast-track method that Landmark borrowed from the military.
Progress among the students has been remarkable, said the instructor, who noted two brothers from Alix only started reading music last summer but are already drumming at a Grade 8 or 9 level.
While he’s clearly satisfied with teaching music and performing the occasional solo concert, Landmark once had a rather extraordinary international career.
He graduated from the University of Indiana in the early 1970s, and toured Europe with a Swiss musical theatre company that once pulled off 176 operetta performances in 180 days — playing in different cities every night.
Then, Landmark was hired by one of the world’s largest and most exotic ensembles — the 118-member Orquesta Sinfónica de Maracaibo of Venezuela.
It was billed as “The Top Orchestra South of the Tropic of Cancer” because of the calibre of musicians hired.
“They used oil money and bought a world-class orchestra,” recalled Landmark, who shared the stage with brilliant, hard-driven violinists from Poland and Czechoslovakia, as well as the world’s best wind, brass and percussion players from the U.S.
Landmark remembers the orchestra entertaining on both sides the economic divide — for millionaires and maids. But then, Venezuela was a country of many contrasts.
The percussionist fondly recalled purchasing exotic fruit for pennies on sunny mornings from bucolic donkey carts. Then, during the rainy season, he would watch carcasses of dogs and cats be swept down the streets by floods.
The only constant was the heat, which averaged 89F (32F) year-round, day or night, said Landmark.
After spending three years on top of the equator, “It was time to either buy a house and live there the rest of your life or come home,” — so by the early 1980s, Landmark was teaching at the University of Saskatchewan and playing with the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra.
His late wife, Barbara, a pianist from Seattle, had never experienced -30 or -40 temperatures — so Saskatchewan was a great shock to her system. “She’d hang socks out to dry and you could have a sword fight with them,” Landmark recalled with a laugh.
A couple years later, the couple opted for a momentous change — they retired from music.
Landmark said he and Barbara had saved so much money from their stint in Venezuela that they were able to move to the Gulf Islands and invest in oceanfront property.
And by this time, he admitted the musician’s lifestyle was wearing thin — as was the company of musicians.
The percussionist, who had also briefly played with the Indianapolis Philharmonic Orchestra and the Victoria Symphony, said “I grew up on a farm, and every farm kid could weld metal, work with wood and operate on cattle, if needed.
“When I was in Maracaibo, I was in the company of 118 geniuses, but they were not well-rounded people. A good percentage of them couldn’t find their car in a parking lot,” he added with a chuckle.
The former farm kid went back to working with his hands. He followed his father-in-law into the boat building business and also bought a small sawmill and became certified by the North American Lumber Graders Association.
Several years later, Barbara was diagnosed with cancer and given a poor prognosis. Canadian doctors “couldn’t do anything for her,” recalled Landmark, who decided to sell off his Gulf assets to pay for experimental treatment that Barbara received in Tijuana — which he believes extended her life by four years.
He moved back to the Alberta farmhouse he was raised in following his wife’s death in 1990.
For short while, Landmark entertained on a cruise ship. Then, he acted on a suggestion from the elder of his two sons and became a long-haul trucker. He loved seeing Texas, Alaska and all the land between. “Imagine seeing all that space after living on an island!”
He was only motivated to return to teaching music four years ago after being “enraged” by a local recital he attended. “I thought Central Alberta children deserved better (instruction).”
Landmark now teaches his students in the same way he was taught — using a method developed by the military to teach drummer boys to play.
Instead of focusing on individual notes on a page, he teaches young musicians to take in complete musical phrases, comprised of multiple notes at once.
He compares this method, of reading “musical sentences” instead of single notes, to speed reading. “The level my students get to so fast is phenomenal,” said Landmark. He believes young brains are capable of absorbing far more than most people think.
“When we learn to talk, we don’t learn to spell first. So why do we teach (music students) how to spell before they play?” said the instructor, who aims to give students the tools to “step out on the world stage” and compete with the best.
Over the last few years, Landmark has begun performing occasional concerts because he believes music “is just a different way of communicating.
“I am the medium between the composer and the audience.”