Playing without looking helps you improve in so many ways
Part of what is so great about playing the kalimba is that it is all right there in front of your eyes. You can see the entire instrument, all its notes, all that it can do, in one glance. You might not understand it yet, but you can easily see that it is understandable. Map the shorter kalimba tines to higher notes and the lower tines to lower notes. Simple, right?
But an even more important tip I can give you is to NOT look at the kalimba as you play.
In this tip we are going to discuss what playing without looking will do for you.
I have already stressed the importance of developing a “sound map” of your kalimba in your mind. (See the EXPLORE YOUR KALIMBA tips below for more info.) Knowing exactly what sound each tine will make before you play it is the first step in mastery of the kalimba.
Of course, there is a huge thrill to NOT knowing exactly what sound a tine will make. You just wriggle your thumbs and make fancy geometrical patterns, NOT knowing exactly what you are doing, but trusting the kalimba’s innate note layout, knowing that it will make beautiful sounds.
(Corollary: if you move your thumbs in nice geometrical patterns and you aren’t get the magical music you were hoping for, you might consider exploring a different tuning.)
But this is something different. Closing your eyes when you play will help you develop a physical map of your kalimba tines in your mind. You will need to try to hold the kalimba exactly the same way each time, as the details of the way you hold the kalimba will form a reference for your thumbs and or fingers .
For a first experience, close your eyes and just slowly explore every note on the instrument. Really listen to what each note sounds like. You will probably find some notes that don’t quite make you happy. Discern what is wrong: is it a buzz, or a note that is out of tune, or something else? Remember, but come back to fix that later. Right now we are tuning in to exactly what the kalimba in your hands has to offer, tuning into what makes this kalimba itself in this present moment. This will help you to better understand your kalimba.
Next, try playing a simple song that you know very well, with your eyes open. Close your eyes and slow way down, but try to keep the song going. If you can’t keep the song going, figure out what you are doing wrong (you may need to open your eyes again). I find that when I close my eyes, I don’t stretch my thumbs as far as I need to to achieve the required notes. When I close my eyes, I have to intentionally compensate for this by reaching farther. After I have played this way for a long time, it becomes automatic and I no longer have to overreach or think about where the tines are.
As you find you can play the notes correctly, try speeding up gradually until you are playing at tempo. This is exactly where you want to be, but it took you a while to get there, including errors, slow starts, and probably opening your eyes a little on the way. We want to be able to close our eyes and start playing perfectly – in other words, we have some practice to do.
And that is the key – learning kalimba is like a 10 year plan. Yes, you will be able to make happy and pleasing and even way-cool sounds almost right away. But if you really want to be good, it will take some time. Play with your eyes closed every day. Practice and work on playing with your eyes closed for weeks and months, and later, coming back often to playing with eyes closed will refresh your comfort and familiarity with your instrument.
Playing with eyes closed will develop a spatial map of the kalimba in your mind, and train your body to play correctly even without visual input about where the tines are. This will give you confidence in your playing, and will free you up to play while you are walking, play in the dark, play while you are visually connecting with other musicians, play while singing, or play while connecting with an audience.
I think that you will play differently when you play without looking at the kalimba. You will come to understand the instrument and the relationships among the tines from a tactile (and aural) perspective, which I think will lead to different music. Your style will certainly be different – at first you will be more tentative. Try to change that to confidence, but also keep the ability to play with vulnerability.
An added bonus to being able to play with your eyes closed: if the kalimba has been hit or dropped and some tines are out of place, you will know it immediately. If a tine is out of place, you won’t play it quite right. Move it back to where it used to be, and check the tuning of this and other tines.