…but you need to do more than just explore
Welcome to your kalimba. Based on the tuning and the note layout of your instrument, your kalimba represents a whole continent of sounds and musical possibilities, and it is well worth exploring it in depth.
When I started playing kalimba in 1986, there was no map to this continent. There was no internet, and seemingly no information about the kalimba. What did I do? I explored my kalimba on my own, gradually learning more and more each day I played.
Here’s a very valuable tip that can help you in your kalimba explorations. The short form of the tip is: “Explore, but pay attention to where you go.”
By the way, I have dedicated the better part of my life to exploring the kalimba, and the better part of the last 11 years meticulously documenting those explorations in the form of kalimba books, instructional downloads for kalimba, and hundreds to thousands of blog articles and tips. Many of these can help you accelerate your kalimba journey, and can help you reach greater heights in your playing. In some cases, these resources mean the difference between going nowhere and making a start to the journey at all.
But this journey is really about you – where you will go with the kalimba, what kinds of music you want to play, and what sorts of patterns your thumbs will naturally follow.
To me, the real joy of the kalimba lies in the explorations that it permits, and I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t encourage you to take your own personal journey on the kalimba.
There are so many ways to explore the kalimba, but in some sense they all boil down to “take a chance, go out on a limb, let go of yourself, let go of what you think you do or don’t know about music, and just jump in and let your thumbs roam free!” Trust in the innate wisdom of the note layout of your kalimba, and that simple and natural thumb motions upon that note layout can result in brilliance.
When you let your thumbs roam free, you’ve got to expect that they won’t always be making perfectly melodious sounds. But both the kalimba’s note layout and tuning tilt the odds in favor of success, and even if you are just randomly puttering on the tines, you will often play things that sound good, and sometimes you will play something that sounds surprisingly wonderful. These are the moments I live for, when I really don’t know or understand what is going on, but my thumbs are moving, seemingly on their own, and making magical sounds that I cannot testify as to having come from my brain. It is as if another intelligence is coming through my kalimba, though I don’t really believe that. But it is so cool to feel that way, like the music is playing ME.
If you find yourself in this place of wonderful music magically coming through your thumbs and your kalimba, relax into it. Breathe. Congratulate yourself on playing this music, and also on recognizing the greatness of the music that is happening. Give that gift to yourself, even if it is a minor greatness – we all start simple and move from there. If the music makes you feel good, it is good! The important thing is that you are awake – you are aware of what’s going on, and you are paying attention.
If you can, repeat the wonderful section of music you just heard yourself play. Much of kalimba music is cyclic in nature, meaning the phrase repeats over and over, just like a loop. So, when you get to the end of the wonderful phrase, try to repeat it. How many times? Try for 10 or 20 or even 100.
Why do you need to repeat that section so many times? Greatness may or may not visit you tomorrow in your playing. You may or may not remember how this song goes. But if you recognize the greatness of the moment, and you can repeat that music, you have a better chance of remembering this song, of capturing this music and being able to work it outside of those special moments of inspiration. Your goal is to be able to call upon the magic of this song, by name if you need to. I find that it is always a good idea to name a piece of music – that gives you a handle to call the song by, and remember it far more easily.
When you do something great:
Can you repeat it? Do it!
Can you remember it?
Can you bring it back to life tomorrow?
Of course, there are other ways to help you remember and revive the song or section: I suggest you also record it on your phone or computer, and you might even want to notate it in tablature so that you know exactly how to play it.
Improvising on kalimba is entirely about being mindful. Pay attention, and when your kalimba offers you a new melody or a spark of brilliance, accept it, and run with it.
The media player below is an example of me exploring on kalimba. (I was surprised – most of my YouTube videos are well-defined songs, even though most of my personal playing is explorational.) I am just running through improvisation space, spinning, twirling, jumping out of myself. When you do explorational playing long enough, you get really good at it, and you can make music that is totally new, and yet you cannot find any errors in it. The PENTATONIC kalimba tuning helps.