TIP OF THE DAY

Wednesday, December 7, 2011
Kalimba Improvisation
Improvising within a Structure

Often when people improvise on the kalimba, they are not thinking in terms of harmony. They drift aimlessly with no harmonic structure or plan. This can be OK, if you think of the kalimba as a drum, which generally can't make chords or lead the harmonic evolution of the music.

Now, if you learned improvisation on guitar, the first thing you start with is a 12-Bar Blues. The 12-Bar Blues follows a set chord progression that every guitar player in the universe knows, and many of them understand the harmonic changes. When the background chords change, the harmonic context changes, and the notes that you as a soloist play have different meaning. A certain note that was not so strong a few seconds ago can become the most important note temporarily, until the chord changes again. In other words, when the chords are changing, you have to hear it, and you have to respond to it in a meaningful way that says to the other musicians and audience "Hey, I get this music!" You have the opportunity to sail on the incoming waves of the chordal changes.

In high school, guitar players would get together in pairs, one playing the support chords to provide the context, and the other jamming with wild leads.

Now dig this: on kalimba, you can actually do both of those parts yourself. With one thumb you can play a chord or at least the bass note of the chord, or possibly an alternating 1-5-1-5, and then on the other thumb, an octave up, you are playing an improvised melody. Sometimes you will want melody notes from the first side - the side where the thumb is playing chord or bass notes. In other words, accompaniment is on SIDE A low down, melody is mainly on SIDE B up high, with some notes up high on SIDE A. The thumb on SIDE A then has two jobs at once - low support or chordal notes, and the occasional high melody notes that fit in between the high melody notes on SIDE B.

But here's the kicker! Almost every chord progression you play will switch sides from left to right at times. Similarly, the high up melody notes will flip too.

So! After you learn a complex kalimba song that integrates accompaniment and melody, try improvising on the melody while you keep on with the accompaniment. I like doing this the best.