I put quotes around Music Therapy because I have no formal training as a music therapist.
The way I use the kalimba in helping people is something that anyone can do, no matter what their training. I view the kalimba as a prop—something to hold in my hand, something to do, an excuse for being there, something to hold people's attention for a moment while I slip them a measure of love and caring.
One of the people I work with regularly is a dear friend who lives in a group home. In many ways, she will be functioning at the level of a second grader for the rest of her life, though her intuitive-emotional side seems to be more developed. I have known her from church for 15 years, she is almost always very joyful, and she adores me. I realized that if I gave her a kalimba, I would have an excuse to get together with her several times a month. And so, the kalimba provides a framework for just socializing and getting together and doing something fun. For her, I don't claim the kalimba is the healing agent, but just getting together and spending light and loving time together is the real benefit. But the kalimba has opened some doors for her as well —she has performed kalimba in front of hundreds of people, and has basked in the light of those people cheering her on. Our weekly time together is something we both look forward to.
This friend of mine only has full use of one of her hands, and I have set up an 8-note kalimba for her. Actually, the songs we've been playing have only used five or six notes, so we took two of the notes off—we can always put them on again later, but this simplification has helped a lot.
The notes from low to high (mostly right to left) are: F, G, Bb, C, D, F (the high F is the short tine in the middle). This is tuned to the key of Bb because my favorite kalimba is in Bb. It's about the connection between kalimbas and people, not about the key.
By the way, here is a video of me playing a one handed (right handed) 8-Note kalimba, showing that there is great potential for real music on these instruments. I am cheating, using my left hand to hold down the kalimba. This kalimba could be simply fastened to a table or a wheelchair using a simple clamp.
Recently, I went to a day care business for developmentally delayed adults. There were 12 adults being cared for and four staff. After my second song, I was distracted by some rather loud music coming from the earphones of a young woman with an ipod. One of the staff explained that she was deaf and couldn't hear me, and that to "hear/feel" her music, she has to turn it up very loud. I asked if I could play the kalimba on her back or on her neck, the staff person signed the question, and she agreed. I started playing on her back, then on her neck, and she just had the biggest smile, like she was going to laugh. (BTW, she was done with the ipod for the rest of the performance.) After that, everyone wanted the "Kalimba Treatment". One young man wore a "Dale Earhart, Jr" cap. When I asked him if he wanted fast or slow music, he said, "Really fast." I played him a racing kalimba song on his back. One woman who could obviously understand everything that was going on but could only vocalize in moans and wails requested the kalimba, and I paused to discern what she needed... and a slow and moving "Ode to Joy" came out. A very larger woman who had trouble walking requested the kalimba, and the vision I got was of her running in a mountain meadow, and the music that came out seemed to gallop gracefully.
I don't think the physical vibrations of the kalimba did a lot of good, but I do feel very strongly that I was able to give each of these people a lovely gift—they got to hear, feel, and see the kalimba up close, making beautiful music that was tailored to their heart and their need. If not for the deaf girl "tuning me out" in favor of her music, if not for me having the idea of asking her to turn it off and then having the idea of playing on her body, none of this would have happened. We all took a chance, and I think we all won.
So, my advice to you: be willing and be open to using the kalimba therapeutically. Turn difficulties into opportunities. Be open to inspiration. Be open to revelation. Your intuition may be better than you think. But also talk to and listen to the people you are working with—your intuition must be based on something, and if an inspiration comes into your mind, ask your person if this sounds OK. But above all, recognize the people you are working with as real, whole people.
There is an interview with music therapist Helen Dolas on the Access Unlimited program on Pacifica radio station KPFK. To find this program on the archive page, use your web browser's "find on this page" feature to find "Helen Dolas". Helen works with developmentally delayed people.
We are gearing up for a newsletter story in 3-6 months on music therapists (the TRAINED kind, unlike me), who use the kalimba in their music therapy work. If you are doing some interesting or groundbreaking MT work with the kalimba, please contact me!