Teaching Kids How to Play Kalimba

Kalimba diagram

Are you a teacher? Do you work with children, and are you interested in teaching them the kalimba? I've been working at teaching kalimba to kids for four years, and I have finally found a system that really works.

Over four years ago, I invented a new kind kalimba tablature, which works very well for teaching adults. KTabS deploys this tablature to enable fast learning, storing and playing back complicated arrangements. However, this tablature wasn't working so well for children. To get the information out of the tablature, one needs to sit down and concentrate, which doesn't happen very readily in a group of 20 or 25 kids.

But I was so attached to the idea of my kalimba tablature that it took a long time to look beyond it for other ideas that might be better suited to teaching children.

"Learning to play kalimba," says Andrew Tracey, son of Hugh Tracey, the man who made the first kalimbas that were sent around the world in the late 1950's, "is best done by learning from someone who knows how to play kalimba." But how can you get the attention of 25 kids all at once, getting them all to look over your shoulder?

Then I went to Fenster Ranch Summer Camp to spend a week teaching about 100 kids how to play kalimba (4 groups of 25), and I got a stroke of genius! I drew a schematic of the eight tines of the Student Karimba on a large piece of paper that could be taped to the wall. I numbered the tines on the schematic, and I used a Sharpee marker to number the tines on the karimbas as well. I numbered the tines based on the degree of the western scale that these tines make.

As in the photo above, the central three tines make "3-1-5." There are two "1" notes and two "3" notes in the student karimba, but this was no problem - the students caught on very quickly. By numbering the tines based on the degree of the western scale, this musical experience builds on other western musical experiences the children have had already, and it also opens the door for future experiences with piano, guitar, or other instruments.

Mark Holdaway teaching music
Guitar can support kalimba chordally or note-for-note.

I cut out two giant cardboard thumbs, labeled "L" and "R" on the thumb nails, and I swatted at the kalimba diagram's tines with these giant thumbs, singing the numbers as I swatted: "Three - Two - One," and low and behold, the children played their student karimbas back in unison, B - A - G. Lovely!

When I do music with a big group like this, I usually bring a marimba or two (you can get 3 or 4 kids on a single marimba), the Cloud Nine Marimbula (a giant bass kalimba that two kids can work at), and some percussion toys - this diversity of instrumentation helps the music sound good, and lends more dimension to their musical experience. However, this year I did not break out the exotic instruments on the first day. I had everyone play the student karimbas. And to my surprise, everybody learned. Everyone was playing the songs.

The 10-11 year group played the traditional African tune Bustu M'Tandari - a real high point, especialy with the marimba part. By the way, this instructional method requires that you the instructor know the song! This and other songs are sent to you when you purchase a Student Karimba.

The 8-9 year group played two different songs that we wrote and tied together in a skit about encountering aliens on Mars. The first song resembled the "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" theme, and the second song was a "four against three" exercise that we split up with half the group playing doing the four and the other half doing the three.

The 7-8 year group played a lovely Shona-sounding riff that stuck to a "right-left----left-right----left----" pattern. If the music sticks to a common physical pattern like this, you can learn some very complex-sounding things very easily.

Our 5-6 year group did fine too. In the past I have found that 5 and 6 year olds lack the attention span to do kalimba, and their thumb nails are pretty soft and they end up hurting their thumbs, but this group at Fenster led me to reassess those assumptions.

If you are teaching kalimba to a large group of young kids, I recommend that you get a variety of thumb picks - M and L and a few XL. Make sure that your kids don't cut their thumb nails, and make sure that your kids understand that metal tines will trump flesh thumbs in a fight, and that your thumb nails are your friends. And the skill that saved me when the kids got tired was storytelling with the kalimba - in fact, I ended up doing about two stories each day, exhausting my collection. I will be writing new stories and learning other people's stories so that I have a fresh supply when I return to Camp Fenster next year!

By the way, if you are interested in getting a bunch of kalimbas to work with kids, we at Kalimba Magic can help. Let us know what you need, and we'll work to get you a bulk discount.

Working with the kids at Camp Fenster
Working with the kids at Camp Fenster. We used about 14 8-Note Catanias retuned as Student Karimbas, about 11 Hugh Tracey 11-Note Pentatonic kalimbas recast into 9-Note Student Karimbas, a 15-note diatonic marimba, and the Cloud Nine marimbula (bass kalimba). I play the 17-note Hugh Tracey karimba in a gourd to amplify the sound so it can be heard by everyone in the group.

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