Sage advice for performing on Kalimba

30 Years of Kalimba Performance Experience Might Assist You on Your Kalimba Path

Everyone has their own learning style, from totally alone wandering in the wilderness, to working with a book, to a full teacher-student relationship. And no matter what our personal style is, good tips from a veteran along the way can be of monumental importance. Being a great kalimba performer stems directly from being a great kalimba player.

We may be deep into our own learning journey, and a few good words of advice could be very very welcome. And if we are starting out then how great of a gift is it to get a brief guide to the best habits to develop so we have the best shot at growing into a good musician and competent performer?

This post comes directly from the heart of someone who has been there, knows all the ropes, the pains and pitfalls and pleasures to becoming a master at kalimba, and he provides invaluable insight and memorable pointers for all kalimba players, gently encouraging self knowledge, hard work, and joy. 

                                                                                    – Sara Edelman, editor at Kalimba Magic


Be Over Prepared 

When you’re alone and begin to work on improving how you can play a song, there’s no pressure, it’s just you and you are able to flow with your practice… but when you perform, it’s a whole different thing. Sometimes your mind just goes blank. Things that you thought you knew, or could do, all of a sudden are no longer within your grasp. It is always a possibility.
One good way to get beyond this is to be over prepared. Be so practiced that you know without a doubt exactly what you are going to do. Make the music so much a part of you that you could do it without thinking.

It is true that mistakes can and will happen. But be prepared for them. In a hard passage, make note of your most common errors, and then figure out a way out of the error and back into the song, so if you make that error in a performance, you have the option of seamlessly dancing through the error.

I myself? I can wither from playing errors. If I make one error, it shakes my confidence, I become self conscious, and it becomes really likely that I will make more errors. The weight of these compound errors makes me want to just fold up my tent and end the song early.
But the opposite can happen. Let’s consider some rather challenging bit of music. You might have to slow down a bit, take a deep breath… but if you can play 10, 20, 30 notes in a row just right, you can find yourself in a place where you have created a little piece of beauty, and it would be a damn shame if you messed that up with an ugly note. It’s as if the feel of perfection in the music that you are now creating begs of you to pay absolute attention to what you are doing – the fact that you are playing well calls you into a higher consciousness, where every note matters. And the thing is, we cannot get to this place if we are worried about this note and that note. So, to foster and enable this to happen, we need to have really internalized the music, so we can feel it from a more basic level. Instead of paying attention to playing the right note, we’re paying attention to something much deeper and more profound – we are in the groove, and there’s that perfect connection between us and our audience, and we can pull them along with us wherever we go.  Be over prepared and you open up a world of fabulous possibility.

Be Focused

Consider your kalimba playing to be a form of spiritual practice. Meditate on the music. Be present, to the music, to the kalimba, to the moment, to yourself, to your audience. This focus can take you through to the end of the music. And if you do make an error when you are this focused? You will keep your cool and figure out what to do without dropping the music.

Practice with Distractions

Sometimes when you perform on an instrument as special and unknown as a kalimba, people will really sit up and pay attention. That is what we want to happen, because we can surf on the audience’s attention like a wave. We can gather power from the silence of an attentive audience, and we can take everyone on a little trip with the magic of our music.
However, it is also very easy for people to overlook the kalimba, and to not pay attention. How is your playing when you play for a room full of people who may be talking among themselves?
Know this – even if people seem to pay no attention, they still hear the music on some level. If the music is confident and lovely, they will feel that positive vibration, even if they are doing something else. So, do your best and give the audience a blessing, even if they seem distracted or disrespectful.
But the big danger is that an inattentive audience could make us doubt ourselves or have us lose focus, enabling errors to enter into our playing.
So, I suggest that one of the things you do is to practice your kalimba playing in the midst of distractions. Can you play while you are watching Netflix, and not let the music fall apart? Can you play in public where people are coming and going, each with their own agenda, none of which includes your kalimba playing?

