Kalimba CU

Kalimba Programs for Students

Updated August 1, 2007

Mark Holdaway, PhD (in physics, not music) has been educating people about the wonders of the kalimba, or African thumb piano, for several years. The kalimba is a new version of an ancient African instrument, and listening to kalimba music or exploring the roles the kalimba plays in African society can transform our understanding of the so-called "dark continent". While the kalimba gives us all a new way to connect with Africa, it provides great potential to African Americans who may not have a strong connection with traditional African culture. The kalimba's music is unique and stunningly beautiful, and it is not that hard to play - most children can pick it up quickly. Furthermore, the kalimba provides us with a wonderful laboratory for understanding a great deal about the way sound is produced as well as how we organize music.

To educate people about the kalimba, I have prepared several different presentations for a wide range of ages which I can give at your school. I am based in Tucson, AZ,

View our flier for kalimba programs in the schools.
Read our web article on Kalimba History

A testimonial from Mathew Nelson, director of Camp Fenster:
Many thanks and blessings for sharing your time, spirit, and love of creating music with the children at Fenster Ranch Summer Camp. The little miracles that happened when you and the children played together was magical, inspiring and truly beautiful. Nobody will ever forget it!

Kalimba Programs for the Schools

Kalimba Concert
African History and Culture
Black History Month
Learn How to Play Kalimba
Kalimba Organization and Music Theory
Physics and Mathematics of the Kalimba
Improvisational Music on Kalimba
Build Your Own Kalimba
Program Rates

Kalimba Concert: grades K-12

Kalimba Concert
Mark Holdaway plays kalimba for an appreciative audience.

The most immediate way to learn about the kalimba is by listening to the magical sounds it produces. No concert is ever just pure music - there will always be some story telling and cultural and history information, maybe even some information about the science of the kalimba. I have a song list of about 300 songs on the kalimba, including over 50 of my own compositions and some traditional African music. I have performed for children as young as 2 and 3 years old (with a lot of stories and sing-alongs), for high school students (with some more mod-sounding music: classic rock on the kalimba and techno and pop), and for every age of adult. The kalimba makes a nice accompaniment for voice.

African History and Culture: grades 3-12

Historical Kalimba
Early explorers in Africa documented advanced kalimbas.

In the western world, we have the idea that history is made by important men like kings and generals, statesmen and inventors. On the other hand, we have scholars like Howard Zinn who look at the history from the point of view of the common people of society. Much of the history of the kalimba family of instruments has been obscured by time - we do not know who invented the kalimba. But we can study the evolution and history of the kalimba indirectly from studying the diversity of modern day kalimbas spread across Africa. Archeological information, such as kalimba tines found at archeological sites and the timeline of metal production in Africa, constrain our story. And the modern tradition of kalimba music and the roles it plays in the lives of Africans takes us into the kalimba's past. The history of the kalimba is not a story of a few great men, but a story of a great people.

Black History Month: grades 3-12

Black History
The rich tradition of kalimba and mbira music in Africa today reaches back into the past to a place where African Americans can touch a piece of their own stolen history.

The kalimba, as a generic instrument type, exists all across Africa, from east coast to west coast, and from the norther part of South Africa to the edge of the Saharan desert. Dozens of kalimba-type instruments exist in a wide variety of societies, each with its own cultural uses for the kalimba. But the Shona people who live in present-day Zimbabwe had the most advanced instrument - the mbira. And their use of the mbira was the most highly-integrated into their social structure.

To the Shona people, when someone dies, their spirit passes onto a different realm, and we can communicate with the spirits of the ancestors, and he spirits of the ancestors are very involved in our lives. The ancestors bring the rains, make the crops grow, help us be happy. The ancestors maintain the proper order of all things, provided we pay attention to what we need to. And one of those things is the continued communication with the ancestors. This is accomplished by holding a spiritual ceremony called a bira. In the bira, friends and family gather, talk, drink wine, and listen and dance to a partciular ancestor's favorite songs performed on the mbira. After hours of energetic mbira songs, the ancestor's spirit comes to reside in the body of the designated spirit medium. At this point in time, the music changes. The purpose of the bira has been achieved, and everyone can talk with the ancestor's spirit, and proper order is maintained. After a few more hours, the spiritual medium may fall asleep and the spirit departs.

African Americans are deal with a number issues in their journey towards being treated equally, towards socio-economic standing and justice. But one issue which is sometimes overlooked is the issue of having lost connection to the traditions of their ancestors. African ancestors of many African Americans were forcibly removed from their homes, and their traditions and cultures were fragmented by this process and by the inhumane institution of slavery. From the fragments of their culture which they could take with them - songs and dances - they created new culture and new traditions. However, the kalimba provides African Americans with a chance to reconnect to their ancestral traditions. And the tradition use of the Shona mbira provides rich symblism for African Americans in their search for cultural connections and their own identity.

Learn How to Play Kalimba: grades 3-12

Learn to Play Kalimba
Students of all ages can connect with the magical world of the kalimba.

I have a variety of student kalimbas and marimbas appropriate for students grade 3-12. I can do a single session to introduce the kalimba to people so they can see how the instrument works. I can also do a 5-session program culminating in a performance. I find this is particularly effective if there are two or more groups all working towards a performance so that they can perform for each other. Or I can do ongoing music work. I can accomodate groups as large as 25, though 20 is good, and 10 is better.

