Kalimba and Mindfulness – 2

Please study this application of mindfulness to the process of learning to play specific music on kalimba

Photo by Glen Davis. Kalimba by Andrew Masters

Have you ever struggled to learn a piece of music on the kalimba, really studied in detail the exact notes you need to play?  It seems that the kalimba is a simple instrument – there are only a few tines for your left thumb and a few tines for the right thumb.  Surely this is simple.  You should be able to master this instrument after a week of playing it, right?

But as soon as you approach a challenging song on the kalimba (and “challenging” is relative to where you are in your kalimba development), you may well feel that it’s impossible.  The notation system seems confusing.  You are getting hopelessly lost on the instrument.  Maybe you can connect three or four notes, but you cannot get any momentum, and you cannot get any flow.  You cannot create music – certainly not the way you can when you just let your thumbs off the leash and start free playing.

Here is how mindfulness can help you.


The way I see it, there are five stages to learning a piece of music, and mindfulness is vital at each stage.

A word about being mindful at the beginning of your relationship with a new song. Be aware that there can be frustration and worse, but if you approach the journey mindfully, knowing that your open mind will seize upon whatever it needs, you can get beyond this part of the process.  You just need to persevere and know that this doesn’t last forever. What’s more, recognize the lesson that is here for us – doing this keeps us humble.  It reminds us that even if we have had successes in the past, a difficult song can still bring us to our knees. 

In the first stage, you have no idea how to play the music, and everything is confusing.  You can piece the notes together one at a time, but you don’t see the big picture. It doesn’t seem like music. You’re not playing in rhythm. There’s no flow. 

At this point there is a great advantage to picking just a small section of the music – a segment of just two to four measures. And this is the beginning of stage two.  Take whatever time is needed to get to the point where your mind can understand the order of these notes.   Then take the next segment and do the same, and gradually you can stitch the segments together and eventually you will have the structure of the song memorized. Remember: Persevere and know that this doesn’t last forever. This is not a fast process but is a prerequisite to knowing a piece of music and giving it soul. 

When you are working into stage three, you will find out that just because your mind understands how the song goes, it doesn’t mean you can actually play it.  I feel this is the stage where mindfulness can have the most impact on your playing.  Your mind is not actually that fast (yet).  You will probably tell yourself little stories to remind you what notes go together in what order, and it may take you seconds to retrieve the next note.  Take it slow.  Take it very slow.  Even if you know the first four notes really well, and you are tempted to start the music quickly, you may find that you will have to slow down or that you get bogged down at the parts you don’t recall so fast.  Instead of starting fast and slowing down, try starting out very slowly, and proceeding at a constant, slow tempo.

Your body cannot really play the music yet, but your mind does know it.  You have formed the neural networks that encode the structure of the music, but it is at the speed of thought – slow!  There is a way to speed up the firing of those neural connections.  By repeatedly running over the notes you need to play, the neural networks will be strengthened.  More connections will be made.  But the most important thing is that with repeated practice of these notes over many days and weeks, those neurons in the new network will become myelinated – surrounded by a sheath of fatty glial cells.  When the neurons become myelinated, the network (wherein lies your ability to play the song) becomes semi-permanent.  Myelination increases the speed at which electrical signals travel down the neurons by a factor of about 100.  With repetition of the song you are learning, it will eventually speed up and become automatic.  People sometimes call this “muscle memory”,  though the memory is not in the muscles, it is firmly in the brain.  You are no longer thinking and calculating what note is next, you just know which note comes next, and you can just play, the same as you walk or run or ride a bike. 

And how does mindfulness fit in with this?   Be mindful that what you are now doing with your slow, slow repitition and practice is exactly what you need to do to be able to play this music quickly, flowingly, musically.  You have planted a seed, and you’re patiently watering, cultivating the soil, letting the seedling grow. The little plant slowly grows, builds strength, reaches for the sun. Being mindful means providing the best conditions for your garden. And being mindful in learning a new piece of music is to play it at the proper speed, which is slow.  Even more important,  you need to concentrate and be unperturbed to let the music out.  If you are calm, if you are confident, if you are attentive, if you are mindful, you can totally do this.  Be patient in the knowledge that you are on the path, and that simply by walking this path each day, you will arrive at your destination of mastery.

After you have gone through the arduous process of learning a piece of music, and you can properly play it at the proper speed, you might think that you have arrived.  You haven’t. You are now at stage four. You have a whole new level of mindfulness to bring to the kalimba.  Just because you can play all the notes right doesn’t mean it is music.  Dive deep into the music.  Pay attention.  Listen.  What subtleties can you bring forth through this music?  You will find little twists to bring into the music – ways of making it more meaningful.  Perhaps you need to accelerate a bit at the end of a phrase to make something a bit a more exciting.  Perhaps you need to play something a bit more softly to make the music feel more vulnerable.  Approach the music with an open mind, and let the music itself guide you in your attempts to bring meaning across, through the music, to those who hear it. The collaboration of your heart and mind with the music gives it its soul.

Stage five of learning a piece is performance.  Can you actually bring the meaning of the music from within yourself to another human being?   There is enough about mindfulness applied to kalimba performance to write much more,  but I’ll keep it short for now.  A performance – even an informal performance for your friends or family – will focus the mind on the task at hand, playing this piece of music you have worked on.  This is the test; even though your audience might be polite, you will know if the music works or not.  If the heat of performance breaks your song, you need to work it a bit more.  If your music gets lost and wanders, or is unclear, you will not carry your audience.  Your music needs to become the plow, the one that cuts a groove in the present moment.  If you can be present in this performance, you will entrain your listeners.   You will be together, moving through the successive NOWS in the groove your music is cutting.  Mindfulness of the importance of the present moment in performance can actually greatly improve the music being made.

How does mindfulness inform your musical process?

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