Do You Get Stage Fright? 

About once every two or three years, I get completely freaked out from stage fright. This usually happens when I am playing in a totally new situation that I am not quite comfortable with. And here is the bad news: when I get stage fright and anxiety, I start to shake. Now, if a person played something big like trombone and started to shake, it would impact your performance some. But if you played kalimba, where the tines are just a few millimeters apart from one another, the results could be devastating. If your hands are shaking by like half a centimeter, basically you are not going to be able to play any notes correctly. That is a downside of the kalimba – it is very susceptible to player anxiety.
So, how do you deal with stage fright? I suppose the first important thing is to determine if you are apt to get it. Try doing some informal performances for family or friends. Try going to larger audiences, or less familiar audiences. If these do not trigger anxiety, you will probably be OK in your big performance. But if one of these smaller performances provokes an anxiety response, you are just going to have to do more of what I have so far offered in this article: Be Over Prepared, Be Focused, and Practice with Distractions.
If you are inspired to perform, you can overcome performance anxiety. Love yourself, take it slow, work toward performance every day… you may want to get a coach to help you with your performance, and there are books, exercises, and other resources to help you. Exercise, Tai Chi or yoga practice can help you be more present in your body, which can help with being present in your performance.
Oh – and if you get the shakes, try this: sit down in a chair, cross your legs, and reach down with your hands. Grasp something on the bottom of the chair, and lift up as hard as you can. Can you levitate? Me neither, but if you pull as hard as you can, you will wear yourself out, and you won’t have as much spare energy for shaking. Well, it works for me on those times when I get stage fright. And it prevented me from failing an academic test for which I was poorly prepared back when I was 20 years old.
Another answer to performance anxiety – you may need a bigger kalimba, one with wider tines, or one with more space in between the tines. More space = less precision required = less anxiety. The mbira dzavadzimu and the karimba (mbira nyunga nyunga) are both instruments with broad tines and generally more space between tines. Still, I can get anxiety on these instruments too, because I am not so familiar with them!
So, basically, it’s all about time. If you put in the time to learn, prepare, practice, and to make friends with your kalimba, you will be operating from a position of strength, and you are more likely to succeed in your performances.

Make an accurate assessment of your playing abilities

You can easily fool yourself into thinking that you are ready to perform. It’s difficult to make an accurate assessment of your own abilities. Your practice sessions will have a life cycle, starting out slow, and likely with more mistakes. Gradually things will come into focus, and if you’re lucky, you will achieve some peak moments. These peak moments are the places where we make great leaps forward and do some really cool things. Sometimes, we are able to reproduce these peak moments in a performance, but I have found that I cannot count on this happening. On a typical day, the level that I achieve in a performance might be 75% of my peak level. 
So, just pick up your kalimba, warm up for five minutes, and then jump into your performance. How do you do? Remember, especially easly on, you will probably not do much better than this in a performance in front of people, and you might do significantly worse. Try recording this on your phone with a recording app, and go back and listen to it. Maybe ask a trusted friend for their opinion.
After you attempt an accurate assessment of your playing abilities on the music you are going to perform, you may have to “face the music.” You might decide to cut the more challenging pieces, replace them with simpler and easier pieces of music. Or you might decide you are not ready to perform. Or you might realize that you just need to buckle down and work more. Or, you might realize that you are exactly where you want to be.

Can you play without looking?

