TIP:Technique: Playing with the right index finger – 1

The “mbira style” use of the right index finger puts it under the tine, flicking upward

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How do you play the kalimba? It’s a thumb piano, so mainly you use your two thumbs!  The Brazilian masters like to use four or six fingers, playing the kalimba as it sits in their lap – but I don’t teach that style. That’s because my kalimba playing is a lot about movement of the body while playing, and if you hold the kalimba in your hands and play with your thumbs, you can get up and walk, run, or dance as you play.  Or at the very least, just move around a bit with the music.

The right index finger, however, is a special case, part of the venerable African mbira and karimba traditions, and we will consider it right now.

Hugh Tracey documented over a hundred different African kalimbas – each with its own tuning and note layout, most with songs and traditions.  While most instruments were played just with two thumbs, some instruments were played slightly differently. In particular, the right index finger was often added to the two thumbs, and played notes on the upper right side of the instrument.

You can actually use the right index finger on almost any kalimba.  The three-point system, defined by thumbs and right index finger, makes for interesting rhythms, especially in 6/8 or 12/8 time signatures.  It turns out that the way you play the instrument is deeply reflected in the music that you hear coming from it.

There are different ways to use the right index finger.  The “mbira style” technique puts the right index finger underneath one of the far right tines, and the finger flicks upward (I don’t flick straight up – I actually flick up and toward the left, as required by the positioning of my right thumb).

To try the “mbira style” of using the right index finger, make the “OK” sign with your right index finger and your right thumb.  As you press them together, they want to move in opposite directions – the thumb down, the index finger somewhat up.  Place the thumb and forefinger on the kalimba tines, and scoot the thumb a bit to the left and the finger a bit to the right (spread them apart a little).  Now try to simultaneously play down with the right thumb and up with the right forefinger.  In my experience, this can take weeks to become accustomed to, but eventually it will feel natural to most people.

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