Students in lower grades do easier pieces which they learn by ear. Often students help write their own parts as we compromise on what is easy and what is possible. However, there is usually a range of abilities, and we can find places for players most everywhere along teh spectrum. Students in grades 6 and above can effectively read the written tablature, or even run the computer program that creates the tablature, so more complicated music becomes possible for the older groups. And for the oldest students, Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, Beetles, and Bob Marley are even possible.

The Kalimba and Music Theory: grades 6-12

Kalimba Chords
Musical concepts, such as chords and modes, are easily manipulated on the kalimba.

Why is the world set up the way it is? Some things are the way they are because they work well for some particular outcome. Other things are arbitrary - accidents of our history and traditions have just resulted in things being this way. It is important for students to begin to question why things are they way they are in their adolesent years, for this students will grow into the care takers of the way things are, as well as the movers and shakers who change the world. It is important to understand the difference between pillars and sheetrock.

Most people studying music theory use a piano or keyboard. With the notes all laid out in order, in a line from low to high, logically divided between balck and white notes, teh jeyboard is a highly visible and highly general tool for understanding music theory. In particular, the piano is a natural tool for understanding scales. However, the kalimba, with its bidirectional and diatonic organizational scheme, is also a natural tool for understanding music theory. A useful question to ask is: what are the consequences of arranging an instrument in this bi-directional manner? What do we lose, and what do we gain in this design decision?

In its full generality, the keyboard is sometimes more complex that it needs to be to convey the concept at hand. In particular, the kalimba's organization makes it a perfect tool for understanding chords. (On the piano, scales are simple, chords are less simple; on the kalimba, chords are simple, and scales are less simple.) The diatonic nature of the kalimba make it an easy tool for understanding modes. As most modern folk, rock, and pop music (and large segments of classical music) is based on chords and is diatonic over large stretches, the kalimba simply covers a fair fraction of western music. On the other hand, with traditional African tunings available to virtually any kalimba, the kalimba can also open the door to non-western musical concepts and understanding.

Physics and Mathematics of the Kalimba: grades 9-12

Kalimba Buzz Spectrograph
Evolution of a kalimba note's spectrum as a function of time.

The kalimba is a wonderful laboratory for understanding several important aspects of vibration, sound, and our perception of music. The nature of the vibrating tines is very different from the nature of string or air column vibrations (such as we have with guitars and violins or with flutes and trumpets). The vibrating tines transmit their vibrations to the wooden kalimba box, which is excited in different ways by the different notes. And finally, the vibrating wood box drives the vibration of the air cavity within the box, which has a different character at the different frequencies of the tines. This produces some far out effects that wonder and amaze. Of course, one of the coolest parts of this is that those amazing effects can be understood by out brains.

Algebra is required for this program. We achieve a lot of the work in this program by taking data in real time, recording the vibrations of the kalimba and analysing them on a laptop computer to reveal time series and power spectra. This kalimba physics program works as a single presentation, as a short series of two through four selected topics, or as an ongoing investigation into vibrations of the kalimba and other instruments using power spectra as tools to understand mechanical vibrations.

Improvisational Music on Kalimba: grades 3-12

Improvisational Music
Mark Holdaway leads a diverse crew of instruments in a song.

There can be a lot of joy from creating music, and a lot of pride comes from creating one's own music. That is at the heart of improvisational music. The kalimba, being diatonic, is a great instrument for learning how to improvise - everything it does sounds good. But the bi-directional layout provides a difficulty - many students who have studied some piano or other instruments will have some musical intuition, much of which no longer works (at least not simply, and not at first) on the kalimba. The kalimba is a strange land to explore. It is an equalizer, where the kid who has never really gotten music before is now on the same level as the kid who has been studying piano for 5 years. The kalimba is a whole new musical universe, one which both the musical novice and the musical expert can enjoy exploring.

Add to the kalimba insightful rhythmic or harmonic accompaniment (I often play guitar with my kalimba students) and the cards are stacked in favor of a succesful musical experience which relies more on the right-brain qualities of inuitive understanding and emotional connection than the left-brain qualities of linear sequential processing.

Build Your Own Kalimba: grades 6-12

Kalimbas are not that hard to build. If people in Africa could build them 1000 years ago, why can't our kids build kalimbas now? They can! Choose from gourd-bodied kalimbas or flat board-based kalimbas. It takes two different one-hour sessions to build the board kalimbas, and four different one-hour sessions to build the gourd kalimbas. An extra session for learning how to tune and play the kalimbas is recommended. Groups of no more than 12, please. In addition to the hourly rate, a materials and labor fee of $20 per gourd kalimba and $14 per board kalimba will be included. Advanced notice of 3 weeks for kalimba building programs may be required to ensure that all materials have been obtained.

Program Rates

Rates for school programs in the Tucson area are $40 for a 45 minute presentation, or $70 if a sound system is required (ie, if the presentation is to a group of about 50 or larger). Rates for other municipalities would need to reflect travel from Tucson.

I will be applying for TPAC (Tucson Pima Arts Council) mini-grant funding for October 2007 - January 2008. If you would like a kalimba program in your classroom, but your school doesn't have the funding, please contact me and reserve your spot.

Thanks to Matthew Nelson for photographs.