Secrets of Walking and Running While Playing Kalimba

Grow your health, coordination and chops using this great musical hack

6/8 Time is Great for Kalimba Music… and Great for Walking / Running Too!

I walk and play kalimba virtually every day. It is part of my morning routine, and it is part of my mental and physical health maintenance. Sometimes, after I’ve been walking and playing and daydreaming for a while, I realize that I need to speed things up to get my heart beating faster for a better balanced physical workout. To put my body into high gear, I just change up the rhythm of the song I’ve been playing, very simply and smoothly, without even changing time signatures.

Read on to take in and grasp this subtle yet dynamic tip, along with other key advice on playing and walking for great physical and mental health.

Basics of Walking and Playing Kalimba

The very first thing you need to think about when playing kalimba and walking is safety. It is difficult to be aware of one’s surroundings when you are looking down at a kalimba, so I advise:

  • Walk in a safe and familiar place, like a park or a field. Avoid cars, other pedestrians, cyclists, etc.
  • While kalimba walks can be great in nature, most trails aren’t quite appropriate for playing while not looking at the path. I go for very flat trails or even paved roads or walkways in parks, cemeteries, schools, or other natural areas.
  • Look Up! As much as you can, try not to look down at your kalimba, but look up and integrate with your surroundings. I invite input from my environment to stimulate my music production. And the practice of playing without looking at your hands will make you a better kalimba player too. Besides, your face will not have to collide with a phone pole by surprise if you stay aware of where you are.
  • If you run, you have to look up. If you need to look down at your kalimba, just stroll. This is important.
  • The kalimba I play when I walk is usually different from the kalimba I play for pleasure at night, or the kalimba I play for more complex musical expression during the day. For walking, I favor a simple kalimba with fewer tines and more space between the tines.
  • When I play a simple kalimba, it is easier to make a map in my head of where the notes are, thus making it easier to hit those notes without ever looking down.
  • Rather than try to learn a complex song, I generally play cyclic music that repeats a phrase over and over. I settle into a groove, experiencing the beat of my steps, the motions of my body, and the sounds that I am creating. That phrase naturally evolves over time, often reflecting what I experience on the walk.

Now, for the secret sauce of this post: a time signature that works in subtle but powerfully different ways for walking and running. Alternating walking and running within the same time signature develops and strengthens my body’s innate intuitive understanding of that time signature. (This switching between walking and running is also called “interval training” in the health field.)

Walking in 6/8 Time

That time signature is called 6/8 time, the time signature of Celtic jigs and African mbira music. The top 6 of the fraction means there are 6 beats in each measure. The measures are marked by the horizontal blue lines in the illustration at the top of the page, and there are 6 notes between each blue line. The bottom 8 of the fraction means that it is the 8th note that gets a beat. All of the notes in the illustration have “flags” beamed together, and are eighth notes.

Here’s how 6/8 works for me on my morning walks: I start out walking, and my steps sync up with a certain pulse. If you were ever in a marching band, you will probably want to play and walk in 4/4 time. But 6/8 time is more natural for my kalimba playing… and for my walking.

As I walk, I tend to settle into 3 short beats, or three kalimba notes, per step. There are then 2 steps, left and right, in one 6/8 measure. The next measure is just like the first.

WalkRun 2a

Each walking measure is 2 steps, each step is 3 beats long; 2 x 3 = 6 beats total

You might be different, but to me, this feels just right, in my brain, my body, and my soul. There is likely a very long ancient human history of playing kalimba and walking, and I strongly suspect that a lot of that historic and pre-historic music was played and walked in 6/8 time.

Running in 6/8 Time, Without Changing Tempo

With my playing and walking synced up in 6/8, it’s possible to speed it up or slow it down a little. And as my playing gets more confident I do speed up both the music and the walking a bit.

But if I want to get my heart pumping faster, I need something fundamentally different. As I start to run, my footsteps now happen faster – 2 beats per step instead of 3. I could change time signature to 4/4… but that leads to a discontinuity in the music. I rather enjoy keeping the time signature at 6/8 – that is, the music is more or less continuous as I shift from walking to running. But now, with the faster footsteps which have only 2 beats in between, I have 3 steps per measure – let’s say “left – right – left.” The next measure is not going to be the same – the next measure is “right – left – right.” In other words, by making the steps shorter, we have shifted the music into a place where the length of the repeating phrase (of the music + body system) is now twice as long.  Hit the play button on the media player at the bottom of this page and listen carefully to catch the change between walking speed and running speed.

WalkRun 2b

      Each running measure is 3 steps, each step has 2 beats; 3 x 2 = 6.

Here is a very important point – you can play the exact same notes while walking or running – all that needs change is the location of the accents. It is natural to want to let your footsteps be the metronome and put the accents on the same beats as when your feet are hitting the ground. But you don’t have to do that, and there is an entire world of possibilities about the intricacies of the interactions among the accents, the footsteps, left footsteps, right footsteps, and left and right thumbing. I can only hint at those complexities here.

If you have had difficulty grasping the subtleties of the 6/8 time signature, I strongly encourage you to find a safe place to play kalimba while moving, and go out there and shift back and forth between walking at 3 beats per step and then running at 2 beats per step. Connecting mind, ears, hands and feet will strengthen your playing in so many ways.

Walking and Running Feel… at the Same Time?

But for me the really cool thing about kalimba music in 6/8 is this: When you get really good, you can make it feel as if it is BOTH 2 groups of 3 beats AND 3 groups of 2 beats. It is sort of like a quantum mechanical state that is made up of half one state (walking) and half the other state (running).

No, I really don’t know how to walk and run at the same time… but I can do it with the kalimba!

When you can feel the two different ways of understanding 6/8 in your bones, in your walking and running, this activity will have helped your kalimba playing.

To me, a much more important aspect of this activity is how my kalimba playing helps strengthen my mind, body, and soul. It just makes me feel good in so many ways… especially on those days when I don’t walk into a sign post!

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