How One Music Therapist Uses the Pentatonic Kalimba

MT Lee Anna Rasar Specializes in the 6-Note Pentatonic

One of the best kalimbas to use in music therapy is also our least expensive kalimba – the 6-Note Catania Pentatonic kalimba. While there are a lot of spirituals and children’s songs that can be played on the 6-Note Pentatonic, probably its best uses are improvisational in nature. You just pick it up, twiddle your thumbs, and music comes out!

Lee Anna Rasar is a professor in the Music Therapy department at University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. She has used the 6-Note pentatonic kalimba and other kalimbas extensively in music therapy. The following is from a letter that Lee Anna wrote to Kalimba Magic about a variety of her successes:

I have found the pentatonic kalimbas to be very useful in music therapy because they allow immediate access to people who do not read music and who may have difficulty understanding and reading adaptive notation systems or following cues. They are also useful with groups of adults and children to allow immediate performances together without first needing practice time.

The kalimbas have an incredible ability to elicit relaxation, calmness, peacefulness and help people redirect away from the stresses in their lives. They are very well suited to develop improvisation skills for people who may feel “unmusical” and who are more reluctant to participate in improvisational activities. Even when large numbers are playing kalimbas all at once, the sound is relaxing and peaceful. The use of the thumbs is a nice fit for the texting generation. The adaptive picks work well for people who may find that playing kalimba is painful to the thumbs.

I have been using the kalimbas in grief support groups to pay a tribute to the person being remembered and honored and also to emotionally support the family members and friends of that person and to create musical and emotional/spiritual bonding. Some beautiful sounds to add to the kalimba in this type of setting include the sounds of a waterfall. When a chaplain’s father had died, the chaplain joined the music therapy staff to eat outdoors in a restaurant courtyard at a table beside a large outdoor waterfall. After the meal we played kalimbas as a tribute to the chaplain’s dad and the sound of the waterfall was a wonderful blend for the sound of the kalimbas. The restaurant staff came over and joined us. Steel pan, flute, harp, tone chimes, chime tree, quality finger cymbals, and triangles have also been very nice instruments to use with the kalimbas. The use of these instruments applies to all populations and settings.

For children in special education and residents of dementia units the kalimba offers a quick way for immediate involvement that engages everyone and sounds pleasing. People can have conversations in groups of 2 and then expand the conversations to larger groups to depict different emotions and situations with “questions” played on one kalimba and “answers” played on one or more kalimbas. This type of conversation can be expanded into solo-tutti playing to allow everyone an opportunity to play the lead or to follow with the accompaniment within a rhythmic structure. Passing the turn can be done by pointing the kalimba toward another person and nodding. Guitar and piano may be used to accompany the improvisations to provide structure and add interest.

Residents on the dementia unit have successfully purposefully experimented with kalimba and been able to calm down instead of becoming more agitated when they get fidgety and anxious. Having them available on the open unit at the tables for people to play allows more than one person to engage and the resulting music is calming for the other residents and staff, not just the ones playing the kalimbas. It is also helpful at night when people are not able to sleep, and playing kalimba helps redirect screaming and agitation to a peaceful sound that can’t be heard even one room away – and if it could be heard, the sounds would be sleep-inducing anyway.

Kalimbas tuned to the black notes on the piano allow others to join in the improvisation by playing the black notes on the piano.

Thank you for your wonderful newsletters and website and creations of kalimbas! All are very useful gifts to us.

– Lee Anna

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