Last night, as Mike was driving us to rehearsal, I was playing “Four-Chambered Heart,” a song I wrote 5 years ago, but which I had not played at all for about a year. In the evening light, I kept looking at my kalimba as I played, but I was not quite finding all the right notes.
I actually didn’t play kalimba at all at the rehearsal, but as Mike drove me home again, I played the same song, in the dark this time. All of a sudden, I realized that it was working, and it was working really well. Earlier, when I could rely on my eyes to help me, I was not really in the groove… but now, without any light, with only my muscle memory, it turns out my thumbs knew the way.
For reference, during the period when I was writing it, I probably worked on “Four Chambered Heart” for 3 or 4 weeks, playing it for 30 – 60 minutes a day, almost every day. Each time I have performed it, I have probably practiced it for a total of between 1 and 5 hours before the performance. It is a challenging piece for me, because it is in a key and note layout that I don’t have a thousand hours on. But I probably have played this song well over 100 hours. I’ve worked it a lot, and I should know it in the dark.
We are all built differently. Some people might spend a few hours with the kalimba and have a good internal spatial map of the instrument and its notes. But most people will take longer.
How long will it take you to be able to play your song in the dark?
Of course, it is not the dark that you really want to be playing in – you want the freedom to be able to look up from the kalimba and really connect with the audience. Otherwise, it sort of looks like you are reading a paperback book, or playing a video game. The audience wants to connect with you, but often you will need to reach out and connect with them. 

Can you sing and play kalimba?

This is really a high achievement, to be able to play kalimba and sing at the same time. It will probably take you years to be able to do this, but I have known people who have just jumped into it after only a few weeks on the kalimba. It depends on your past musical experience and your innate abilities.
If you can sing while you play kalimba, that is a really good opportunity to look the audience right in the eye to help them get the meaning of your song. And of course, that is going to work much better if you know how to play the song well enough that you can do it without looking at the kalimba.
Of course, this means you need to Be Over Prepared, Be Focused, Practice with Distractions, and Play Without Looking.

Do you need amplification?

This really depends upon the size of the audience, the quality of the audience, and the quality of your playing. If your audience is around 15 or fewer, you probably don’t need amplification, especially if you are able to pull your audience in close. You can even say “This magical little music box has a tiny but pure voice… in order to really get the most out of this, I am requesting that you come a little closer”.
Now, if you are playing for a spread-out audience of 30 people, and you somehow get everyone’s attention and they are quiet, you are going to make it work without amplification. It can be an amazing experience for all involved. 
If you are playing for 30 people, and some of them are talking, they might be making more noise than your kalimba! So, even modest-sized audiences can benefit from amplification.
Even though some of my favorite kalimbas have electronic pickups, I generally prefer to put a microphone above my kalimba, as the microphone will do a better job at picking up wah-wah and vibrato sounds than a pickup will.

Do you need bass notes?

It is perfectly good to play the kalimba solo. But it’s good to know that the notes on the kalimba basically start around middle C and go up from there. The baritone and bass ranges are totally missing from most kalimbas.
Your kalimba can play clearly recognizable melodies, but lacking the bass notes, your chord progressions might not be clearly understood.
How do you get bass notes with your kalimba? Various tricks. Like you could get a guitar player and have them play with you (the Alto kalimba’s low note, G, is the 3rd string on guitar, so half the open strings on guitar are lower than the lowest Alto kalimba note). Of course, that means your guitar player needs to be almost as prepared as you. Some people play along with prerecorded music that includes bass. Kevin Spears uses an octave multiplier, so he can play bass notes with his kalimba. Laura Barrett performed kalimba with a foot keyboard – the kind with pedals that church organs have – it was hooked up to a bass synthesizer. I like to play with a looper, and I put a supportive bass part onto the looper with my guitar, and then I play kalimba or mbira along with the loop.
Of course, if your music is really beautiful, that beauty will still come through without the bass.

It all comes down to this:

If you experience joy and wonder and love and all that good cosmic stuff, or if you feel the vibrations of the spirits of the ancestors when you play kalimba, you know that you have something really good. And at some point, you’ll want to share that with the people in your life, and perhaps even beyond those people to ones you don’t know yet.
Let those good vibrations come through your kalimba playing. When it makes you happy, it can and will make other people happy. You have a magical tool in your hands. Go out and make magic with it. Bring a little more joy and a little more light into the world.
Everything else is detail. 

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